Today’s generals and admirals don’t have the skills to address tomorrow’s military challenges, a new report concludes. Just because you’re a good soldier doesn’t mean you’re a good office manager.
Retired Lt. Gen. Dave Barno, a former top commander in Afghanistan, said that the military’s top leaders have been through 12 years of demanding conflicts in two different theaters of war, but that has not prepared them for the enterprise side of managing in the Department of Defense. He’s the author of a new report released today by the Center for a New American Security addressing this concern. “Since 2003, we fought a very long, bloody war in Iraq alongside the one in Afghanistan,” he said. “And the general officer corps, and in many cases admirals in the Navy, have been deeply involved in this. For the last decade, it has been in some ways their entire focus. So, their ability to have broadening assignments and even have their normal educational opportunities to grow into their positions and to learn the bigger enterprise of defense has been missing in a lot of ways.”
Barno told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp incoming generals need time to learn how to do their jobs.
These days, it’s rare for a general to have an assignment last four or five years. Typically, tours of duty last only one or two years, which doesn’t allow them the opportunity to really learn their jobs in depth, Barno said.
“One of our recommendations is to make some significant changes to how long we keep successful people in their positions,” Barno.
Looking back over 40 years, Barno said he found shorter tours to be a relatively recent phenomenon. For example, Adm. Hyman Rickover, who many considered the father of the Navy’s nuclear propulsion program, held his job for more than three decades. More recently, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal was commander of the Joint Special Operations Command for five years.
It’s not just how much time officers spend on an assignment, it’s also the lack of scope in the work they’re focused on, Barno said. Officers specialize on combat and combat-related tasks, usually through the first 20 years of their careers. After that, though, as they become flag officers, those same officers are expected to acquire a whole new skill set.
“They’re expected to go from being very, very proficient at a fairly narrow set of skills, in some ways, to being good at everything,” Barno said. “That’s where the term general comes from. They are generalists. But the world that they’re going to inherent looks a lot less like the combat or combat-support environment they grew up in. It looks a lot like corporate business.”
Barno found that two-thirds of what general-rank officers do is “managing the enterprise” of the military, something they have very little experience doing.
“They can sometimes fall short when they’re put in those positions, which are the predominant positions they find as flag officers,” Barno said.
He recommended that at about the selection point for a two-star general, an officer should be put in one of two tracks. The first track would focus on combat, where an officer would continue to receive warfighting training so he or she could continue to lead the military’s warfighting effort.
The second would be an enterprise track, which accounts for more than half of all the general and admiral positions in the military.
Barno said this track would resemble an MBA program that would provide “an education in how to run our corporate enterprise, which the Defense Department is perhaps one of the largest in the world. They need something like that.”
The study also found education for generals and admirals drops significantly when compared to the first 20 years of their careers.
“Once you become a general, you can count your educational opportunities in days or weeks,” Barno said. “For an additional 15 or 20 years of service, that just doesn’t seem to make sense to us.”
Sequestration and budget cuts have impacted the entire military, so it’s not surprising that funding for training senior officers remains tight — not just for general ranks either, but for up and coming majors and lieutenant colonels, who will be the military’s future leaders.
In addition, the report suggests the military expand the opportunities for officers in their first 20 years to learn more about enterprise. Some of that may include training with industry and seeing how non-defense agencies do their work.
DoD should also look at expanding opportunities for graduate-level education and training, according to the report.
“That has diminished by probably 75 percent of what it was when I was a junior officer, just primarily due to budget cuts,” Barno said. “That’s an incredible opportunity for officers to get to know their counterparts out there in the broader population by being in civilian graduate schools, and also just broaden their horizons beyond the very narrow military warfighting focus.”
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, which airs from 6-8 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, D.C. region and online everywhere. Tom has 30 years experience in journalism, mostly in technology markets. Before coming to Federal News Radio, he was a long-serving editor-in-chief of Government Computer News and Washington Technology magazines.