Small Wars Journal

The Human Dimension: Taking Innovation to the Individual and Leader Level

Thu, 05/14/2015 - 10:28am

The Human Dimension: Taking Innovation to the Individual and Leader Level

Aaron W. Childers

In January, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work discussed the necessity of innovation to counter three major challenges to American security: the rise of ISIS, the Russian incursion into Ukraine, and the military growth of China.  The deputy secretary’s discussion comes at a time when, by summer 2015, the US Army will be at its lowest troop level since before World War II. 

Given current adversaries and the changing nature of the world we live in today, the US Army needs to embrace Secretary Work’s advice on the need for innovation.[1]  For the US Army, the answer is not a new piece of equipment, but a renewed focus on education and leader development.  The US Army already has a blueprint for how to improve innovation in its leadership—the “Human Dimension” program, which involves novel research on how humans think and learn, developing better training for Soldiers and leaders.[2]  If funded, the projects in the Human Dimension will constitute a complete shakeup of Army education, leader development, and unit training.  This is not another combat system; it is an innovative process for getting the most out of leaders that are already struggling to do more with less.

The Human Dimension addresses three main concerns.  First, the talent developed during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan is bleeding out of the force.  If troop cuts are inevitable, then we should downsize the right people and train others to fill the void.  Second, building adaptive leaders requires smarter training and education.  This goes beyond current practices and focuses more on individual cognitive ability.  Third, leader education must evolve to produce innovative leaders.

First, talent developed during the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan is leaving the service at an alarming rate, and better talent management is essential to the future Army.  Recent personnel cuts eliminated many experienced officers.  It is essential that the military trains and retains the right leaders.  At the “Future of War” conference in March, Senator John McCain and journalist Tom Ricks, commented on the officers who developed counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in Iraq, agreeing that those talented officers, “have left the Army at this point” for the private sector.[3]  Tim Kaine’s 2011 article in The Atlantic and subsequent book Bleeding Talent, detail the painful loss of bright military minds in the last ten years and attribute much of this loss to the Army’s adherence to an antiquated personnel system.[4]  The Army needs to recruit, train, and retain the right people for the right position.

Talent management is a key portion of the Human Dimension program, ensuring that the best Soldiers and officers come into the branch that fits their specific mental and cognitive qualities.  Studies at the United States Military Academy identified specific mental qualities that better predicted whether a cadet would graduate than prior performance.[5]  In the mid-18th century, military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz identified the “Coup d’oeil,” an ability to make intuitive decisions in combat, and other traits of the ideal commander.[6]  If funded, the Army could use these systems to recruit and develop leaders.  Additionally, technology like the Neethling Brain Instrument assesses the way an individual’s brain attacks a problem, and displays the advantages and disadvantages of their personal problem solving methods.[7]  This technology allows for officers and NCOs to improve on weaknesses they might not have even known about.  Additionally, these technologies can improve the personnel management system, placing people in assignments that take advantage of their strengths.  This program is about getting the most out of the Soldiers and leaders already in the Army and recruiting the right people for the next-generation Army.

Second, with fiscal constraints, the Army needs to rethink the way it trains if it wants to continue to produce adaptive leaders for both COIN environments and traditional warfare.  The last 14 years of counterinsurgency have produced officers and NCOs that are comfortable with the dynamics of change and uncertainty.  The skills of negotiation, cultural awareness, and counterinsurgency have become invaluable to our troops.  However, with deployments slowing, it is uncertain how much longer these skills will remain in our force.  Following the Vietnam War, lessons learned by working with South Vietnamese forces and the CORDS program were lost to conventional forces only years after the fall of Saigon.  These lessons were painfully relearned in Iraq as US forces slowly learned to work with the Iraqi Army and build trust with local communities.

This mental agility goes beyond COIN and applies to Combined Arms Warfare as well.  Former leaders like Col (Ret.) Gian Gentile argue that the Army now focuses too much on COIN and is deficient in its traditional roles of countering a near-peer force.[8]  Arguably, focusing on Combined Arms Maneuver in the 1980s, enabled the successes of the First Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom.  As essential as these conventional skills are, training budgets have restricted many units to only train at the squad level, three levels below where they received live fire training received as late as 2013.[9]  Budget cuts have directly reduced the frequency of essential traditional training and restricted the ability to train leaders for complex and dynamic challenges.

