Friday, December 17, 2010

Does the Military Need a Professional General Staff?

OK, Mike suggested that a comment on another thread be promoted to a self standing thread, and here it is.

Before jumping up and starting this thread, I did a little looking around and found that retired LTC Louis DiMarco had written on the subject in Small Wars Journal, albeit pertaining to staffs within the Army, not the Joint Staff, as I had mentioned. Sadly, there was very little discussion by the SWJ denizens, but then, there is much more talent here in the Pub.

DiMarco makes some excellent points for having a professional staff "corps" within the Army. In addition, since current military doctrine involves joint operations, I would offer that the "Joint Staff" should equally be considered as a place where professional staff officers, to include so called "strategists", need to be the majority.

There is no question that two historic examples of a permanent, professional general staff (Germany & the Soviet Union) showed periods of tension between the political leadership and the military staff. But, as DiMarco points out, Germany still sees fit to maintain a professional staff corps, probably as a result of much more success with it than otherwise.

In my years in the Army, the "Holy Grail" was always command. That is what was sought, as it was the key to promotion. Battalion and Brigade level command billets are by central selection boards, yet key staff positions are not. As I have opined in the past, occupants of key staff billets and the Joint Staff are transients through the field, simply taking time out from operational assignments. No permanency, mentoring, staff development or continuity. Perhaps it's our alleged belief in having "citizen soldiers" that makes us afraid to have a permanent cadre of staff planners and strategists.

The thing is, we see what the constant turn over of transients has caused at the strategic level, no less the operational level. And, calling our AVF "citizen soldiers" is horse-puckey. We've already discussed the growing separation of the military from mainstream society.

Is it time for a change? And why?


  1. You can design the personnel system such that both the officers with the additional and long general staff training have a good promotion path and the "command" officers.

    Germany traditionally selected the most intelligent officers for general staff training, so the rank extension "i.G." raised both prestige and respect.

  2. Do we then run the risk of having said General Staff become ambitious enough to attempt steerage of the government?

    With the MIC, we already have incestuous relationships...what are the downsides or, conversely...what are the checks and balances for a system such as this?

  3. There was only once such a case where a general staff took over political control (1916-1918), and that was because civilian leadership was composed of weaklings.

    The regional commands of the U.S. which almost work in parallel to state dept are much more an offense to the separation of policy and military.

  4. Al,

    In today's Army, "command" isn't as important as it used to be. It has change a lot in the short time since I was a 2LT.

    They now have what are know as KD, or Key Developmental jobs. These jobs range from command to staff. For example, let's talk a typical Infantry Officer. As a CPT, you must have Company Command, but as an MI Officer, Company Command is good, but being a Bn S2 is equally important.

    From here, it is all based on your branch (career field). For MI, for example, you can follow a Command track and work towards being an S3/XO, or you can work towards a Division G2 by serving as a BCT S2.

    Each career field is a little different, and have different ideas of KD jobs, but the idea of the old BQ (Branch qualifying) job, which was almost always a command, is gone. Today, there is no one job that will make or break your career. Instead there is a laundry list of jobs that when combined together make you more attractive to promotion boards. (note, for O5's of any branch, Joint time is required for promotion)

  5. "Do we then run the risk of having said General Staff become ambitious enough to attempt steerage of the government?"

    Whether or not there is a permanent, professional General Staff, this is a possibility. US History, however,has shown that the civilian leadership has always held much more sway over the course of events - be they good or bad. It is the "industrial" side of the Military-Industrial Complex that has exerted the sway over the past 50 years. Congress has forced expensive programs on the military to curry favor in their districts, not visa versa.

    One of my points has been that there are no long term, professional staff bidies in our military. One of the commentors in the SWJ link says that the "ability of the Army to allocate additional human capital to SAMS isn't feasible without additional risk to current operations." The Army is so wrapped up in tactical and operational concerns that no one is set aside to make a career out of addressing strategic concerns.

    Again, I am more concerned with the lack of a professional Joint Staff than staff weenies at Bn, Bde, Div or Corps level. DiMarco is arguing for higher expertise at those levels, which I appreciate. I am raising the question of extending this to the strategic level of the Joint Staff as well as Service Staffs, where billets are not occupied by people who have dedicated a career to such endeavor, but more dominated by operational immersion.

  6. Al,

    I think you are missing an important part of the picture. Here is a short war story from my experience, and maybe this will better highlight my point.

