Risk Aversion in the US Army Officer Corps

William Bell

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I would like to talk to you about the growth of a risk averse officer corps in the American Amy. This phenomenon is quite possibly the greatest danger facing our Army today. It literally undermines everything that our Army is supposed to value and stand for: personal courage, selfless service, loyalty, integrity etc.

First I must answer the question, what is risk aversion? Simply put, it is a reluctance to take risks or make decisions that may fail to accomplish the individualís desired ends or goals. The risks of potentially being considered wrong are believed to far outweigh the possible benefits of being right. The popular term for this is the creation of a zero defect mentality. Another frequently used term is rampant careerism. One of the most risky behaviors and the first casualty in any risk averse organization is the ability or willingness to trust either peers, subordinates, superiors, or the organization as a whole. Bluntly put, a risk averse officer corps makes many of the discussions at this conference of values education moot as individuals will not trust the Army to live up to them. Officially stating the values of an organization and then formally educating an organizations members on them is only of limited utility IF the members of the organization donít believe that it follows them. People over time believe what is demonstrated to them, NOT what they are told in a classroom setting or on a wallet size card. If values are not conveyed down as well as up in any organization, they are counterproductive. That is the case today in the Army.

What are some of the symptoms of growing risk aversion among the Army officer corps? The signs are diverse and numerous. Infrequent contacts with senior raters continue to be viewed as increasingly important. Each and every fleeting contact is orchestrated to create the best possible perception. The creation of these perceptions becomes more important than reality. Patronage is seen as increasingly valuable and necessary to more and more junior officers. High level staff and joint assignments are more sought than troop duty. Troop duty is viewed as too risky beyond the minimum necessary to qualify for promotion and high level staff jobs means that it is more likely that critical general and senior officer contacts will be made. Branch assignment officers are popularly perceived as spending most of their time providing personal service to the top 20% of the branch, as the assignment officers may need these officers in the future. Getting the next career advancing assignment is believed to be more important than doing oneís job of the moment. If an officerís focus is not up versus down, he will soon be non-select or shuffled of to a dead end job.

Challenging training events, like night live fires, are routinely curtailed or not considered at all, because the commanders view them as not worth the career risk. When these events do occur, they are so tightly controlled as to lose their training value. Operation orders and commanders guidanceís are increasingly lengthy and detailed as nothing can be left to chance or subordinate initiative. This is done to preclude subordinate decisions that could reflect badly on the commander. Commanders in the field or at the NTC find they are getting less and less sleep for the same reason. Furthermore, unit commanders at the NTC are seen as selecting more and more doctrinal, predictable solutions to tactical problems, with predictable results. After all, if an imaginative solution fails, it can be much more criticized than a failed doctrinally correct one.

Commanders are spending more time in their headquarters and less time out with their troops. After all, if you donít see a problem, you canít be blamed. And you can always pass the blame to the subordinate when the problem occurred. You are also readily available if youíre rater or senior rater call, because they are also staying in their offices. Commanders are focusing more on short term, easy successes in order to make a name for themselves, instead of accepting any degradation in support of the real long-term needs of their units.

Readiness reports are increasingly viewed as imaginative interpretations of truth, rather than an accurate assessment of the unitís posture. Problems are not reported up the chain of command unless they either become quite severe or they are less then those reported by oneís peers. The early reporting of problems is not routinely done, because they will be interpreted as leadership failures. As each level of the chain of command is loath to report problems, by the time an issue gets up to the highest levels, the situation at the lowest levels is approaching disaster.

Field grade officers are leaving the Army early despite being considered "vested" by the system and relatively well paid. Colonels that were felt "safe" till mandatory retirement at 30 years are departing in larger numbers at 26 years. Opportunities to command are being declined. Lieutenant colonels are departing at 20 years. The senior leadership is surprised by the departure of many of them as they were considered their best and brightest. Field grade promotion boards are being instructed to give additional consideration to "above the zone" officers to fill the ranks.

Senior leadership is believed by many to be overly politicized and uncaring about those in the field beyond their own career aspirations. The lack of trust and the careerism among those serving the senior leadership ensures that bad news is muted or delayed until too late. The lack of useful, blunt information to those senior leaders puts many into a sort of cognitive dissonance or denial about the risk aversion problems within the Army. The senior leadership appears more concerned with forwarding politically correct agendas than meeting the needs of their service in any case.

There are common threads from the above examples. Each indicates a lack of trust within the organization. Superiors arenít trusting their subordinates or peers, the subordinates donít trust their superiors or peers, and no one trusts the "the system." Every statement or policy from on high is viewed with increasing suspicion. "I" has almost completely replaced "we" in the minds of most officers as necessary for career survival. Courtney Massingale has replaced Sam Damon in our actions. Risk takers are admired, but rarely emulated. Officers putting values and others ahead of self are quickly forced out of the mainstream. Those that remain in the Army adopt the real values of the careerist organization and continually reinforce a kind of risk averse do-loop. Excesses in political correctness are believed more virtuous that the rendering of objective facts. Every example is one of rampant careerism. Every example is demonstration of an officer corps that believes the Armyís stated values are just one more institutional hypocrisy.

