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Sling and the Stone: Personnel (Pt. II)

This is Part II of an N part series on The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century, by Col. Thomas X. Hammes.
Read Part I here.


The problems of communication, coordination, and cooperation in the American intelligence community are well-documented, and they are shared by the US Armed Forces. For information to be move across channels, it must travel vertically all the way up the chain-of-command, gaining “approval” at each step, and then passed down once again. Hammes advocates freeing personnel to share information laterally, from Marine Colonels to Army privates to State Department employees.

Hammes wants to free soldiers from bureaucratic constraints, reward soldiers for creativity, leading amidst chaos, empowering subordinates and peers, and developing relevant skills. For this to occur, not only the vertical, approval-based hierarchy needs to change, but the personnel system needs an overhaul.

The personnel system mirrors the vertical nature of the organization as a whole (it was last updated at the turn of the 20th century by Secretary of War Elihu Root … a Roosevelt boy). Top-down evaluation hurts risk-takers, and should be altered to incorporate a 360-degree assessment of the individual, taking into account the perceptions of not only superiors, but peers and subordinates.

This is a bit of a tricky issue. I’ve talked with a lot of people with a great deal of military experience who hate being assessed by their peers (I can only imagine their subordinates.)

Their argument is that the only thing that matters at the end of the day is you doing your job to your superior’s satisfaction. There is something to be said for that. What this perspective misses, however, is that both peers and subordinates offer useful nuggets of information on a leader, even if they are buried under pissy pettiness. An example I quite like is professor evaluation, which works quite well and suggests that subordinate assessment actually can work quite well. 360-degree assessment makes it clear to a soldier that his job is not only performing all the tasks his superior can measure, but getting the most out of subordinates and working with peers to maximize development and performance.

Beyond assessment, the Armed Forces must change the way it educates and trains soldiers. In education, a greater premium must be placed on history and sciences, as well as chaos/complexity and network theories. The latter especially lends itself to Hammes’ fourth-generation framework, as soldiers must not seek certainty, but understand the underlying patterns of chaos, while also understanding the enemy not as individual elements, but as complex networks.

With regards to training, the Armed Forces must move away from set-pieces with clear objectives, clear friends and foes. In my training I participated in OPFOR training, which Hammes critiques in particular. The OPFOR training amounted to one group of soldiers playing the role of enemy (OPFOR), defending a bunker, performing an ambush, etc., while the other soldiers are given an assignment, such as search-and-destroy enemies in this sector. In Officer Candidate School (OCS), candidates are assessed based on their ability to make decisions and effectively communicate as leaders in these scenarios.

While these scenarios were fine for weeding out the brutally incompetent at OCS, I agree with Hammes that OPFOR training fails to reproduce the dynamic, chaotic environment of fourth-generation warfare. Hammes advocates “free-play exercises,” such as providing security in a real town, in an attempt to mirror the chaos of the reality of fourth-generation warfare. Some of these exercises would be more resource-intensive (e.g., the above example), but not all; in fact, Hammes raises the idea of using online role-playing games, possibly opening it up to the public to test soldiers’ abilities to respond to the chaos.

I find this idea fascinating. Simulators have transformed training in other areas, such as flight, but have yet to be utilized to their full effect. I believe there are steps being taken in this direction, and I am anxious to see how we can make the Playstation generation pay off.

I’ll conclude this installment by raising an important point. Given Hammes’ emphasis on the evolution of warfare – and his criticism of states insistent on fighting the last war (e.g., the French in World War II) – it would be prudent to question whether Hammes’ reforms would only set the US up for failure when confronted by fifth-generation warfare.

Hammes insists though that whether the next generation of warfare is cyberwar, nuclear-powered individuals or small-groups, or something else, a more decentralized, flat organization would be better prepared to not only engage enemies in fourth-generation warfare, but also to respond changes in warfare itself, just as Google is better able to recognize and take advantage of changing market dynamics than its more hierarchical competition.

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