    When I was a bit younger, I was asked to come to Ft Huachuca to participate in an MI Corps level conference, with BG Fast and all of the senior leaders of Army MI, and give them some lessons learned from the first couple years of Iraq/Afg. Having already met BG Fast, and a few other GOs at the time, I was convinced that our Army would never truly progress and get out of the Cold War until these GOs retired. I learned I could not have been more dead wrong.

    It isn't the senior staff officers or GOs that influence policy. It is the DA Civilians. I learned that it wasn't enough for the Cold Warriors to retire, they would all have to truly retire or pass away before true change would happen in the MI Corps because when they retire from the military, they just get GG-15 or SES jobs, and like Obiwan said, "become more powerful than you can possibly imagine."

    Since then, I have dealt with many situations where it isn't the Active Duty staff officers or GOs that control the military, it is the DA Civs with 30 years in service, the Deputies who stay in that position for life while military rotate in and out.

    I suggest to you, these DA Civs, mostly retired military staff officers or true life long bureaucrats, are the professional Joint Staff you seek.

  7. Greetings from snowy Germany-

    This is an interesting question, but I think our current political situation already provides the answer.

    A DoD General Staff would be a plus, but would be counter-productive for the current political interests controlling US "policy". Had such an institution been in place in 2001 and 2003 it would have lobbied against the overthrow of the Taliban (given the difficulties of establishing something to take its place) and the invasion of Iraq (for the same reason). There was already enough resistance as it was from the State Department and the intelligence services, so why wish more? Under the current "system" the various partisan think tanks do the contingency planning for whatever polices they wish to promote and then look for the interested political "investors", such is the dysfunction that is the US government today imo . . .

    Sven brings up German history from 1916-18, but that involved not the General Staff siding with one side, but dividing between the "Westerners" and the "Easterners" with the latter coming on top. This to the disadvantage of the country as a political community, since Germany's problem in 1914 did not really lend itself to a military solution, which is in many respects similar to ours today . . .

  8. I am interested in how this would work in a joint environment. Are there any strong precedents? Wasn't the German General Staff in WW1 and 2 composed of all Army officers? Was there a General Staff at the OKW level with participation by the Heer, the Kriegsmarine and the Luftwaffe?

    I think there was a separate German Naval General Staff but you don't hear much about it. Did the Luftwaffe have a General Staff or was that run on Goring's shoestring?

    I obviously need to do some reading. Whose is the better book on the subject: Dupuy, or Goerlitz&Battershaw, or the new one by Wilkinson?

    My knowledge of the Soviet General Staff is even more empty. Theirs was more of a Joint staff I think but probably the ground force officers were dominant early on although I am sure that probably changed during the Cold War. I hope to get a copy of the Shtemenko book on the subject, but he supposedly only covered the period 1941 to 1945. I think General Odom also did some writing on the subject which covers the cold war.

  9. We don't have a professional general staff because the guiding principles of our nation have never permitted it. Implicit in our founding documents and our entire history is the need to be wary of a professional military class because of the dangers inherent in allowing the military to accrue too much power. This is especially true in our system because the military resides in the executive branch. This is why we have the Constitution we have and this is why we military officers take our oaths to that Constitution and not to the executive. We see it on a daily basis: our system is rife with inefficiencies, with players jockeying for position, with all kinds of things that offend any sense of order. Order, efficiency and discipline aren't the point in our system. We're all about controlled chaos.

    It's also why we don't have a "purple suit" military. Inefficient? You bet. But our system, the way it was designed, demands such inefficiencies. We fundamentally demand that as many players as possible in the federal system have a little piece of the power pie. Concentration is dangerous; diffusion is good. Europeans never seem to understand this, but it's pretty fundamental to this American and I'm a little surprised that we're even having this discussion. To borrow from FD Chief, the inefficiencies in how we do things aren't a bug. They're a feature. We are designed to be inefficient and I wouldn't have it any other way.

    What do you get from efficiency and order? You get the German general staff that said "Sieg Heil," and executed criminal orders very efficiently. Our system is all about not having lifers in military power positions, but maybe instead having some guys moving in and out who might say, "excuse me, I don't recall where it says that we're supposed to do that." That we've failed in that in recent years isn't an indictment of our system; it's a commentary on the weak sisters we've promoted to positions of power in the military.