The next obvious questions are: how did this occur? What happened in the Army that caused this to happen? Why has the senior leadership allowed this to continue?

The prevailing opinion in the Pentagon of risk aversion, when it is discussed at all, is that it is either a result of the downsizing that was forced upon the Army or a result of declining budgets. This conveniently puts the blame on factors external to the Army and avoids any culpability on the part of the leaders. This is simply not true.

Others assume that when the downsizing stops, the careerism and zero defects will also stop and things will return a pre-Gulf War normalcy. This is also not true. The Army was on the long slippery slope to its current state long before the downsizing got under way and all indications are that it will likely continue long after the downsizing ends.

Before I discuss the roots of the Armyís problem, I must digress and model in general terms how things work in policy formulation, because it is by its policies that the Army has created the problem of risk aversion.

The Army, like any public organization, creates policies to improve organizational effectiveness. [I say public organization, because in private organizations, the emphasis is usually on fiscal efficiency.] The Armyís policy change options are limited by the needs of fiscal efficiency and by bureaucratic resistance. All this means that, generally, the Army puts easily achievable policies in place to achieve specific, usually short-term goals that are reasonably acceptable by the bureaucracy. Branch qualified captains were sent to be reserve component advisors to meet training shortfalls in reserve and National Guard units because it was relatively easy to do and it seemed like it should solve the problem. Lieutenants were taken out tactical units and sent to basic training to meet perceived post-Aberdeen requirements for the same reason. Both of these examples were implemented without any real regard to the long-term impacts on the officer corps. I have yet to talk to someone who doesnít believe that these officers are significantly behind their peers by these assignments.

There are several problems that this short range view cause, however, that are poorly understood by the Army. First and foremost is that every policy has unintended consequences. Every single one. In the short duration view of the Army caused by the rapid and continual rotation of policy makers these get masked as these unintended consequences develop very slowly over time.

The second problem that is poorly understood is that no policy exists alone. Every policy interacts over time with every other policy. The unintended consequences of each policy combine with the unintended consequences of all of the other policies. The result is like the accumulation of grit in an engine or transmission.

The third problem is that the Army generally fails to monitor these impacts over time. I was recently told "although the Army does a great job gathering data, it is criminal what they do with the information." Policies and people tend to exist within stovepipes. The people responsible for efficiency report development are not the same people responsible for investigating Gulf War syndrome yet both of these groups, and many others, have a part to play in the growth of risk aversion in the Army. Each group only focuses on their small area and no one is responsible for looking at long term unintended synergistic trends. For example, despite the growing concerns about leadership performance at the National Training Center, there is no one at the Center For Army Lessons Learned looking at the root causes of these increasingly negative trends.

The last problem that prevents the Army from addressing the problem is the fact that the senior leaders generally owe their success in the Army to their adaptation to these paradigms. In a politicized, risk averse organization, the most successful members will be those that have adapted their behavior to the apparent and regularly demonstrated vales of the organization while publicly expressing their support of the supposedly stated values of the organization. To put it another way, officers get promoted by stating their belief in courage, selfless service, and candor, but acting with timidity, extreme tact, and self centered service. The senior leadership would have to repudiate their own successes to accept risk aversion as a problem. In general, most have been co-opted by the system, or they could never have become senior leaders. This is not a prescription for successful reform.

The unintended consequences of Army policies can be placed into three distinct groups based on their effects on the officer corps. The first is what I call the Operational Experience Group. Many authors and studies have noted that risk taking is absolutely necessary to be successful in war. It follows that more experience a person has at the tactical unit level, the more experience he or she gains and the more willing they will be to take risks. Therefore, if a policy or set of policies increases the tactical experience level of the officer corps, it will contribute to risk taking. If the same policies decrease the tactical experience level, it will increase risk aversion.

Army policies of the last 20 years have been overwhelmingly negative in reference to tactical experience. Overlaid on continuing trends toward CENTRALIZATION and EMPHASIS ON GENERALIST instead of specialists were a host of policies that took officers out of units to meet competing demands and legislated requirements. GOLDWATER-NICHOLS pushed far more field grade officers out of an extra year as battalion XOís and operation officers and into joint assignments. BRANCH QUALIFIED CAPTAINs were diverted out of battalion and brigade staff jobs to fill reserve component training needs. A shortage of these CAPTAINs developed so company command length was shortened. TRAINING FUND SHORTAGES began to impact in about 1995 so unit commanders went to the field far less. FIELD GRADE OFFICER SHORTAGES developed as an increasing number of them left the Army. Promotion boards are now being advised to give extra consideration to those already passed over. This is still not meeting the departure rate. My branch can currently fill about 50% of its requirements. The result of this is that officers are being regularly "bumped up" to fill vacancies, further cutting into experience. Last year, as a result of Aberdeen, a decision was made to take 100 LIEUTENANTS out of units and place them to be XOís or administrative officers, IN BASIC TRAINING COMPANIES. At the same time, there was a REDUCTION IN TIME REQUIRED FOR PROMOTION TO CAPTAIN.

