Leadership: May 8, 2005


Is it time for the military to get rid of a lot of their officers? This is an idea thats been building for some time. The problem is that, for centuries, being an officer in the military usually meant that you led troops, or sailors, in combat. Support jobs were taken care of by civilians, with bureaucrats to supervise that effort. But in the last century, its become customary to have troops doing a lot of the support jobs, with officers to supervise. Its reached the point where only a tiny minority of the officers have anything to do with leading troops in combat. For example, the U.S. Army has over a hundred colonels for every combat brigade. For a long time, the main job of colonels was to lead combat brigades or regiments. Now, most of them are in charge of various support functions, from maintenance to transportation. Same situation in the navy, where there are about a hundred captains for every ship. Time once was, captains were for commanding ships. Now, most of then do everything but. 

Naturally, the military has adapted to this absurd situation. If you know what to look for, you can see the special medals, ribbons or badges that identify officers who actually command combat troops. But part of this adaptation has been the absurd situation where even the officers selected and trained to command combat units, spend most of their time doing something else. For several generations, this has been justified as needed to have a supply of trained officers for a wartime expansion of the army. But the mass army is now obsolete. Smaller forces, staffed by highly trained professionals, are much more effective. So what is to be done with all these surplus officers?

Some 14 percent of the people in the U.S. Army are officers. This is partly justified by the need to offer competitive pay for technical specialists. But the army is stuck, by tradition and bureaucratic inertia, with making highly sought after specialists officers, because the pay scales follow a rigid, and ancient, progression, from recruit, up through the NCO and officer ranks. Historically, the most effective armed forces were those that had only about five percent of their strength are officers. Back in the day, technical jobs were given to civilian professionals, who remained civilians. The American military has been doing that too, especially for experts who were only needed for short periods. Moreover, the army also adapted by using the Warrant Officer rank for technical specialists. Without these two improvisations, the American army would be nearly twenty percent officers. 

Recruiting specialists is getting harder, not easier. Instead of pretending that a logistics expert is a colonel, equal in leadership ability with an infantry colonel, why not just expand the warrant officer program? The army knows that the warrant officer system works in combat situations. For half a century, most of the armys pilots have been warrant officers, with a small number of commissioned officer pilots to fill the leadership positions. Thousands of other technical jobs are filled with warrant officers. But the army has always backed off from admitting that most of their commissioned officers were actually warrant officers in all but name. 

The military shouldnt be shy about paying extra for hard-to-find specialists. Theyve been doing this with medical doctors for decades, and now do it with Special Forces troops, including NCOs. No one begrudges the hot-shots getting paid what theyre worth. And the highly paid specialists have no problem taking orders from officers who outrank them, but get paid less. The military is lurching in the direction of paying for what it needs, and recognizing people for what they do. When money gets tight enough, or someone in charge gets smart and brave enough, the changes will come, and reality will replace the expensive and confusing myths. 


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