    And then there is very nature of staff work in the US Army. There would have to be a sea change in attitudes at the general officer levels to make staff work at higher levels rewarding in any sense of the word. The reality is that staff officers in the Pentagon and major commands work 16 hour days churning out meaningless horseshit to throw into the hopper of meaningless briefings to be presented to bored and inattentive movers and shakers. 50% of staff work is pure bull shit, designed only to impress some of the Very Important People in government with how hard their minions (in this case military generals and admirals) are working.

    Anybody really think that a professional general staff would have saved this nation any of the pain caused by the corrupt and inept politicians we elected or the craven military officers who saluted every step of the way? We don't need a professional general staff. We need a military with some backbone, a military that might actually speak the truth to power. The way it is now is you have two choices. A: Your military is stupid and does not understand fundamental military principles. Or B: It is craven and cowardly and does not care about its responsibilities to the Constitution.

    Would a professional general staff fix any of that?

  10. Having no experience above the troop-unit level I am uniquely unqualified to speak authoritatively on this subject. As a citizen I tend to agree with Publius that the formation of a GQG/Generalstabs would merely add to the concentration of power in the Executive without solving the real problem of a lack of strategic foresight - which I tend to agree with seydlitz has a lot more to do with the political process in D.C. than a lack of gepolitical understanding at the Joint Staff level.

    IMO most of the dumb military things we've done over the past 60 years have very little to do with the lack of a professional staff. We didn't misjudge the Wars of Liberation in the 1945-1965 period because of bad staff work at the Pentagon but because the U.S. government was inclined to view all Third World revolutions through their Cold War beer goggles. So the internal war in Vietnam became part of the Global Communist Conspiracy. We didn't overthrow Mossadegh because the Joint Staff didn't do the right appreciation of the importance of Iran as the linchpin of the Gulf region but because the congresscritters and the Eisenhower Administration thought the Shah would be tougher on the Reds and softer on Texaco.

    In terms of actual planning for military operations a "purple" staff might be better at hammering the service rivalry nails down when they poke holes in sensible operations. But as far as helping prevent these silly sorts of geopolitical fuckups? Probably not so much - not enough, IMO, to counteract the increased weight of political power in the Executive.

  11. OK, a little fuel on the fire. Our nation's decisions to wage war are done by whoever gets elected, which pretty much guarantees amateur strategists on the civilian leadership side. On the uniformed side, since there are not career strategists, and I mean people who spend the bulk of their career in strategic planning, from Captain Step and Fetch-Its on up, is it any surprise that we have fools leading sheep?

    We have been witnessing a strategic void for some 10 years now. Rummy wanted to be seen as brighter than all the Generals and Admirals, so he drove off anyone who was brighter than him, or confined them to operational billets.

    Just playing Devil's Advocate.

  12. Al: Agree that the current situation is a mess, but look at the record you cite; every one of the uniforms who told the Bushies that they were bugnuts was ignored, and most were hounded to the extent the Bushies could manage. So I'm not sure that if Shinseki had had a high-powered staff behind him it'd have made a difference. And, conversely, look at how well George Marshall did for FDR.

    I think the problem is more ideological than structural. You've got a critical mass of gomers who think that the U.S. is so rockin' cool that we make our own reality, like Green Lantern. Simple common sense isn't going to get trhough to guys like that, and neither will great staff work.

  13. Once again, I aqree with Al as to the utility of a General Staff, but my question is - now a bit more refined - can we expect such an institution to be able to function given the dysfunction of our political system? In other words is the problem that we form national strategy poorly, or rather how could our srategy reflect anything other than the current state of our political elite/interests?

    I'll disagree in part with what Publius commented above in regards to the German General Staff shouting "Sieg Heil" and doing as they were told. There was obviously that element, but also what German institution resisted Hitler more than the German General Staff? After all, it's Chief in 1938, General Beck, was the highest ranking officer to resign his post in protest of Hitler's polices, that after failing to get the GS to resign in mass. Had Beck and his supporters been successful, and had the British and French not caved in support of the Czechs, the whole world might be a quite different place . . .

  14. mike-

    No overall coordination prior to the formation of OKW, each service had its own General Staff. The book on "Operation Albion" which goes into some detail of German Army and Navy joint planning in 1917 is of special interest in this regard. I like Görlitz, but haven't read the new one you mention . . . sounds interesting.