I am not saying that these policies were, by themselves, bad. I am saying that the combined unintended impacts of these policies on the operational experience has been horrible. Today, battalion commanders with around 18 years of Army experience are assuming command with only 5-6 years of actual tactical unit experience. The results at NTC are showing a continuing decline in unit performance. They have recently widened the exercise box there to give more advantages to the visiting units. The resultÖNO IMPACT as the units are not experienced enough to take advantage of the additional maneuver space. This hardly bodes well for our future warfighting capability.

The second distinct grouping of unintended consequences I call the PERCEIVED CAREER IMPACTS GROUP. The rationale here is that if a policy creates an environment in which risk taking is rewarded, this is good; and if risk taking potential punishments are greater than possible rewards, that is bad. The first of these began in 1979 with the introduction of a NEW OFFICER EFFICIENCY REPORT. There is much more detail on how this impacted the officer corps available in my paper on the JSCOPE web site, but suffice it to say that the complete shift from a balanced rater/senior rater evaluation to one which put your entire career in the hands of someone with whom you have, at best, infrequent contacts, radically changed the psychology of the officer corps. Starting in 1991, the downsizing eliminated to BOTTOM ONE THIRD of each year group. Those considered in the middle third were now in the bottom half. This was compounded by the Armyís decision to stretch out the downsizing. Although this was done for good reasons, it failed to take into account probable political pressures to cut more and more. The result- the downsizing continues to this day. Consider that the future of the Army, its company grade officers, have ONLY KNOWN THE DOWNSIZING THEIR ENTIRE MILITARY CAREERS. With the downsizing promotion boards are no longer seen as looking for reasons to promote; rather they are scrutinizing records for reasons NOT to promote. The impact on the willingness to take risks is obvious. I believe this also accounts for many of our junior officer retention problems. And consider the psychology of those that remain.

The last category of unintended consequences I call the DEMONSTRATED VALUES GROUP. I believe that an individual will only trust an organization IF it is believed to act in accordance with its stated values. Every time an organization is seen to act contrary to its values, a credibility gap is created. The greater this gap becomes, the more cynically subsequent statements of values by the senior leadership are viewed. Trust is undermined. And it is far easier to lose trust and credibility, than regain it.

The Army has lost the trust of its officer corps. Everything from AWARDS POLICIES, AFFIRMATIVE ACTION QUOTAS, continuing BENEFITS EROSION, GULF WAR SYNDROME, SENIOR OFFICER SILENCE over readiness, SENIOR OFFICER SCANDALS and ABERDEEN, CONCEALING OF SURVEY RESULTS, and DEGRADATION OF SUPPORT OF FAMILIES have all eroded this trust. Even the PRESIDENTIAL SCANDALS have played a role in this. In business and industry, if the senior leadership loses the trust of its members, they are replaced. The military has no such option.

There is one other wild card category and I call this External Influences. There are a number of societal and cultural trends that would be contributing to the development of risk aversion EVEN IF NONE OF THE OTHER POLICIES HAD EVER HAPPENED. Among these are the LACK OF A VISIBLE THREAT, STRONG NATIONAL ECONOMY, POLITICAL CASUALTY AVERSION, and an increasingly married and older force. Added to these is the continuing trend first noted by Morris Janowitz of the military being increasingly viewed as "JUST ANOTHER JOB" and the growth of the "POST MODERN MORALITY" in America.

When you consider all four groups of unintended consequences operating together for the last 20 years, it would have been a miracle if risk aversion had not developed. But there is substantial evidence that many of these trends have been going on since at least the passing of the 1947 Officer Personnel Act with its introduction of "UP OR OUT" and emphasis on a TWENTY YEAR CAREER. Some place the real genesis even earlier to the reforms of Emory Upton and Elihu Root and the introduction of the individual replacement system during WWI.

The last item I would like to mention is that it doesnít have to be this way. Another country this century went through a downsizing of many millions to only 100,00 after losing a war. After just twenty years of this downsizing, their army was arguably the best in the world. I am speaking, of course, about the German Army of 1918. They were able to do this incredible feat, despite the hyperinflation of the 1920ís and the depression of the 1930ís, by focusing of the creation of an experienced, risk taking officer corps that had the trust of their senior leadership and trusted them in turn. If we donít get a handle of our risk aversion and trust problems in the Army, we will likely pay in blood on a future battlefield.

I would like to thank the JSCOPE COMMITTEE and all of you for allowing me to make this presentation. I will look forward to your questions and panel discussion. My email address is also available at the JSCOPE web site. Thank you for your attention.