The Human Dimension focuses on training leaders to be adaptive and innovative, drawing from recent experiences in COIN while still preparing for combat against a near-peer competitor.  The Human Dimension focuses on cultural and language training, reinforcing skills developed during the last 14 years of war, and directly supporting the Army’s Regionally Aligned Forces.  This training will also ensure that this knowledge is not lost to future generations of Soldiers and leaders.  Looking back almost 10 years on prior deployments, I can only imagine how much easier fighting a counterinsurgency would have been in the early stages of Iraq and Afghanistan if previous generations of leaders had studied COIN throughout their careers, instead of having to learn it during the deployment.  Elements of the Human Dimension also focus on presenting leaders with unpredictable and complex problems in training, driving at the heart of adaptability.  These programs aim to understand the science behind what makes a good combat leader, both in a counterinsurgency and in near-peer combat.  Going back to Robert Work’s speech, these are the skills required for combat against Russian-backed troops in Ukraine, the areas controlled by ISIS, or even against China. 

One of the goals of the Human Dimension is to refine the Army’s training methodology based on how our brain learns to get the maximum value out of training events.  From personal experience, one of the hardest things to do as a leader in combat is to digest information from three different radio channels, a military computer system, and cut through the unneeded information to accurately assess the situation around you.  One particular research program involves how the mind sorts incoming information such as data, radio traffic, and environmental factors and then makes a decision.  By understanding this process and teaching Soldiers how to process information, these programs can better train the Army’s leaders to digest all available information and make the best tactical decision.[10]  These are exactly the skills required in a combined arms fight where leaders may have an abundance of assets and sensors available and must use these systems to their maximum potential.  This training would allow leaders to evaluate complex problems utilizing the most advanced research on how the brain works under stress.

Third, the Army should drive change through its educational institutions.  This requires a combination of reforms to military education systems and the doctrine it teaches.  As it stands, Army schools focus heavily on training skills as quickly as possible with a focus on throughput.  Mid-grade officers and senior NCOs receive instruction on rigid processes, but are not sufficiently challenged to think about ways to quickly adapt and operate under stress.  The army education process has relied too long on “what to think, not how to think.”  In the 1930s, General George Marshall often frustrated young officers at the Infantry School, who would rely on textbook answers to the tactical problems Marshall presented.[11]  In Marshall’s mind, the textbook answer was for the substandard officer who did not have the ability to adapt when required.  Marshall’s drive to embrace the innovative and unorthodox did not just require students to think, but created the battalion, brigade, and division commanders that won World War II.  Now, students attend doctrine-heavy courses that focus on repetition of a process, not a depth of knowledge that can be applied to complex problems.  The Army’s doctrine is receiving updates to reflect changes in modern warfare like hybrid threats, human factors and technological advances that have occurred in the last several years.  However, this requires a successful understanding of doctrine, not a cursory introduction of concepts.  If innovation is to be encouraged, a true educational experience must be adopted.

Part of the Human Domain focuses on concepts to address both institutional education and the doctrine it is based upon.  The Army University concept focuses on reforming military education, giving leaders a firm grasp of doctrine that they can apply to complex situations.  The concept seeks civilian universities to bring academic rigor to Army programs, and even provide accreditation to some Army schools.[12]  With added difficulty, the Army must value academic performance, rewarding those who show the ability to innovate and solve complex problems.  Additionally, part of expecting a greater understanding of Army doctrine requires manuals that interest the generation of Soldiers now joining.  Adapted from a program in the United States Military Academy History Department, the “living doctrine” project makes military manuals interactive.[13]  This project resonates with younger, digitally savvy Soldiers by taking the dry, repetitive nature of Army manuals and making the publications appealing to Soldiers with interactive diagrams, pictures and videos.  Increasing the depth of doctrinal knowledge in junior Soldiers and leaders develops an understanding of principles that can be adapted in complex situations.