    I have also read Shtemenko, and yes he only covers 1941-45 with the usual Soviet bias of the time. Still he has some very sound insights as to the workings of a General Staff . . .

  15. To all,
    I always enjoy Publius's comments when/because he pulls us back to square one.
    To Aviator/Al and his krewe.
    Isn't the state dept supposed to provide the strategic direction of policy-foreign that is? This policy should be the basis of military strategic concepts and planning. I think Chief is nibbling on the edge of this point.
    bg also obliquely covers this point although i think he's discussing DAC's. So the problem is the political appointees that can twist long term policy for short term idealogical exploitation.
    Merry Christmas all.

  16. jim-

    The military, not State, is responsible for determining if the use of military force is the tool to achieve a given geopolitical objective and if it is, the correct nature of the force to apply. Shinseki had it correct on Iraq. No one else was willing to speak the truth to power, until the much later "revolt" of the retired generals. And their "revolt" wasn't against the policy decision, but the way in which the military was used to pursue that policy.

    What has been overlooked above, and I did not initially put it out on purpose, is that it is not DOD's job to set the geo-political objectives. It is DOD's job to have evaluated as many possible objectives as possible to determine if there is an appropriate and sound military route to those objectives. Additionally, a strategic military mind will also look to see if the defined objective is an end state or not, and speak up if it isn't. If all we do is plan battles or even campaigns, then we are planning in isolation from geo-political end states.

    No, the DOD has no business setting geopolitical objectives, but it most assuredly needs to understand whether they can achieve any given one, be it worthwhile or not. And that is where I see benefit from a professional General Staff. Even if the political actors are amateurs, the DOD should not adopt the same. We are talking lives here.

  17. Although I served for 22 years I never had duty in the Pentagon or at national level, it was mostly at troop level or low level staff work. So I will say in advance my question and comment may be naive. Be forewarned. I see both good points and bad points in the proposal.

    Why would a professional General Staff imperil the democracy any more than the career officer corps we have now? But then perhaps if the General Staff leadership were picked by political appointment then it could concentrate more power into the Executive Branch as Chief suggested - or maybe not?? But Generals and Admirals get political already and suck up to and brown-nose civilian elective office holders in both the Exec and the Legislative branches even without a professional GS. How were von Schlieffen and others like him selected?

    ISTM that it may not work well in a joint environment. Strategy would define resources so there would still be major interservice rivalries. How do you divorce the officers assigned from their branch of service? Should officers assigned be made to serve tours in all branches? Or should it be a fifth service, true purple suits with no prior service in the Army, Navy, AF, or USMC - I cannot picture that as happening? Perhaps a separate academy equal to or better than Annapolis, the Point, or Colorado Springs - too expensive probably? Should one branch of service be dominant - I can't see that happening either?



  18. mike-

    Never did a SecDef intrude in the internal selections of senior officers as did Rummy. In fact, he found the existing selection process distasteful, and wanted all flag officer selections to be political appointments, without promotion board involvement. When he sent his first legislation proposal for this to the Hill, he made it very clear that Service Chiefs and CJCS terms should follow presidential terms, so that no president should have generals he didn't select for the job. Additionally, he wanted ALL officers assigned to the Joint Staff to be selected by OSD, not their own service. In short, he wanted the officer corps to truly be political appointees of the Executive Branch. Fortunately Congress thought otherwise.

    Rummy was also frustrated by flag officers within the services who he could not unseat, as they filled key within service billets. So he (or one of his pals)"Roved" a couple by entertaining allegations of misconduct, putting them in the services' flag officer holding detachments while a dragged out "investigation" looked into the allegations, and then when no basis for the allegations were found, simply pushed them to retire and let his hand picked "temporary replacement" continue in the job. A three star acquaintance of mine on the DA Staff was subjected to this very treatment. Or, he marginalized folks like GEN Shinseki.

    Rummy's proposed legislation and Byzantine machinations show that there was a modest firewall between the executive and the uniformed military personnel. While the executive commands the military, he still had great difficulty manipulating the personnel within the military as he desired. Thank heavens for the law and Congress' refusal to change it. While Rummy was still able to do some profound damage to the quality of the senior officer corps, he still faced enough legal limitations to preclude a total politicization of it. Close, but no cigar, but it take years to undo the damage, in my view.

    With an AVF that is in no way representative of the people, and transients in the highest military positions for long term analysis and planning, I just wonder.

