In his blog at Fleet Forces Command, Admiral J. C. Harvey has presented us with the question that dominates the American military during times of shrinking budgets and uncertain policies. Though framed in the context of Fleet Forces Command, the question he asks is germane to units at all levels of command, across the entire of DoD as a whole. The question, identifying the difference between taking risks and lowering standards, drives perhaps the majority of concerns expressed in forums like this one. And in the first decade of the 21st Century, there is added complication.

The simple answer to the question is that risk is (theoretically) a calculation between potential gain and possible loss. The assumption of risk is thought of as an informed decision, for which at least some mitigation is possible. A lowering of standards, on the other hand, has a potentially much wider and more permanent impact on capability. Lowering of standards, of course, involves risk, but the amount of risk becomes increasingly unclear as levels of proficiency decline and acceptable errors rise. This is true in business and industry, true in medicine, and holds true in military matters.

When both resources (including manpower) and proficiency decline, maintenance of standards becomes increasingly difficult. At some point, standards cannot be maintained. Industry and medicine have sophisticated metrics for tracking the second-order and third order trends that indicate performance. In the military, despite some limited ability to do so (though false metrics are legion, especially in trying to evaluate combat units), there are two distinct characteristics of today’s military organizations that render the danger of such a decline in standards considerably more likely.

The first is the ingrained mentality of the “can do” attitude. This attitude is absolutely essential in order to be a successful leader at any level in the armed forces. It is what carries units past what they thought they could do, and wins fights that would otherwise be lost. “Do more with less” is a logical offshoot of that. Such has always been the case in a high-quality military force, and will likely remain so. But it is not without its very real dangers, like anything else, when taken to extreme or when mixed with less desirable traits.

The second characteristic is that of a creeping, sometimes paralytic indecisiveness, manifested in the decreasing ability to prioritize. This characteristic is not only unnecessary and undesirable in a military commander, but is often a fatal flaw. But it is there in growing measure. The reason for such, unfortunately, is not due to any particular personal trait. If it were, that person could be removed, relieved, or reassigned. No, sadly, the phenomenon has its roots in an increasing institutional aversion to risk. It is not the risk of failure that oftentimes causes commanders to shudder, though how that is defined has morphed, but rather the risk of CRITICISM. The leader who never makes a decision can never be criticized for making a bad decision. It is, in today’s environment of micro-examination and second guessing, a survival mechanism of sorts, perhaps even a seemingly reasonable one. Problem is, indecisiveness is the one drawback that is unacceptable for a military leader. (Do SOMETHING, Lieutenant!!!!) When time or the enemy make a decision for you, the result is never good and often catastrophic. The enemy is more than happy to seize the initiative, and it is usually hell getting it back.

And here is where the two seemingly opposite characteristics meet. The danger of the “can do” attitude I alluded to above is that, of course, there will come a time when “can do” will cease to be a response to even a cursory examination of capabilities. The commander or unit cannot do. Has no chance to do. The commander simply lacks the very minimum of resources to accomplish the mission. Yet, the likelihood of honestly saying so is usually low. Failure will be the result, which in the profession of arms is counted in terms of dead and wounded. The importance of a command climate where commanders can talk to seniors honestly and willingly in such matters without fear of retribution cannot be overstated. The mission still may be assigned, but the risks become known, might possibly be mitigated, and the chances for success improved substantially.

The Clinton Administration’s shrunken budgets in the wake of Aspin’s Bottom Up Review (BUR) resulted in a hollow force. The table of organization for a particular kind of unit is arrived at using a great deal of calculation based on mission and equipment density. However, in Second MarDiv anyway, even deploying units never carried a full T/O. The “authorized manning level” was a euphemism for a manpower shortage of between fifteen and twenty percent. Have that, and “you have what you are supposed to have”. But of course, you don’t. Reality was that you were somewhat shy of that “authorized manning level”, usually about 90% of that budget-driven shortage. Almost universally, there was a full table of equipment (T/E) to care for. Yet, to submit major end items, especially weapons such as howitzers, into long-term preservation because of a lack of manpower, was highly frowned upon. To do so was not displaying a “can do” attitude, and leaving a command open for criticism. However, I would submit that an artillery battery that has 24 cannoneers on its roster to operate and maintain six guns when the T/O calls for 66, has gone well past the line of “taking risk”, and began “lowering standards” especially regarding maintenance, long ago.

I will relate a quick anecdote regarding vehicle maintenance, and express here my admiration for both of the participants in the conversation. While in II SRIG, I was checking on some of my unit’s trucks that were in the maintenance shop, when the SRIG CO happened by. A calm, intelligent, even-keeled man, the Colonel came over to where I was talking with the Maintenance Officer. He observed the Marines working, and the overall impression of the shop. To my surprise, the Colonel asked the MO (a CWO3), “How thoroughly is scheduled preventative maintenance being done on these trucks?” It was a question that was not asked arbitrarily.

