Tillson Report Calls for Reform of the Personnel System

June 26, 2000

Comment #:  367

Discussion Thread:  #s 365 & 366 

References: [1] John C. F. Tillson, Summary: Reducing the Impact of Tempo, Institute for Defense Analysis, IDA Paper P-3508, October 1999  Attached

Separate Attachment: Full Tillson Report

Many of the problems creating the frustrations expressed in Comments #365 & 366 and the referenced thread stem from the nature of the personnel management system itself. Today, the military personnel systems in each of the services are entrenched, bloated bureaucracies that use outdated assumptions to manage individuals at the expense of units. It is the aim of managing individuals that causes bureaucrats to jerk people from unit to unit in the way they do.

The command problems discussed by CPT Damon [#365] and LTC XXX [#366] are a consequence of this larger problem. Perhaps more importantly, their remarks suggest the personnel bureaucrats do not intend to go to the heart of matter but will continue to put Band-Aids on a system that is terminally flawed.

There is no longer any doubt that many of our best service members are very unhappy with their lives in the military. They are leaving the military in droves.

Apologists for the status quo often suggest that outside forces, like the tempo of operations, e.g. deployments to Bosnia and Kosovo, Northern and Southern Watch in the Persian Gulf, etc. are a principle cause for the morale and retention problems. Other apologists suggest the solution is to bribe people to stay with higher pay and more benefits, in effect reinforcing the assumption used by business enterprises that self-interest in the prime motivator of loyalty and job satisfaction.

John Tillson, a graduate of West Point and a highly decorated former Army officer with hard combat experience in Vietnam, has authored an important study which shows the apologists are WRONG.

Tillson tells us that it is not deployments to Bosnia or Saudi Arabia that are causing dedicated service personnel to call it quits. Nor is it a question of pay and benefits. Although both of these issues are important, Tillson found that the real cause of dissatisfaction was the antiquated personnel system, laden with autocratic industrial age management assumptions, that (1) arbitrarily moves service members and their families from place to place, (2) severely limits the time officers can stay in command, (3) foments careerism and the accompanying climate of fear, and (4) reinforces itself by turning patriots into self-serving careerists.

The Tillson Report was published by the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA) last October under contract for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Its Summary is reproduced as Reference 1 below, and the entire study is attached as a separate PDF file which can be read with a free Adobe Acrobat Reader. I urge you to read them.

While regular readers of this list will not be surprised by Tillson's conclusions, his report provides important ammunition to buttress the argument that fundamental reforms of personnel system are needed as we enter the 21st Century. Tillson does more than identify the need for a dramatic change in the entire DoD personnel system; he suggests a radical approach that would put young service members—the people who will inherit the system—in charge of deciding what changes should be made and how they should be made.

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Reference #1

Reducing the Impact of Tempo
John C. F. Tillson
Institute for Defense Analysis
IDA Paper P-3508

October 1999


The demands of the new, post-Cold War National Security Strategy appear to have led to a higher tempo of operations for U.S. forces. This higher tempo is widely believed to be having a negative effect on the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces. As part of its effort to build a better understanding of the impact of tempo, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Staff asked the Institute for Defense Analyses to conduct a study to identify alternative approaches to resolving tempo-related problems.

We conducted our research in three phases:

  1. Visits to Army and Air Force bases to speak with Service members to hear first hand what their tempo-related problems were. We also spoke with former Service members.

  2. Review of Service survey data and a wide-ranging, all-Service search for other indicators of tempo-related problems in professional publications and on the Internet.

  3. Analysis of the causes of the problems identified in steps 1 and 2 and identification of potential solutions.

We discovered early that the terms employed to describe tempo were inconsistent across the Services and appeared to be related more to the data the Services had to measure tempo than to the causes of tempo. Accordingly, we developed our own cause-related definitions of tempo:

  • Deployment tempo (DEPTEMPO) is that tempo caused by the deployment of individuals and units to meet the demands of the National Security Strategy, as in Bosnia, Saudi Arabia, or Kosovo, and to meet routine forward presence missions such as Navy and Marine forward deployments [DoD normally refers to this as PERSTEMPO]

  • Personnel tempo (PERSTEMPO) is that tempo caused by the personnel system, e.g., permanent change of station moves, termination of command tours, and assignment to schools [DoD does not recognize this as a form of tempo]

  • Operating tempo (OPTEMPO) is that tempo caused by the demands of normal operations that Service members face on a day-to-day basis in their home station when they expect to have a more normal life. [DoD normally uses "OPTEMOPO to describe activities like flying hours and steaming days]

Having characterized the three types of tempo, we quickly discovered that very few Service members complained about the effects of DEPTEMPO alone. Most Service members expected to deploy to contingencies and most looked forward to such activities. We found that DEPTEMPO alone was a problem only for a small number of Service members who have multiple deployments. We also found that DoD recognizes this problem and is making many efforts to reduce it. [Global Military Force Policy is an example of such DoD efforts.]

