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Towards a U.S. Army Officer Corps Strategy for Success: A Proposed Human Capital Model Focused upon Talent

Authored by Colonel Casey Wardynski, Lieutenant Colonel David S. Lyle, Lieutenant Colonel (Ret) Michael J. Colarusso. | April 2009

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SUMMARY

Throughout America's history, U.S. Army officers have played an integral role in the formulation and execution of its national security policy. However, the intersection of multiple factors such as technological advancements, globalization, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, a protracted conflict waged with an undersized, all-volunteer Army, and the increased demand in the civilian sector for the skills that junior officers possess, suggest that future national security challenges will be markedly different from those which were met so successfully in the past.

We find compelling evidence that the U.S. Army's Officer Corps will be unequal to future demands unless substantive management changes are made. Perhaps the most obvious risk indicator is the Army's persistent and substantial gap in mid-career officers. Much of this gap stems from low officer continuations on active duty beyond the initial service obligation, particularly among ROTC scholarship and West Point officers. The Army has also radically shifted its sources of commission from those that extensively screen, vet, and cull for talent such as ROTC and West Point, to those with minimal talent filters. For example, Officer Candidate School accessions have increased from a historical annual average of 10 percent to more than 40 percent of active duty commissions. At the same time, promotion rates have skyrocketed so that virtually all officers choosing to remain on active duty can reasonably expect continued advancement and eventual promotion to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Some senior Army leaders, analysts in think tanks, and others in government believe that the demands of the Global War on Terror and the Army's modular transformation combined to create these troubling symptoms. However, strong evidence reveals that the root causes of these problems precede the war and modularity, and are instead grounded in the Army's failure to understand and appropriately respond to a changing talent market. In short, the Army has relied on draft-era practices to manage an all-volunteer Army. More specifically, the Army has lacked a cohesive strategy to guide its officer manpower efforts. Actions taken to remedy the problems outlined above have actually reduced the likelihood that the Officer Corps will be equal to the challenges that lie ahead.

In this monograph, the authors argue that those challenges demand a comprehensive Officer Corps strategy recognizing the interdependency of accessing, developing, retaining, and employing talented people, officers with high learning and problem solving aptitudes and whose mental acuity and intellectual agility allows them to master the diverse competencies demanded now and in the future. Such a strategy will position the Army to compete with the civilian market for talent. It will translate directly into better officer development and retention through increased job satisfaction, and it will move the Army beyond personnel management to talent management.

An officer talent management strategy will also create the institutional agility required to facilitate job matching, allowing the Army to achieve the right breadth and depth of officer competencies to meet evolving requirements--"the right talent in the right job at the right time." To realize this vision, however, the Army must develop a strategy that commits ample resources, incorporates appropriate policy, and reevaluates existing organizational designs. Failure to do so may result in a U.S. Army unequal to its share of the security challenges confronting the United States and its allies.

Introduction.

Throughout its history, military officers have been integral to the formulation and execution of U.S. national security policy. From George Washington, Ulys- ses Grant, and George Marshall to Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell, and David Petraeus, the United States has repeatedly called upon its most talented Army officers to execute missions successfully across a wide spectrum, from peacetime military engagement to major combat operations. Several factors, however, may make future challenges markedly different from those met so successfully in the past.

First, the United States and its allies are confronted by an increasing number of actors who are willing to use violence to achieve their ends, unconstrained by the moral convictions or legal restrictions within which traditional military forces operate. The intersection of several factors has created this ever more dynamic and demanding security environment, including the accelerating creation and diffusion of technology, urbanization, globalization, resource competition, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and the absence of the rule of law in a growing number of failed states.1

Moreover, while its current generation of officers has been able to count upon American economic and technological preeminence as unrivaled sources of power, the U.S. Army's future officers may be unable to do so. Instead, they will likely be confronted by several nations possessing large, relatively young and well-educated populations, with greater access to capital and technology drawn from rapidly expanding domestic economies. Against this backdrop of competing nation-states, Army leaders will also be challenged by nonstate actors who operate in and around urban centers, rely upon the safe havens provided by a growing number of failed states, and adapt technologies to create asymmetric threats. As we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, prevailing against such foes is landpower-intensive. As a result, the U.S. Army's particular competencies are in great demand and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future.

Second, the United States and its armed forces are waging this protracted conflict with an all-volunteer military force. Unlike previous wars, there is little "lateral entry" of specialized talent via conscription, nor is there any significant popular or political U.S. support for returning to a draft. America's Army, therefore, must wage war with the volunteer officers it accesses and retains. Now more than ever, these men and women must be extremely talented.

Yet, despite the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) entering its 8th year, there is compelling evidence that the Army has continued to rely upon legacy officer management practices, practices that were increasingly outmoded even before the war began. In fact, that evidence suggests that the United States has been assuming significant risk in its Army Officer Corps for over a decade. Consequently, the Army requires an officer corps strategy to meet the unique challenges outlined above.

Conclusion

More than ever before, the U.S. Army requires an Officer Corps strategy that recognizes and leverages the interdependence between accessing, developing, retaining, and employing talent. Beyond attainment of the right number of officers at each career level, the Army increasingly needs talented officers, those with pronounced aptitudes for learning and problem solving, and whose mental acuity and intellectual agility allows them to master the diverse competencies demanded by the times. The Army's officer human capital model, which necessarily limits lateral entry at middle and senior levels, makes screening, vetting, and culling for such talent critical.

So, too, the U.S. Army must develop the institutional adaptability to employ the right talent in the right job at the right time. In so doing, it will finally move beyond assignment management to a genuine talent management system. We believe that such a system, based upon the principles articulated in this monograph, must be the centerpiece of an Officer Strategy -- it is the single best way to eliminate the problems which have challenged the Army's Officer Corps for the last decade, while simultaneously posturing it for future success. A talent management system will position the Army to compete with the civilian market for officer talent. It will translate directly into better officer development and retention through increased job satisfaction. Talent management will also facilitate job matching, which will allow the Army to achieve the right breadth and depth of officer competencies to meet evolving requirements. The Army must commit ample resources, develop appropriate policy, and reevaluate existing organizational designs to this end.

Failure to do so may lead to a future in which the U.S. Army is unequal to its share of the security challenges confronting both the United States and its allies.