Perhaps the biggest impediment to investing in the innovative approaches outlined here is that the Human Dimension is not something you can physically touch.  These programs are not as tangible as a fighter jet or an aircraft carrier.  The effort to transform the way the Army trains and educates is not something manufactured in 48 different states, and is not something that will deliver immediate photo opportunities.  However, training leaders through Human Dimension initiatives is every bit as necessary to our national defense as a new combat platform.  The benefits of investing in the Human Dimension program will advance the Army, and the other services, for years to come.  When testifying about the rapidly changing role of nuclear weapons after WWII, LTG Walter Kruger said, “The best weapon we have is the American Soldier.”[14]  LTG Kruger made these remarks as the nation tried to build technological platforms to combat the Soviet’s threat, yet in the fifty years following his testimony, US Soldiers would fight and die in Korea, South America, and Vietnam, rather than face a huge nuclear war in Europe.  As our nation rebalances towards the Pacific, we should not just look to build platforms focused on a possible threat, but also focus on leaders who can thrive in complex environments.  As the naval theorist, Rear Admiral J.C. Wiley said, “The ultimate determinant in war is a man on the scene with a gun…  This is the Soldier.”[15]  If we as a nation must have a smaller Army then it is imperative that American Soldiers receive the best training, and the Human Dimension is a huge step forward.  The only way to face future threats like Russia, ISIS, or China is through training innovative and adaptive leaders in our Army.

End Notes

[1] "United States Department of Defense." Deputy Secretary of Defense Speech: The Third U.S. Offset Strategy and Its Implications for Partners and Allies. Department of Defense, 28 Jan. 2015. Web. 22 Mar. 2015.

[2] "The Human Dimension." United States Army Combined Arms Center (2014): 1. United States Army Combined Arms Center, 9 Oct. 2014. Web. 22 Mar. 2015.

[3] "How Will Congress Shape the U.S. Military of the Future? With Sen. John McCain." YouTube. New America, 1 Mar. 2015. Web. 22 Mar. 2015.

[4] Kaine, Tim. "Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 04 Jan. 2011. Web. 22 Mar. 2015.

[5] Matthews, Michael D. "A Revolution in Selection Testing." Psychology Today. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. For additional exclamation regarding these tests and military training see Matthews, Michael D. Head Strong: How Psychology Is Revolutionizing War. N.p.: Oxford UP, 2014. Print.

[6] On War by Carl von Clausewitz, ed. trans. by Howard and Paret, 1984, p. 100–112 For specific examples of these qualities as discussed in contemporary terms see “Erfourth, Montgomery, and Bazin, Aaron. "Clausewitz's Military Genius and the #Human Dimension." Medium. The Bridge, 11 Dec. 2014. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <>

[7] This particular application comes from a blog post by Silk, Jonathan. ": Innovation and Creativity: What The Army Can Learn from the Fashion World." Web log post. The QuadShot Warrior Blog. N.p., 1 Dec. 2014. Web. 03 Apr. 2015. <>.

[8] Gentile, Gian P. "The Death of the Armor Corps." Small War Journal (2010):  Small Wars Journal. Web. 22 Mar. 2015.

[9] Freedburg, Sydney J. "Army: 78% Of Combat Brigades Will Skip Training Due To Sequester, CR." Breaking Defense. N.p., 6 Feb. 2015. Web. 22 Mar. 2015.

[10] "The Human Dimension." United States Army Combined Arms Center (2014): 1. United States Army Combined Arms Center, 9 Oct. 2014. Web. 22 Mar. 2015.

[11] Pogue, Forrest C., and Gordon Harrison. "Marshall's Men." George C. Marshall: Education of a General. New York: Penguin, 1991.

[12] "The Human Dimension." United States Army Combined Arms Center (2014): 1. United States Army Combined Arms Center, 9 Oct. 2014. Web. 22 Mar. 2015.

[13] A free preview of this program is available at the Apple app store by searching “The West Point History of Warfare”

[14] Linn, Brian M. "Atomic War." The Echo of Battle: The Army's Way of War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007. 157-58. Print.