The most intractable types of tempo-related problems occur when the three types of tempo affect a Service member sequentially or simultaneously. For example, we heard stories of Service members returning from an unaccompanied tour (PERSTEMPO), joining a new unit that is preparing night and day for a new mission (OPTEMPO), and then deploying to a contingency with the new unit (DEPTEMPO). The overall effect of these three types of tempo acting together is what appears to make the tempo problem so difficult and unsolvable.

In talking to Service members about the effect that tempo has on their lives, in reviewing survey data in Service-oriented publications, and in reviewing their comments on the Internet, we discovered other types of problems that affect the decisions Service members make about their lives in the military. Since we were unable to separate these other problems from the tempo-related problems, we collected data on them as well. In general these other problems were in two areas. Almost universally, when asked about the problems with their lives in the military, Service members first discussed two issues: 1) security, e.g., pay, benefits, and housing, and 2) satisfaction, e.g., jobs that were unsatisfying in one way or another. Following these issues they cited resource and manning shortages in their units and problems with leadership. In most cases these problems seemed to loom larger in their concerns than problems of tempo. As a result we included these problems in our analysis.

The analysis of the problems we identified was the central focus of the study. For each problem, we identified the causes, the reasons why the Services were unable to solve the problem, and the assumptions-explicit and implicit-that lay behind each cause. During this process we realized that most, if not all, of the problems we identified were interrelated and were symptoms of a more basic problem facing each of the Military Services.

The core problem, or "core conflict," that we discovered was built into the Service management systems long ago. The problem is the conflict between the simultaneous need to manage individuals and to manage units. On one hand, the Services must assure the availability of the individuals, e.g., by number, grade, skill, etc., the Services need today and in the future. The Services must also manage each Service member's career and must ensure that each Service member is treated equitably. On the other hand, the Services must assure the availability of the units, e.g., the number and readiness of units, the Services need today and in the future.

This dual responsibility places the Services in a conflict they have not been able to resolve. Efforts to meet the conflicting requirements of managing individuals and units lead to compromises and actions that appear to be the principal cause of the problems we identified. In other words, this conflict is the principal contributor to the current situation in which many individual Service members are dissatisfied with their lives in the military and many units are not as ready as they should be.

It is as if there are two competing chains of commands in each Service. One is visible and one is "invisible." The visible chain-the Service/joint command structure-is responsible for managing units of all kinds and sizes and seeks to create the best, most capable, most ready units possible. The invisible chain-the personnel system, supported by deeply embedded attitudes and behavior-is responsible for managing individuals and seeks to create the best, most capable "warriors" possible. Both chains of command have the best interests of their Service in mind as they compete for influence and resources. The visible chain is directly responsible to the President and the Secretary of Defense for the readiness of Service and joint units and organizations and for the execution of the National Security Strategy. The visible chain is held responsible and accountable for the readiness of units even though, as our findings demonstrate, many problems with unit readiness are caused by the actions of the personnel system. The invisible chain is responsible primarily to a body of assumptions, laws, and regulations governing the personnel system. Within the Military Services, the invisible chain is generally considered to be beyond the control of any individual Service Chief or Secretary to change. The invisible chain is not held accountable for its impact on unit readiness or for the successful execution of U.S. national security strategy. Nor is it held accountable for the widespread dissatisfaction we found among Service members. Although the visible chain of command clearly has the most important set of responsibilities, it loses virtually every confrontation between it and the invisible chain of command. [Why else would the Army conduct routine changes of command of combat brigades in the days immediately preceding the ground attack in the Gulf War, for example?]

For example, as part of our research, we visited the 2d Armored Cavalry Regiment just as the regiment returned from Bosnia. This is an important unit in the Army's XVIII Airborne Corps, the contingency corps with the highest readiness requirements. The cavalry soldiers and officers we spoke to were very enthusiastic about their recent deployment to Bosnia, and about the regiment's readiness based on their extensive operational experience in Bosnia. They were concerned that the regiment's readiness would soon decline dramatically because it was about to lose most of its essential leaders who, because of PERSTEMPO demands, were being reassigned. The members of the regiment and the officers who manage the Army personnel system accept this as a fact of life-unit readiness must suffer if individual soldiers are to meet the demands of their careers.

