Leadership: Sergeant Bilko Gets The Shaft


August 19, 2009: Now the U.S. Army is reviving a program that the U.S. Navy recently adopted, and scrutinizing its senior NCO ranks, to see which sergeants are not up to the job. Some 19,000 senior NCOs (3,000 E9 Sergeants Major, 9,000 E8 Master Sergeants/First Sergeants and 7,000 E7 Sergeants First Class/Platoon Sergeants) will have their records gone over for evidence of poor performance and future problems. This is the Qualitative Management Program (QMP), which was suspended when Iraq was invaded, when it became clear that the army would need every NCO it could get.

But that often proved to be false economy. QMP was originally established to deal with an ancient problem; senior sergeants who turned bad, but had learned enough about the system to avoid detection or punishment. Anyone who has served in the army in the last century knows of these shady senior NCOs, and learned to fear and avoid them. These rascals were so well known, and even admired, that a popular TV show came along in 1955, "Sergeant Bilko" featuring a somewhat sanitized version of one of these rogue NCOs.

Based on past experience, the army expects to uncover about 400 sergeants who will be forced to retire or not allowed to re-enlist. Some will be prosecuted, as dozens already have been. The others will get an Honorable Discharge, and get to keep their retirement benefits. There were many opportunities for ethically challenged NCOs in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the army finally woke up to the problem, and the cure they already had. The only downside is that some NCOs, who got written up for "doing the right thing" will also get the boot. The army says that it will take situations like this into account.

The U.S. Navy only recently adopted their version of QMP. Rarely has the navy culled the ranks of its senior NCOs (Chief Petty Officers). While officers command the navy, and the ships, it's the "Chiefs" who run the navy. Those chiefs with over twenty years service (and thus eligible for retirement at half pay) are considered the most essential, and these are the ones being reviewed now.

Review boards are being established to measure the performance, over the past five years, of all the most senior chiefs. Anyone with disciplinary problems, or low performance evaluations, will be forced to retire. This will cost those chiefs a lot of money, because those with less than 30 years service, will lose out on the 75 percent pay you get when you retire at 30 or more years. The navy is not setting any quotas for how many chiefs to boot, they just want the low performers gone.

Aside from wanting to improve the quality of the senior NCO force, the additional retirements make it possible for more qualified chiefs to get promoted, and for junior NCOs to become chiefs. Because of the recession, more senior chiefs are putting off retirement, and promotions to chief have slowed.

Unlike the army, which is expanding, the navy effort to eliminate underperforming chiefs is part of a larger downsizing program; "Perform To Serve" (PTS), that was instituted six years ago. PTS is an effort to get rid of people the navy doesn't need (not possessing needed skills) or want (disciplinary or physical fitness problems). Initially only first term sailors, seeking to reenlist, had to basically reapply for their jobs. Recently, junior NCOs also had to do so, including those with 10-14 years of service. Last year, 90 percent of those who applied, kept their jobs. The other ten percent were either offered a job in another area, or told they could not reenlist.

Changing technology has caused shortages in some jobs, and surpluses in others. The PTS program allows sailors in overmanned jobs to take aptitude tests to see if they qualify for training in another job. Some sailors can't make the cut, and have to leave.

There are other programs for determining who has to leave. For example, it was recently made easier for officers and NCOs eligible for retirement (having served at least twenty years) to leave before their current contract was up (NCOs re-enlist for 4-6 years at a time, while officers have contracts to do basically the same thing). In addition, the navy is letting some younger sailors get out a year or two before their current contract is up, if they are in job categories that are overmanned.

The navy currently has a strength of 332,000, and wants to get that down to 326,000 within the next two years. At the same time, the navy wants to keep scarce, hard-to-train and difficult-to-keep technical specialists. In particular, there are always shortages of nuclear power techs for submarines, and special operations troops (SEALs and their support people). And then there are the new recruits, most of whom are only in (deliberately) for one term (usually four years). These have to be replaced, along with those who stay in, but later decide to get out. There's less of this with a recession going on.


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