To my greater surprise, the CWO3 answered, “Colonel, you are lucky if most of these trucks get a half-assed look over”. The Colonel did not react, (I tried not to), but instead calmly asked why that was. “Because I have three qualified mechanics, and I am supposed to have seventeen. These guys are working 14-16 hours a day just to repair normal maintenance issues”. The Colonel simply said “Gotcha, thanks for the info”, and continued his walk-through. Mechanics became a priority for that unit in short order. The Colonel inspected what he expected, and being a leader, made sure his Marines had the tools and people to do the job. I know for a fact that he did not win any promotion points in the conversation he had with the CG. But had we needed to go to war, and almost did, to Kosovo, we would have gone with well-maintained and combat-capable vehicles. This, the Colonel has said, was HIS priority.

I use the example of my experience, but, as folks in Fleet Forces Command likely know, the same situation applies to ships’ crews, and aircraft maintenance, and just about every other manpower-intensive occupation, including intelligence analysis. Also, I relate that because we are facing similar budget, end-item, maintenance, and most importantly, manpower shortfalls to what we lived through in the 1990s (and 1970s, and 1950s, and 1930s…). The same tale can be woven with regards to training opportunities when operational tempo is so high. People simply do not have the time to learn and master those skills and that knowledge that maintains an acceptable standard. Standards are lowered, the quality of the training drops off, even more risk is assumed, and lives and missions are endangered. US 20th Century military history is replete with examples from both world wars and Korea.

There is another curious effect that the melding of “can do” and “everything has priority” yields. That effect is the “zero-defect mentality” that we all swear to eradicate, but in reality perpetuate and sometimes strengthen. Nothing must go wrong, as we often expect our charges to start out perfect and improve from there. Not possible, and too often we define success not as mission accomplishment, but as nothing that got anyone in trouble. Problem is, it isn’t really and truly a zero-defect mentality any longer. There is another element to the mix. Commands are willing to accept sometimes serious mistakes, defects, shortcomings in competence, poor judgment, insufficient tactical acumen, any number of things. But there are certain of a category of transgressions that will render an otherwise competent, even outstanding leader, a dead-ender. Say or do something offensive, raise a little hell on liberty, demonstrate the sometimes rougher side of a warrior ethos, and you will find yourself outside the circle.

Political correctness, driven by absolute intolerance of whatever is the socially unacceptable and egregious offense du jour, has blurred the focus of what types of leaders we need. While giving lip service to excellence and professionalism, in actuality we inculcate mediocrity. Aggressiveness, decisiveness, an uncompromising drive to succeed, the traits that have always been a part of a successful commander, are not nurtured. On the contrary, in fact these traits become career liabilities, especially when there is a patently false yardstick (political correctness) by which leaders are measured. The ability to lead, to say what is meant, clearly and forcefully, has disappeared in a cloud of doublespeak and politically acceptable euphemisms. That very situation impresses not at all the very people we are intending to lead. They possess, and always have, that all-seeing eye for sincerity.

The tragedy of Fort Hood followed what was a maddening trail of criminal negligence on the part of Major Hasan’s seniors. Why? Political correctness in the form of diversity. Major Hasan, being a Muslim, belongs to a minority group about which the US Army (and likely other services) has become overly sensitive not to be perceived as persecuting. There was a blurring of duty and responsibility by the serving of two mutually exclusive agendas. With Major Hasan, at Walter Reed, and then at Fort Hood, the push for diversity collided head-on with a professional obligation to evaluate an officer’s fitness for service. In each of a dozen collisions, the politically correct but militarily meaningless objective of diversity won out. The shameful USNA Color Guard incident bears the same origins. The perception that the remarks of both the Commandant of Midshipmen and Superintendent of the Naval Academy remain somewhat less than truthful still strongly and understandably persists.

On the field of battle, three US Navy SEALS stand accused of crimes that by any objective understanding of the true nature of war anyone would find absurd. Regardless of the outcome, the damage that such a situation has on the confidence that juniors have for their leaders is immeasurable. The incident also amplifies an already prevalent impression that senior military leaders care more about promotion and position than they do about the men doing the fighting and bleeding. It is getting harder to disagree with that impression.

Politically-driven agendas such as the goal of “diversity” driven so stridently by Admiral Roughead, and parroted rather shamefully by General Casey after Fort Hood, need to disappear. Warriors, and not lawyers, need to fight wars. This idea may seem unrealistic, a bit like a tilt at windmills. But what is required for this to be so is a display of moral courage from senior commanders (and some politicians) to do what is right. I doubt that such a display takes any more courage than a Lance Corporal must summon in order to advance into the enemy’s fire, nor any more than a Corpsman must have to retrieve him from that fire should he be hit.

