#Talent and Assignments: The Army’s Pentagon Problem

This article is another in the #Talent: Thoughts on Talent Management in the Military series.

In case you haven’t heard, the Army has a “narrative problem”. According to many, the Army “can’t tell its story” and is therefore losing a battle of wills with the budget appropriators on Capitol Hill. Those who work in and around Capitol Hill are quick to ask: “Why can’t the Army read between the lines?” (i.e. there will not be any more money and, therefore, the Army needs to get smaller). Those in the Army are quick to respond with: “Why aren’t they hearing what we have to say? We need to build more arguments that support our positions and win the argument”.

With this in mind, it might be beneficial to start at the beginning: Who is the argument with? Is it with the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD)? The Joint Staff? The National Security Council Staff? Congress? Or maybe it’s with everyone…

Whatever the answer to these questions, the argument also is directed at the other Services, who many see as more adept at “working the system”. According to this narrative, the other Service arguments are heard (maybe because they are able to read between the lines when talking to senior civilian leaders). By doing so, the other Services ensure that their strategies and proposals resonate with decision makers.

If you accept that the other Services are better at navigating the choppy waters “inside the beltway”, then I would submit that it is more than simply an issue of narrative – it is a problem that resides in how the Army develops officers. For example (and these are broad generalities), here is how an Air Force/Navy/Marine senior officer is developed experientially:

  • Initial Entry, Tactical/Operational Assignment, Pentagon Tour, Tactical/Operational Assignment, Pentagon Tour, Operational Assignment, etc.

In contrast, here’s an Army senior leader’s path:

  • Initial Entry, Tactical Assignment, Tactical Assignment, Tactical Assignment, Tactical Assignment, Tactical/Operational Assignment, Tactical/Operational Assignment, Pentagon Tour, Tactical/Operational Assignment, Tactical/Operational Assignment, Operational Assignment, Operational Assignment, Pentagon Assignment, Operational Assignment, etc.

This rudimentary comparison of officer career paths is meant to illustrate that the Army waits entirely too long to expose its officers to the Defense Department’s “corporate headquarters”. As a Service, the Army culture and career timeline incentivizes its officers to remain in the tactical realm – mandating that they must cut their teeth on the tactical path in order to be successful (success defined as command opportunities). Everything a soldier does, every job they take is focused on maintaining the momentum to get Company, Battalion, Brigade, Division command positions. Every job between these tactical command positions is a programmed “stepping stone” job that lines you up for command opportunities (i.e. Company XO, Battalion S3, etc.). To deviate from such a path too early is to admit that they don’t value leading soldiers and they don’t have command in their sights. There are many in the Army’s ranks for which leaving a tactical unit for a “broadening” opportunity is seen as quitting or “taking a knee” while their colleagues slog it out in the trenches. Most importantly, the time it takes to get a Master’s degree or serve on a special staff often derails them from a command trajectory. In many ways, deviation is therefore risky.

An anecdote that is illustrative: When I first arrived on the Joint Staff, a post-Brigade Command Army colonel asked me: “What are the five processes in the Pentagon?” I tap danced for a few minutes, ultimately admitting that I had no idea. He subsequently went on a diatribe about how, 1) officers from other Services knew the answer to that question by the time they were at my time and grade, 2) he wished he had known the answer to that question as a Brigade Commander, and 3) he was going to ensure that I knew the answer to that question before I left the Joint Staff.

For the record, the five processes are: Requirements, Policy, Budget, Acquisition, Operations.

Over the next year, I was given a street education in all five of these Pentagon building processes. Throughout this hands-on education, I met officers from other Services and built relationships that will serve me well for the remainder of my career. I now understand why some naval officers wear brown shoes, why Air Force Space Officers wear flight suits, the difference between a DUSD and a DASD, and how the programmers align budget priorities. These are all things that we should be inculcating into our officers from a much younger age…both to provide the knowledge they need to get the support from “corporate Army” when they’re in their tactical units AND to ensure our officers can fight the good bureaucratic fight necessary to maintain a viable Army. Waiting to send our officers into the Pentagon until much later in their careers (COL or higher) only disadvantages them, and the Army.

This problem manifests itself on the multiple senior staffs that reside in the Pentagon. It is not uncommon to have an Army General Officer show up in the Pentagon, having never served there before. Often, that officer does not know what the five building processes are, does not have an extensive network of contacts, and is singularly focused on getting back out to the tactical force. This is a problem because while serving in the Pentagon, that officer is being asked to coordinate complex interactions with other services, civilian leaders, policy makers, and decision makers. When you consider their lack of experience in this new operational environment, it is unsurprising that the Army finds itself at a disadvantage. For a Naval Flag Officer serving on their Service staff or the Joint Staff, their tour is reminiscent of a high school reunion. They know where to go, who to talk to, and they understand the system in which they are working. Most importantly, they know how to shortcut the system to advance their interests. The Army is too busy trying to get their officers up to speed … and by the time that happens, it is time to “get back out to the field”.

People complain that the Army uses acronyms too often, is too obsessed with its own jargon, and doggedly refuses to incorporate political realities in its planning. While this may be true, it is unsurprising. All senior leaders are a product of their upbringing, and in many cases the only world Army senior officers know is the tactical world in which they served. Many are ill-prepared and ill-suited to navigate the complicated and political corridors of the Pentagon. As the Defense Department’s budget woes get worse, the Army will suffer as a result.

Erol Munir is a Joint Chiefs of Staff Intern and U.S. Army space operations officer. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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