A Thought Experiment About Military Personnel and Hierarchy in the 21st Century
What if Napoleon Bonaparte was brought back to life and told about the concepts of war and peace today, how militaries are structured and employed and their place in modern societies? If I were explaining these developments to him, I would start by describing the armies of today, a topic he would find familiar. For instance, as I presented myself—Artur Varanda, Second Lieutenant of Artillery, Portuguese Army—he would immediately recognize the rank, branch, and the army—ranks and positions he once held, and an army his forces once faced. The rest—unit types, doctrine, and weaponry—wouldn’t be much of a stretch for the mind of one of the most celebrated Great Captains of History. Familiarity would end, however, if I began describing the size and shape of war today, a contest where competitors spend not their blood and iron to destroy their enemies’ means of resistance, but their fiscal resources to influence their enemies’ will to resist, using everything from drone strikes to public scandals by way of terrorism and deterrence. Even more striking would be the changes in the stage and cast of this contest: we live in a time when conflicts are mostly internal affairs, fought by either non-state or transnational agents, often in the same places where populations live. This is what would stretch the Corsican’s comprehension: how could he still understand our armies so well if war had become such an alien enterprise?
My thesis is this: the way we select, train, and organize the people who form our armed forces is still deeply rooted in the previous paradigm of war—“interstate industrial war,” as General Sir Rupert Smith puts it—and is consequently ill-suited to solve the security challenges we face today and will likely face tomorrow. Modern nation states are facing 21st-century challenges with 20th-century personnel systems and 18th-century rank structures. The stress this creates endangers the security of states as well as their citizens, mostly by affecting the utility of the standing forces we possess. The indicators of this problem are turning up everywhere, from personnel shortages to Terminal Lance. Solutions must be found, lest we end up with forces fit only for parade grounds.
As the paradigm of war changes, so must armed forces. States must disrupt traditional notions of militaries and adapt. Thus, I propose a thought experiment: an all-officer force where even the youngest rifleman is a full member of the military profession and the hierarchy is based on role and not on rank or rate. This article considers each component of the proposal, from selection and training to structure and hierarchy, explains the reasoning that led to them and concludes by discussing the implications of the resulting force. This article considers each component of the proposal from selection and training to structure and hierarchy, explains the reasoning that led to them and then concludes by discussing the implications of the resulting force; it is not a discussion about the ways and means to achieve it. While this proposal may seem far-fetched, it is the sort of model defense forces should strive to realize, and may naturally evolve to. This is a discussion worth having sooner rather than later.
Selection and Training: All Officers; All Professionals
The defining feature of this new force is that every man and woman in it is a full member of the military profession, selected, trained, and commissioned as officers are today: to manage violence on behalf of the state. This means that every member is selected and trained more thoroughly, possesses some measure of relevant tertiary education, and performs tasks directly related to the management of violence. These soldier-officers provide the teeth of the future force, not the tail which is routinely outsourced in modern conflict. This way, every member of the new force is able to fully understand the strategic and tactical context of an operation, even if separated from the chain of command. In a way, this approach solves the problem of the strategic corporal by promoting him.
And while the operational benefits of such a force are easy to imagine, the first reason for this all-officer force is counterintuitive: it tackles the manpower shortages and the employer desirability problem. To explain this, we must delve in the origins of the rank structure currently widespread throughout the world.
The modern concept of commissioned officer arose in Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries, as feudal levies were replaced by national armies, property of the sovereign. Thus, instead of owning a given force, as they once had, nobles were now being commissioned to command it on behalf of the sovereign, and were given a rank which indicated their position in these new standing armies. As societies, technology, and warfare evolved, states stopped choosing commissioned officers solely on the basis of social standing and began to be select them by educational achievement.