[15] Wylie, J. C. Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1967. 85. Print.


About the Author(s)

Major Aaron W. Childers is a U.S. Army infantry officer with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He is currently attending the Naval War College. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the US Army, the Naval War College or the Department of Defense. You can follow him on Twitter @childersaw.


Wish to view and understand an aspect of the "human dimension" that the United States Army (et al.) may wish to use to select, train and promote promising and/or innovative candidates/personnel?

Then consider the "targeting of foreign youth" category described below:

a. From the Executive Summary of a 2007 CSIS paper on "smart power:"

"Public diplomacy: Bringing foreign populations to our side depends on building long-term, people-to-people relationships, particularly among youth."

b. From President Obama's introductory letter to his 2015 National Security Strategy:

"Underpinning it all, we are upholding our enduring commitment to the advancement of democracy and human rights and building new coalitions to combat corruption and to support open governments and open societies. In doing so, we are working to support democratic transitions, while also reaching out to the drivers of change in this century: young people and entrepreneurs."…

Thus, and re: our selection, training and promotion of our personnel, to distinguish between those who can (and those who cannot) see, understand and successfully operate within a world that we seem to be formally dividing into two competing camps; these being:

a. The world of foreign youth: Which are seen (due to their naivete, disconnectedness and/or vulnerability?) as our, potential, "natural allies;" this, in our endeavor to transform outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines. And

b. The world of foreign older folks: Which are seen (due to their experience, wisdom, and ensconced-within-the-status-quo nature?) to be our "natural enemies" in this such state and societal "change" endeavor.

Thus, those of our personnel that have shown themselves to be able to see, understand and favorably operate within this such divided/competitive world to be retained and moved forward?

While those that cannot see, understand and/or operate, within this aspect of the "human dimension" commodity market, to be let go?


"In January, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work discussed the necessity of innovation to counter three major challenges to American security: the rise of ISIS, the Russian incursion into Ukraine, and the military growth of China."

Let's consider the term "American security" here from the perspective of our desire (and our ability) to gain greater -- and/or to maintain present -- power, influence and control in various regions of the world.

From this (strategic?) perspective to understand the "challenges" to American security outlined in the first paragraph above.

Thus to see that:

1. The rise of ISIS hinders our ability to gain greater/maintain present power, influence and control within the Greater Middle East. This, by ISIS offering an alternative to our way of life and our way of governance models. Likewise,

2. The rise of the Russian, Chinese (and/or Irainian?) "neo-authoritarian" way of life and way of governance models challenging our ability to gain greater -- and/or maintain present -- power, influence and control in various regions of the world.

(Items "1" and "2" above seeming to discredit/disprove, a full quarter century later, such post-Cold War ideas as "universal values" and "the end of history?")

Thus with:

a. Our version of "soft power" having failed us. (Soft Power: "A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries – admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness – want to follow it.")

b. Time to usher in a new era of "hard power."

(The need for "innovation," and a "third-offset strategy," to, thus, be seen in this "new hard power era" light.)

The human dimension?

Now, and likewise, to be understood in and approached more from the "coercive"/"hard power" perspective, to wit: more from the perspective of "carrots" (bribery) and "sticks" (punishments) -- rather than from the "co-optive" perspective of "soft power" (attraction) -- which has so obviously failed us.

G Martin

Sat, 05/16/2015 - 7:37am

<i>One particular research program involves how the mind sorts incoming information such as data, radio traffic, and environmental factors and then makes a decision. By understanding this process and teaching Soldiers how to process information, these programs can better train the Army’s leaders to digest all available information and make the best tactical decision.[10] These are exactly the skills required in a combined arms fight where leaders may have an abundance of assets and sensors available and must use these systems to their maximum potential.</>

Later the author hammers current PME as process regurgitation, but above advocates a research program that unlocks the brain's thinking "process" in order to teach soldiers how to process information (with another process, one would assume).