The conflict exists in each of the Services. They must manage individuals and they must manage units. To manage individuals, each Service moves individuals from place to place in accord with its defined need for trained individuals and in accord with its concept of the jobs a successful career should encompass but with little or no concern for the impact of these moves on the readiness of the units to which these individuals are assigned. To ensure the readiness and capability of units, however, each Service must constantly train and retrain units primarily to make up for the constant exchange of untrained individuals for trained individuals caused by the personnel system. Service leaders recognize that they hurt unit readiness and capability when they move individuals from unit to unit and job to job, but they believe this movement is necessary to fulfill their need to manage individuals. Army leaders even maintained this practice during the Vietnam War when they restricted command tours to 6 months in order to develop a large number of "qualified" commanders. Some Vietnam veterans at the time, and since, have criticized this practice as an impediment to the war effort and the cause of unnecessary casualties.

We concluded that the Services are unable to resolve the core conflict because there are a number of questionable assumptions that drive Service personnel policies, practices, and measures. Here are two examples.

Assumption #1: Individuals must be managed by a centralized personnel system.

Background. This assumption was built into the Service systems in the early l900s when the War Department modeled its personnel management system on that of the Pennsylvania Railroad. It was strengthened during WWI and WWII when the size of the military increased dramatically and centralized control seemed essential for success. It was further reinforced in the l950s when American corporations espoused the virtues of centralized control. Centralization continued into the l970s and 1980s with the centralization of promotions of most officers and NCOs and the centralization of command selection.

Status. American corporations shifted away from centralized personnel management systems years ago. The 8th Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation concluded that such a shift would be appropriate for the Military Departments as well.

Observation. The Military Services should examine whether a modern, decentralized personnel system would better meet the needs of individuals and units.

Assumption #2: The personnel system must provide a surplus of qualified military officers in the middle grades in order to support a future total mobilization similar to the mobilization experienced in WWII.

Background. At the end of WWII, the Services, having participated in the total mobilization for WWI and WWII, concluded that it was necessary to maintain a surplus of qualified officers to support a total mobilization that would create entirely new units to meet the needs of a future, multi-year war with the Soviet Union. Accordingly, the Services designed an officer personnel system that would provide a surplus of qualified middle level officers. Key to maintaining this surplus were an "up or out" system and a 20-year retirement system that would create a large number of middle level officers but would get them out of the military before they became too old.

Status. The National Security Strategy no longer contemplates a total mobilization or a long war. Instead, the plan is for two relatively short wars calling for full mobilization of existing active and reserve forces. The demands on Service members created by joint operations and the greater complexity of weapons and other systems means that creating "qualified" officers is much more difficult than it was at the end of WWII.

Observation. The Services should eliminate the vestiges of total mobilization and long war planning that are no longer needed to meet the current National Security Strategy. By relaxing these constraints, the resulting personnel systems may be better able to meet the needs suggest the Services are recognizing the needs for more qualified officers and are taking steps to assure their development.

We have reached the following conclusions:

  1. Service personnel policies, practices, and measures are the principal causes of many of the tempo-related and other problems facing Service members.

  2. The Services are caught in a conflict between the need to manage individuals and the need to manage units. Efforts to compromise between these competing needs are a fundamental cause of the problems we identified.

  3. Old, and sometimes unrecognized, assumptions underpin many Service personnel policies, practices, and measures. Some of these assumptions appear to be invalid or obsolete.

Having reached these conclusions, we began to examine ways to resolve the core conflict as well as the more specific problems identified. In this search for potential solutions, we looked at each of the problems and proposed new goals that might be appropriate to eliminate the problems. We then looked at each of the assumptions as well as the current policies, practices, and measures to see how they might be changed to achieve the new goals. In this process, we identified a number of potential changes that appear promising. We also sketched out a potential path for getting from here to there. None of our potential changes is a "silver bullet," however, and our findings suggest that many changes must be made to correct the current situation.

Given the complexity of the issues—and differences both in the specific character of the problems and in the challenges in implementing common solutions across the Military Departments—we recommend that the Department of Defense conduct a thorough review of the military personnel system, involving the active participation of all stakeholders. This review should focus both on the fundamental issues that cause the core conflict and on the associated issues that cause each of the problems identified in this study. The technique used in this study could be a valuable tool in helping the study team focus on the critical issues and identify the key assumptions driving them. We believe that relaxing some of the historical assumptions underpinning current personnel practices-assumptions that no longer seem relevant to today's national security challenges or to the needs of the young Americans the Military Departments are attempting to attract and retain-could lead to real progress in solving today's tempo problems.