Modern Warfare: Why the U.S. Army Must Reform

There are several concrete steps that the Army could take to improve both ambidexterity and agility.

Structural reform in the military is long overdue. Thirty years ago, when the last major overhaul of the military’s structure was implemented due to the passage of the Goldwater Nichols Act, desktop computers and cell phones were largely viewed as novelty items, the Berlin Wall still stood firm, and terrorists were seen as more of a nuisance than an existential national security threat. The world has changed a lot in the past thirty years, and so has the nature of the threats faced by our military.  So far, proposals to reform the military’s structure to better address contemporary challenges have been focused on the service Chiefs of Staff and above. That should change, starting with a closer examination of the military’s largest service, the US Army.

Structural reform, hardly the stuff of cocktail hour repartee, is finally on the agendas of our most senior civilian officials. Just last month, for example, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter unveiled a plan to reform aspects of the military’s command and control structure, and the issue is currently under discussion as Congress debates the form of the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act. One of the themes underlying these conversations is a sense that the service chiefs have been frozen out of major decisions such as acquisition and operational planning—to the detriment of the military as a whole. Another theme is that the military has become too “top-heavy”—i.e., that the sheer number of top brass is depleting valuable resources and detracting from the agility of the force.

The tone in any organization is set at the top, so it’s no surprise that similar problems with inefficient decision-making, top-heavy commands, and outmoded organizational structures permeate into each of the services. The size of the Army alone provides reason to examine its structure more closely for inefficiencies. But, for a service that may be ‘outmanned and outgunned’ in its next war; that is shrinking while the threats that it may need to address in the future continually expand, structural reform provides a way to improve the efficacy of the Army, regardless of the resource constraints that it currently faces or may face in the future.

The changing threat environment since 1986 has also drawn the role of ground forces into question more than naval, amphibious, or air-based instruments of military power. Russia’s revanche and the ongoing conflict against ISIS notwithstanding, large land wars, a la Desert Storm or Iraqi Freedom, have become increasingly unpalatable to the civilian political class. The need for a large standing Army has thus been drawn into question, not least of all by the current administration. The Army has and is taking several steps to adapt to changing budgetary and threat environments, including undertaking projects that rethink the role of ground forces both in and out of kinetic conflict. But, so far, many of the structural problems facing the Army have received less attention.

Take the Army’s decision-making process, or rather, preoccupation with process. A Center for Army Lessons Learned-issued summary of the various decision-making processes available to Army officers opens with General Patton’s rejection of over-analysis: that “a good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.” Yet the section for “analysis” alone prescribes no fewer than fourteen labor-intensive, time-consuming steps, and not explicitly following the outlined processes is blamed as a cause of bad decision-making throughout the document. Processes are important; they are what make bureaucracies tick. But a preoccupation with process can lead to an overreliance on it, which in turn can lead to a failure to adapt.