Officer Specialization in the United States Army: The Solution to the Junior Officer Brain Drain and Generals Who Over-Generalize is One and the Same
The exodus of Junior Military Officers (JMO) from the service, colloquially known as the “brain drain,” represents one of the more slow-burning problems facing the United States Army. Beyond the immediate results on planned force structure and end-strength, the subtler effects of these departures will take decades to manifest. Even then, they may prove unquantifiable. Facing a new set of challenges in the not-so-distant future, the Army may well discover that among its upper ranks the right the people are not filling the right positions; that in fact, the right people took the first available exit years ago.
Why top performing JMOs leave and how the Army can entice them to stay are each the subject of extensive debate. At the intersection of these debates resides one potential solution: changing the way that the Army approaches career specialization. Despite entering one of seventeen supposedly distinct career fields, most JMOs will find their career progression remarkably similar: a series of box checks at each rank, rigidly enforced by a central authority. Whether an infantryman, a pilot, or a chemical officer, all will find themselves bounced between command (leading troops) and staff (planners and advisors) assignments in a strictly regimented cycle. Moreover, they are often jarringly moved from their position just as they have managed to master their duties, victims of an Army-wide quest for generalization that produces leaders with little specialty knowledge. Known as Key Development (KD) assignments, performance in these jobs can make or break a career. Deviate even slightly from this progression, and the results to an officer’s prospects for advancement and promotion are catastrophic.
Contrast this rigidly managed career path with the relative freedom of the civilian sphere, and it is little wonder that JMOs leave in droves after their initial commitments. A centrally controlled talent management system which funnels all officers to the same assignments – with little regard for aptitudes, skillsets, and general outliers – is a system that produces like-minded leaders with like-minded experiences, regardless of what senior positions they ultimately fill. Officers seeking positions in fields such as strategy, acquisitions, or counterintelligence (CI) will find their career prospects rapidly dimming. That is if they stay in service long enough to compete for them. Nearly all specialty fields, known as Functional Areas (FA) require a Captain to have already served around two years in a KD role, usually at the 6-8-year mark of an officer’s career. As a matter of practicality, many talented JMOs are long gone by that point.
Of course, any critique of this system as currently constituted must acknowledge that there are at least two very good reasons for its existence. In an organization as old as the Army, all of today’s problems were once yesterday’s solutions. First, the Army does not require legions of CI agents or nuclear counter-proliferation officers; it does, however, require large numbers Infantry and Field Artillery officers. The Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA), which governs officer career progression, was designed to pick the best individuals from those career fields and prepare them for greater responsibility. Nonetheless, treating all officers as if they are destined to command an infantry division serves neither the interests of JMOs nor, more importantly, the Army itself. Not only do many high-performing officers desire something different for their careers, but many high-ranking positions also require something different, namely specialized skillsets.
This leads to the second problem; the Army simply does not possess the time or manpower to sort every JMO by their talents and skillsets effectively. To employ a useful metaphor: in the years leading up to World War One, Austria-Hungary’s Army invested in a significant amount of new high-speed rail to help expedite future mobilization. Yet when confronted with the challenges of integrating this new capability into the enormously complex mobilization plans, military planners found that accounting for different rates hopelessly muddled synchronization efforts. When war came in 1914, the trains all ran at the same speed. The lesson here is that baseline functionality – even if sub-optimal – may represent the only workable solution; many complex systems do not allow for outliers. Like Austria-Hungary, the Army has invested significantly in new tools to solve its talent management problem. The new Assignment Interactive Module (AIM), for example, promises a virtual marketplace which allows officers to see available assignments, rank their preferences, and send their resume to prospective commanders. However, AIM is mostly inapplicable to JMOs, whose assignments are determined by a centralized authority, often only one human resources individual. At the junior officer level, for simplicity’s sake, the trains need to run at the same speed. Some JMOs may be unique, but by and large, the Army cannot afford for them to be special.
This calculus, though understandable, is negatively impacting the Army’s ability to utilize talent. Set aside the preferences of “special” JMOs for a moment (after all, selfless service means you don’t always get the assignment you want) and consider the effects this has on the larger Army. Army generals not only command divisions; they run intelligence agencies, lead complex acquisition projects, serve as impromptu diplomats, and much more. By not allowing select JMOs to specialize according to their talents and aptitudes, the Army is depriving itself of the ability to grow its in-house specialists specifically suited for these positions.
Consider, for example, the field of strategy. Many retired officers have lamented the lack of strategic thinking among the highest ranks, which has dire consequences for national security. An Army strategist (FA 59) can expect to enter that career field at the 6-8-year mark. Given this, many talented JMOs are already out of the running. The Army has limited its pool of selectees to those who have already committed to remain in the service. Strategists can also reasonably expect to end their career as a Lieutenant Colonel in a staff assignment of questionable importance (perhaps even that rank is too ambitious). Meanwhile, strategic thinking is increasingly outsourced to think-tanks and civilian defense-intellectuals, many of whom have never spent a day of their life in uniform. Generals who must understand strategy are often woefully unprepared. Why not allow for the Lieutenant to General growth of in-house strategists?
Take, for example, Brent Scowcroft, who as the only man to serve twice as National Security Advisor is considered by scholars the gold-standard for the position. Shortly after graduating West Point, Scowcroft suffered grave injuries in an airplane crash and spent two years in a military hospital. Today, that crash would likely serve as the end to a short and undistinguished career, but Scowcroft served under leadership that recognized his unique intellectual potential, identified during his time at West Point. Invited back to the academy to teach after his recovery, Scowcroft earned an MA and Ph.D. on the military's dime. The rest of his career – embassy officer, academy professor again, Pentagon staff, and the White House –involved not one day of what is now considered KD time. Nonetheless, he retired a Lieutenant General (having transferred to the Air Force). Scowcroft’s career is impossible in today’s Army. Poor preparation for a division commander to be sure, but it resulted in an extraordinarily capable National Security Advisor and public servant.