While the divide between Officers and Enlisted—irrespective of their specific roles—originally reflected differences in social standing and later in educational achievement, it no longer reflects any desirable difference. Attaining tertiary education is becoming the norm in developed countries. In 2016 an average of 43% of adults between 23 and 34 years had attained tertiary education in OECD countries, a marked increase from data for 1995 which showed only 23% had attained it. It is not hard to imagine how enlistment in the current model is not an attractive career choice for those 43% who expect, in the very least, financial compensation commensurate with the investment made in their education. This is but one way the officer-enlisted divide is harming the desirability of the military as an employer, hence creating recruitment crises that are becoming more and more frequent.
...the employment of conventional artillery forces is a much more special occurrence than the employment of special forces, which begs the question: which ones are, after all, conventional and which ones are special?
In contrast, some of the most obvious exceptions to this brand reputation problem that armed forces face today are the special forces: they are seen as professionals, stringently selected and trained to be the best at what they do. Besides, in our collective unconscious we already see them as the ones who routinely fight our wars: as Brigadier Richard Simpkin predicted in his book Race to the Swift, conventional forces are now almost unusable (i.e., useful only for deterrence), which is a good indicator in terms of world peace, but should make us question their continued existence in current form. For instance, the employment of conventional artillery forces is a much more special occurrence than the employment of special forces, which begs the question: which ones are, after all, conventional and which ones are special?
Special Forces became conventional because even the routine tasks required by the conflicts and contexts of our time are more complex than ever. They are unabashedly human, in the sense that no automata come close to us in the performance of said tasks: fighting with ever-more-complex weapons in ever-more-complex media, but also interacting with ever-more-complex populations and understanding ever-more-complex strategic and political contexts. To do this successfully, being a competent soldier in the techniques and tactics of warfare is not enough; one needs to be a well-rounded, well-educated human.
As Major General Robert Scales recently put it, we should strive to make the whole of our forces closer to what special forces currently are: better selected and better trained than the rest. And it is here that our highly-educated population enters in play. To leverage its capabilities, we should move with the flow, not against it. Increasing the educational and psychophysical entrance requirements, and the length and difficulty of the training, will improve and not hinder, recruitment and reputation. The resulting force will place the profession of arms as a career for the best, for the ones capable of thought and action, precisely the ones that we require in the new paradigm. The blueprint to follow for even the lowest-ranked members of the new force should be the police officer, who possesses a much greater deal of autonomy and responsibility than an equivalently ranked enlisted soldier.
Structure and Hierarchy: Team Captains and Managers
Since in the new force every member possesses tertiary education, hierarchy is role-based like it is in civilian enterprises: authority is tied to role, and is not permanent (maintaining rank despite not commanding anything) nor is it tied to rate (acquiring a high rank simply because of seniority). In the persistent small units, tightly-knit groups who can operate dispersed or concentrated and form the core of the new force, the leaders emerge from within the unit, eventually gaining enough experience and authority to direct the employment of several small units in an operation. Other members have the option of becoming specialists in certain areas. Lastly, strategic leaders are selected early from the whole of the force and prepared extensively for the overall command and control of entire operations and eventually of the entire force.
What is especially interesting are the similarities between such an end state and the culture of the 19th Century German officer corps. As part of a study analyzing the performance of Portuguese officers in the African campaigns of the First World War, I recently compared the selection and training of Prussian/German and Portuguese officers between 1880 and 1910. While Portuguese officers were selected by educational achievement and trained at a military academy in the vein of West Point or the École Polytechnique—whose curricula were based on engineering—German officer candidates had to be sponsored by the commander of the regiment they wanted to enter (which meant they were unofficially selected by social standing), and had to spend a period of time in the ranks before attending an eight months long Kriegschule which chiefly taught tactics and practical soldiering. Finally, after commissioning, the best lieutenants could apply to attend the Kriegsakademie, a demanding three-year course which covered everything from Russian language to naval military history. At the end, only the best were admitted to the famed General Staff, but everyone who successfully concluded the course was promoted faster to positions of greater responsibility.