THAT is our current problem- we assume that thinking about, acting in, and learning from social activities such as war can be boiled down to a panacea-like process. Brains don't follow the same process, not all brains are alike, and the process is complex- ever-changing and evolving. No one brain is the same over time.

Mission Command attempts to address this issue of information overload by powering down to lower levels the authority to act. Our culture and personnel system, however, don't allow MC.

It is really telling that to try and fix the bleeding of talent and a failing educational system we had to invent a program (Human Dimension). Another problem of our institution is our resource system- much of which Congress requires. We are driven by our resource system and it forces us to do some really wacko things...

Fix the resource system and the personnel system and education and mission command will follow. Alas, too many people benefit from the current resource and personnel systems that changing it would require massive Congressional reform...


Fri, 05/15/2015 - 1:54pm

MAJ Childers, I think your assessment is sound but you have not addressed the problem. The real problem, which is not exclusively an Army problem, is that the military does not have a succession plan that effectively retains (promotes to the highest level) those with such thinking prowess. There is research that supports this shortfall but it has not been embraced by military leadership.

Bill C.

Thu, 05/14/2015 - 6:24pm

In reply to by Jagatai

Re: A clear strategy: Consider this from former National Security Advisor Anthony Lake and re: his 1993 "From Containment to Enlargement:"

"During the Cold War, even children understood America's security mission; as they looked at those maps on their schoolroom walls, they knew we were trying to contain the creeping expansion of that big, red blob."

"Today, at great risk of oversimplification, we might visualize our security mission as promoting the enlargement of the "blue areas" of market democracies. The difference, of course, is that we do not seek to expand the reach of our institutions by force, subversion or repression."

Thus, post-the Cold War:

a. "We" adopted an expansionist strategy and agenda. While

b. "They" (our opponents) adopted a preventive/containment/roll back/reversal strategy and agenda.

"Innovation," from our perspective and in this context, to be understood in terms of:

1. Ways and means to overcome our opponents preventive/containment/roll back/reversal efforts. While, simultaneously,

2. Achieving, in spite of these such hostile attempts, the expansion of our way of life, our way of governance, etc. - in important parts of the world -- anyway.

Seen in this light, for our soldiers, NCOs and officers to be "innovative" today, it would appear that they would need to:

a. Do what their communist counterparts did during the Cold War (when they were doing the "expansion" and we were doing the "containing). But (and this is a very big but)

b. Without (as former National Security Advisor Lake clearly and carefully emphasizes above) the use of "force, subversion or repression."

Given these restrictions, and the role reversal described above, a very interesting, difficult and challenging task indeed?

I actually enjoyed the article, but I do have to make one comment on the opening paragraph.

"In January, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work discussed the necessity of innovation to counter three major challenges to American security: the rise of ISIS, the Russian incursion into Ukraine, and the military growth of China"

Countering these three challenges has less to do with creating more innovative soldiers, NCOs, or officers than it does with developing a comprehensive strategic response at the political level. All the great soldiering in the world can't save us from the lack of a clear strategy. Documents like the QDR look like budget justification exercises rather than a serious review of how to counter these challenges.


Thu, 05/14/2015 - 12:49pm

I agree with the three points in this article, especially leadership education and educational institutions. Perhaps we could tackle the topic of officer education earlier though.

Officers across all branches could be set up for better success before entering their job field through education starting much earlier in life. I do not mean ROTC, which also falls short of the mark, but institutions dedicated to the raising of the future officer corps. This is not a revolutionary concept. The Prussians did an excellent job at training cadets in an open minded environment to cultivate out of the box thinkers. They were taught mission type orders and understood up to Regimental size planning and operations at a younger age if not at the time of their commissioning. We start at an early age developing future professional athletes, why not professional officers?

Another option is tailoring college degrees to the MOS field. Other countries do not require officers to receive a college degree, but must only prove they are college eligible. College is not all it's cracked up to be and not every degree is worthwhile. Why should someone waste four years getting a degree in underwater basket weaving or another pointless degree they will never use? That time could be utilized more wisely in receiving relevant training.

This is talked about by dozens of officers, but change is not something that comes easily to our beloved institutions.