Admiral Harvey has his work cut out for him. One can only wish him the best of luck, and admire him for the task he is taking on. The question of the difference between “taking risks” and lowering standards is one that must be answered across the entire of the Armed Services. A commander must balance optimism with realism, and focus first and exclusively on one end. Train and prepare to fight and win our nation’s wars. The equipment, the training, the manning, the command climate, all should be driven toward that end. Everything else, no matter how important and well-intentioned it seems to us at this moment, is illusory.

Posted by UltimaRatioReg in Air Force, Army, Foreign Policy, History, Homeland Security, Marine Corps, Maritime Security, Navy

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  • AJ Wagner

    You might be surprised just how much these same problems ring true in corporate America. It helps to explain the likes of AIG and General Motors, doesn’t it?

  • UltimaRatioReg


    Sure does! I dare say, though, that in war “market forces” tend to be a bit harsher than in the world of business. And just as inviolate.

  • James

    I would argue that the inability to prioritize that you mention is rooted in the lack of a global strategy and an unwillingness to set reasonable expectations of US military power. Simply saying that the US must be able to go anywhere and do everything is not a strategy, nor does it allow the military to create a force structure that fits within the resources available. Like it or not, resources are limited and there is always an upper limit, no matter how much is appropriated.

    During the Cold War it was easy. The US military had a symbiotic relationship with the Soviet military. Their force structure and deployments were evaluated and, while there was no end to the bickering over what was adequate, there was no doubt as to what the US military was FOR. The enemy and the mission were clear.

    Now the US is pulled in many directions at the same time and, worse, it is not possible to simply match al-Qaeda’s force structure and call it a plan. If that were the case we could get by with a few thousand cave-dwelling weirdos. “Politically correct” is a term that makes my eyes roll, but it might be fairly applied to the US unwillingness to call out an enemy. We won’t say who, exactly, the future adversary is. If it is Iran or some other third-order marginal state then we are surely overarmed. If it is China then it certainly clarify things if we could say so.

  • DG

    The Navy is still essentially a peacetime institution with a peacetime orientation towards staff rather than doing. If bodies are needed at the waterfront, if pilots need more hours in the air, if we don’t have enough mechanics to keep the trucks running – the question is, where are the manpower priorities?

    We have more flag officers than ships, each with a staff. We have massive “staff” hierarchies which provide lots of “good” jobs for the well connected. As part of this trend, responsibility keeps getting shifted to more senior officers as new billets are created to “house” them.

    Reverse this trend. Slash the number of flags and staffs. Make promotion dependent on time “doing”, not serving on staffs. Lengthen JO sea tours. Reduce the number of E-9 billets and get those guys out to sea or retired. Increase the level of responsibility given to more junior officers. Develop better enlisted leaders by starting earlier and ensuring that there is a formal and difficult path to CPO that starts at PO2, including real leadership training.

    Improve the quality of life for our sailors and JOs – this isn’t about throwing money at them or advancement. Work harder to retain the best – don’t just consider that those willing to stay in are higher quality. Scale back CBT training, and encourage risk taking. We all know the solutions.

  • YNSN

    ADM Harvey for CNO…

  • Moose

    AJ, Toyota is one of the most risk-averse and Politically Correct companies in the world, and it’s thrived nearly to the point of global dominance. AIG and the rest of the financial sector nearly destroyed the economy because they took far TOO MUCH risk, and we were all burned for it.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    Toyota had considerable help from massive government subsidies to break into the US market in the 1970s. Worked like a charm. No need for risk when you have massive government money piles to ensure your success.

  • Chuck Hill

    Toyota worked because of a strategy of constant incremental improvement. Our own auto industry has been extremely risk averse. Where was their Prius?

  • UltimaRatioReg

    “Toyota worked because of a strategy of constant incremental improvement.”

    True enough. But with R&D paid for by the government, things get a little easier.

    But one of the things they didn’t spend money on was diversity. To get back on topic.

  • Byron

    Damn, URR, made me swallow a meatball….”diversity…Japan” Good one!

  • URR, talking about manpower shortages and maintenance- at one point, I worked outside my MOS (infantry) in a support MOS. During that time, I was the designated operator for not one vehicle, but FIVE. And that wasn’t my primary duty. I don’t even recall seeing or being licensed on a couple of the vehicles. I’m pretty sure the PMCS on them didn’t quite meet standards.

  • Gil Burns

    I admire Admiral Harvey for his insight and courage to address these subjects. Political correctness has been defined by people on the sidelines who seem hell bent on having their vision (opinion) of right and wrong imposed upon everyone regardless of their knowledge or experience. To be politically correct has not only limited innovation and objective achievement but also the personal growth and development of those people working in the impact zone of politically correct leadership .