Politically incorrect as it may seem, the decidedly non-democratic selection process of the German system produced a very tightly knit officer corps composed of effective tactical commanders led by a cohort of strategic leaders—the General Staff—selected and prepared very early and thoroughly. These were the conditions which probably allowed the emergence of auftragstaktik, mission-based tactics where superiors set the ends and trust subordinates to decide the ways and the means, as opposed to befehlstaktik, or order-based tactics where superiors dictate the ends, the ways, and the means to subordinates. Historian Steven E. Clemente concedes this German system was undeniably effective in purely military affairs, and only faltered in strategic issues as the preparation of its leaders became less and less focused on non-military subjects. As for cohesion, the meritocratically selected Portuguese officer corps splintered and fractured during and after the war, whereas the German corps successfully maintained its unity.
Creating such a tightly knit system would be one of the advantages of the new force. If anything, the cohesion fostered should be stronger, as there would be no officer-enlisted divide. The other, even more important advantage would be making commanders at every level—especially at the strategic level—understand the tasks and conditions of the common soldier-officer who will execute their strategies and orders. Empathy is arguably one of the most important ingredients of effective command. Completely understanding the daily grind of the lance-corporal is difficult without the actual experience of executing the duties and responsibilities of one. Thus, if having a full understanding of the plight of the commanded contributes to the creation of better commanders, in the new force it should be an actual requirement; part of the key for its success is making that plight an attractive part of the career.
In the end, conducting such a thought experiment allows us to discuss the very essence of what being a member of the armed forces should be. And we should discuss it, because in our paradigm of war amongst the people, the adversaries of regular forces will rarely be other regular forces, at least directly. The idea of an all-officer army commanded through a role-based hierarchy seeks to make the structure of conventional standing armies closer to the structures of our usual opponents without sacrificing the advantages in professionalism and readiness that come from maintaining a permanent, standing army.
Finally, notice that the terms regular and standing are used to describe the nature of the force, but not any term that describes to whom that force belongs. The paradigm of national armies should also be challenged: global threats require global responses, but also the critical mass of money and men to create such responses. Therefore, as the nation-state’s power wanes, states,—especially the smaller nation-states—must urgently begin to think about a way to effectively maintain the security of their citizens within the constraints of their limited resources. The answer may well be closer to the argument presented above than most outside observers would suspect. The remaining problems are when and how. Do states allow themselves to be forced by the circumstances to evolve or do they choose to adapt of their own accord? History is certainly not on our side—military innovation generally comes from the losing side.
Every soldier must understand the goals and the context of the operation. Every soldier must understand mission-type orders. Every soldier must be able to lead. Thus, every soldier must be a full member of the Profession of Arms, commissioned to manage violence. And if someone were later to describe this new force to Napoleon Bonaparte, he would find it as alien as the challenges it had to face, but perfectly adapted to them. This is thanks to the men and women who form its core. About them, he would surely answer in awe: Chaque Homme un Roi! Every man, a King!
A disclaimer: contrary to many of my foreign counterparts, I have no operational experience whatsoever. I do, however, follow the dictum espoused by Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Ripper: “A properly schooled officer never arrives on a battlefield for the first time, even if he has never actually trod the ground, if that officer has read wisely to acquire the wisdom of those who have experienced war in times past”. If I was properly schooled in these matters, it was thanks to the professors and instructors that taught me at the Academia Militar.
Artur Varanda is a Portuguese Army officer especially interested in the future of warfare. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Government of Portugal, or the Portuguese Army.
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Header Image: "Coronation of Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of the Empress Josephine in the Notre-Dame de Paris, December 2, 1804" by Jacques-Louis David (Wikimedia)
 Hence General Sir Rupert Smith’s name for this new paradigm: “war amongst the people”.
 Of the changes described above, the most radical is certainly the role-based hierarchy, which I fully owe to USAF Major Kevin Deibler, who wrote an excellent op-ed where he explains how a role-based hierarchy could work out in detail. The small-unit-centric force and the early separation of aspiring strategic leaders from tactical operations, I owe to Major General Robert Scales, and they seem the logical complement/consequence of Major Deibler’s proposal: together, they paint a picture of what a future force should look like.
 This study was sponsored by the Portuguese Military Academy’s Research Center