  19. And for those who offer Nazi Germany as a reason against a professional general staff, I would suggest you read up a bit about the constant resistance from within same. And, when things really turned sour for the country, it was the military staff people that were involved in most of the attempts to eliminate Hitler. One reason for the Gestapo was to prevent the military from seeing country before leader.

  20. Mike-

    Also was successful in avoiding D.C. duty. Was to be my final assignment, so retirement became ever so much more attractive - and it did so.

    That said, I did have two assignments that involved regular and routine involvement with DA staff, and one sort of "dual hatted" at Third Army with some duties at CENTCOM. Our system pretty much lays area analysis and strategic thinking on the Combatant Commands, which tends to get bogged down at the operational level. At least in my experience. The DA agencies I dealt with were also a bit too internal focused.

  21. "Was there a General Staff at the OKW level with participation by the Heer, the Kriegsmarine and the Luftwaffe?"

    OKW was the General Staff.

    The difference between Heer and Luftwaffe was almost irrelevant among generals because the Luftwaffe had been born out of the Heer only in 1935. That's why a Luftwaffe field marshal (Kesselring) was a competent land campaign leader, for example. So all air force generals had army roots and there was probably less inter-service infighting than infighting between Goering and his generals.

  22. Herr Ortmann:

    I understand that "Smiling Al" Kesselring saw service in observation balloons during Whiskey Whiskey Uno....thereby possessing an acute appreciation for terrain.

  23. Al commented:

    "Rummy's proposed legislation and Byzantine machinations show that there was a modest firewall between the executive and the uniformed military personnel. While the executive commands the military, he still had great difficulty manipulating the personnel within the military as he desired. Thank heavens for the law and Congress' refusal to change it. While Rummy was still able to do some profound damage to the quality of the senior officer corps, he still faced enough legal limitations to preclude a total politicization of it."

    Imo this shows that actual danger, as opposed to any political interference from an actual GS. It is the radical politicalization of the military by the Radical Right that is the actual danger. Obama's continuing political failure will only makes this more likely to be decisive after 2012 . . .

  24. fasteddiez,
    How much terrain appreciation did Smiling Alfred need?
    He was on a skinny little bit of land- how much brains was needed to defend the Gustav line?
    His only saving grace was the sluggish nature of the Allied Cdrs.
    I will have to give him the praise of pulling exquisite withdrawals under enemy pressure.

  25. seydlitz - Thanks for the tip on Gorlitz, I'll try his version.

    Sven - My bad regarding the OKW. I had read somewhere that they were Hitler's personal staff rather than a general Staff, at least after 1941. Were they actually strategizing, or just trying to pull the Fuhrer's screw-ups out of the fire?

  26. mike-

    Were they actually strategizing, or just trying to pull the Fuhrer's screw-ups out of the fire?

    Does the fact that this question is even possible give some credence to the value of a professional GS?


    I think you have a grasp of the "directionality" issue. Which is more likely in the US Constitutional model, politicians maneuvering a general staff of "transients", or a well established, professional general staff maneuvering the politicians?

    George Marshall was intent on stability and longevity of good staff officers in the War Dept during WWII. Even he gracefully accepted being denied a combat command for the greater good he was providing as a brilliant staff weenie. His "89 division" decision was in no way popular with combatant commanders, but he very prudently held to that, balancing the clamor for more divisions against the larger picture of US manpower and civilian war production needs.

  27. Al-

    Yes, "directionality" is an element of our political system if I follow you correctly, but I'm talking about something else and I think this goes to the heart of your comment I highlighted. Rumsfeld was attempting to politicize the military to further a specific policy/world view which saw - or rather hoped to swindle the American people into believing - as being a "war of civilizations" . . . That is global, existential and of indeterminate duration (essentially "generational) in nature.

    This is something truly radical in US history . . . and looked at from this perspective one sees specific similarities between what has been going on in the US and what happened in Germany under National Socialism. Not to abuse the analogy, but there are striking similarities in the radical overturning of national values/virtues as a pretext to seizing and exercising absolute power . . . the main distinction is perhaps whereas the German example was one of mass mobilization, the American is one of mass stupification (although the German example involved that as well) . . .

  28. Seydlitz, didn't you see this "stupification" happening under ,@ least, Wilson, onward? (i would argue earlier). Especially since 1913. It's just more of the same. Nothing new under the sun. And the beat goes on. Keep on rocking in the "free world".