Allowing career specialization for JMOs is also a way for the Army to address shortfalls in key areas. A recent GAO report, for example, found an 80% shortfall in personnel for a newly constituted Cyber Battalion. In anticipation of shortages like these in key specialty areas, language in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) allowed for the direct commissioning highly-skilled civilians as officers up to the rank of Colonel. While lawyers, doctors, and chaplains can already direct commission as Captains, expanding this program to more career fields and more ranks is not the answer for addressing the shortfall. This practice may have worked for the citizen’s Army of World War Two, but times have changed significantly. The professional nature of today’s Army demands a high degree of cultural inculcation which the direct-commissioning of field-grade officers in a field like Cyber threatens to erode. Some officers will have spent four years earning their commission, while others will have spent a matter of weeks, degrading the very concept of a professional military officer. Once again, the best solution is to grow more of these officers internally, firmly ensconced in the cultural tenets of the Army from the beginning of their career.
Another benefit of JMO specialization is well-rounded officers knowledgeable in a range of skills beyond those traditionally associated with the military. With an increasingly complex global operating environment, the presence of these specialized officers within the Army is necessary. Farming out key skillsets to contractors and civilians is arguably a luxury which will hinder decisive action during large-scale combat operations. The Army must retain the ability to exercise total control over specialty fields, something not legally possible when involving civilians. Conversely, allowing for officer specialization will – at the end of a twenty-year career – send back into the civilian world a variety of professionals tested under the most severe conditions, and possessing more focused skills than “leadership” or “management.” As these individuals percolate through the civilian sector (ideally, with more job prospects than just working for a defense contractor), the Army’s influence in key fields will only grow, as will constructive civil-military relations.
Considering the dual benefits of allowing for more specialization – both in retaining JMOs and producing better prepared senior officers – several solutions are available.
1) Don’t punish specialization. Regardless of their career field, a competent and high-performing officer should have the opportunity to rise to senior leadership. This will necessitate changing the KD career-path. However, treating specialty fields no differently from conventional ones will serve to attract top-performing and ambitious officers to key areas rather than scaring them away. Eventually, these officers can fill positions of great responsibility for which they are professionally suited. This will go a long way to removing the stigma from these positions. One interesting point for consideration is the prestige with which the Russian Ground Forces endow their specialty fields, often taking the best-educated officers and allowing them to rise to great heights. Today, the Russian Ground Forces place a premium on specialization in a way the United States does not. The Army is a ground-combat force, and combat arms officers are quite rightfully the “stars of the show,” but that does not mean everyone else should be treated like a stagehand.
2) Afford officers these opportunities earlier in their careers. Special assignments act as powerful incentives to remain in the service. However, by only offering these opportunities later in an officer's career, the Army limits its pool of selectees to those who have already elected to remain in service. If these positions were available to compete for earlier in a career, more of the best-qualified officers might elect to stay in service. Furthermore, this system allows for JMOs to “self-select” based upon interest and aptitudes, rather than require a larger centralized bureaucracy to make those determinations for them. Given concerns that an officer might take advantage of these assignments only to resign their commission immediately after, a service obligation appended to these orders would ensure retention of these specialized individuals. In other words, a quid pro quo benefiting both the Army and the individual.
3) Place the right people in the right positions. Imagine an Army in which the head of Futures Command is a career acquisitions officer, the commander of the Criminal Investigative Command is a career special agent, and perhaps even the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations possess experience as both a strategist and combat arms officer. Arguably, significant experiences in specifically relevant fields will better prepare an officer for these types of assignments than the current “jack of all trades” model. At the very least, the Army should not bar officers in specialty fields from competing for those positions. As for the notion that those officers who specialize in niche fields are not “real” leaders; leadership ability resides in the individual, not the position. If the Army continues to inculcate its officers in a culture of on-the-ground leadership, those select men and women in specialty fields will retain the ability to command at high levels.
4) Expand the selected population. At any given time, countless officers are atrophying in meaningless and superfluous staff positions across the Army. Not only are many of these staff job often unfulfilling, they also bear little relevance to preparing for future assignments. Hundreds of these officers, if not more, could be in graduate programs or broadening assignments, earning a return on the Army’s investment. While broadening assignments and specialty fields must remain the realm of the few rather than the many, there is presently room for growth. Compared to some other recent defense expenditures, there is certainly an argument to be made for the required additional funding required.
There remain plenty of valid reasons to keep the system as it is. For example, the Warrant Officer career path closely corresponds to the specialization which this article refers to, and still offers the chance at advancement (in salary if not in influence). The Air Force does allow for niche specialization, and many have argued that it suffers from a poor leadership culture (though other factors are at play). Existing Army programs, such as Training with Industry (a public affairs officer, for example, might intern with the National Football League) and the Congressional Fellowship program already allow for significant broadening. Furthermore, some of these changes will also require new legislation, always a difficult and slow way to further progress. Lastly, the fact that last year’s NDAA contained the most sweeping changes ever to DOPMA may convince some that no further action is required.
Ultimately, offering “special” JMOs the job they want – even in the interest or retaining top talent – is likely not a strong enough reason to enact these changes. Likewise, given that many flag officers do in fact perform competently in roles for which they on paper appear unprepared, arguments for keeping the system as is are reasonable. A change which simultaneously addresses both these issues, however, might just prove justified. The dual problems of the brain drain and over-generalization are already recognized, and most agree action is required. Officer specialization is not the solution, but it is a solution. The alternative worst-case scenario – of an Army led by mediocrities filling positions for which they are grossly unprepared – is in the best interests of absolutely no one. The clock is ticking.