Ash Carter’s Plan to Promote Civilians to High Military Ranks: One Soldier’s Response

US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter is to visit a US warship in Philippine-claimed waters of the hotly contested South China Sea

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has been busy making bad decisions that are damaging our military, such as allowing women to join rough combat arms outfits where they will be killed disproportionately.

In his latest idea, Carter proposes taking civilians off the street and promoting them to ranks as high as Colonel.

I asked a friend who is a retired infantry officer who commanded in Iraq and Afghanistan. He wishes to remain anonymous but I can say from personal experience that he was an excellent Commander.

His response:

I applaud the idea to seek out experts. However, I think it is irrational to think that the people they really want or need will volunteer for this program or will adapt well to being in uniform. What this program really means is that DoD has not found and promoted the correct people to lead the organization in directions they think are important. The problem is that they want to bring these people in to think for military leaders about new technologies rather than to teach military leaders how to think about new technologies.

We already have programs that can commission experts up to 0-6. Historically, some have even been brought in as GOs (this probably has not happened for a long time). These programs are typically limited and tightly controlled. They can be an important tool to overcome shortfalls.

The approach is OK for exceptions and emergencies. Unfortunately, I believe the reason this is being considered is because DoD refuses to update officer training and education to take advantage of new technologies. 

The experts that are going to be brought into senior positions will not understand the military. The military people—who have not been trained or educated in modern technology—will not understand the technology at all.

New technology invariably introduces inefficiencies into old procedures. This is why processes and procedures have to change—to take advantage of the new and unimagined capabilities that the technology affords people and organizations. This is any technology and not just IT. Because military leaders do not understand the potential of IT in the post-9/11 world, you will note that staff planning, staff organizations, and other procedures have not changed much.

For example, when rifled muskets were introduced as the norm in infantry warfare, it slowed down reloading procedures considerably. This was a serious deficiency. However, it increased the casualty producing capability of infantry weapons because of better accuracy and range. This contributed to the horrific casualties in our own Civil War. Most units did not change how formations maneuvered and they took more casualties. Those units that adopted more open order formations had fewer casualties because they changed procedures to take advantage of the new technologies. So even though reloading was slower, the other capabilities of the new technology were so much better that the infantry had more opportunities to accomplish their core objective—better maneuver to defeat the enemy. Units that realized this and modified how they did business had better results than those that did not. 

Today is the same. DoD refuses to change and learn to take advantage of new capabilities—it wants to outsource thinking to “experts” because they think it is easier. This will fail and create more friction within the leadership, increase inefficiency, and ensure long-term incompetence.

If DoD wanted to bring in a few of these people to get DoD thinking on the right track, so leaders could think well for themselves, it might be a good idea. But I think DoD is just being intellectually lazy and does not want to change, so it is going to find outside experts, put them in uniform, and allow them to think for them about what is, in reality, everyday technology (social media, cloud systems, the internet, etc.). 

The idea that a Zuckerberg would want a lateral entry into the Army is absurd. Furthermore, someone like him would likely do far more damage than good because his thinking about all kinds of issues could  undermine military discipline.  

Finally, the military bureaucracy would not be as flexible as he might desire or need if he were to attempt to implement big ideas and solve big data problems.