March 1, 2007  

Eyes wide shut

Rigid doctrine and a legacy structure make the Army slow to adapt

Many military professionals and politicians have come to believe that the threats facing the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan are distinctly different than the threat that the Army is prepared to fight. Unfortunately, their realization was less of a fortuitous enlightenment unique to the situations of today and more of a continued ideological denial of the problem, the possible solutions and the need to reorganize to execute the solutions. This denial has existed for generations.

In this article, I will argue that the Army’s process of change is handicapped by a rigidity of doctrine and stalwart commitment to organizational structure. I will not examine how the Army has changed but will take a conceptual look at the change process.

The military change process is straightforwardly described using system thinking concepts. The threat environment represents a problem — a national force, a terrorist network, an insurgent organization or an ideology that threatens the national security of the U.S. The change process is also affected by the level of technology available to the military, particularly the strategy. Internal to the process, as bound by an existing paradigm, there are three components of military change: strategy, structure and doctrine. Additionally, change must not be seen as leading to a particular end-state but as a constant process focused exclusively on the threat environment.

The strategy component is the formulated plan or the concept of operations developed to eliminate the threat or solve the problem at either the tactical, operational or strategic levels, or any combination of those levels. The structure component defines how elements within the organization pass information and organize to execute the strategy. The third component, doctrine, is a set of fundamental principles, authoritative in nature, by which the Army guides its actions in support of national objectives.

However, today’s military change process produces a sub-optimal strategy, because feedback within the system becomes distorted by the restrictions that doctrine and structure place on the strategy. Therefore, to develop an optimal strategy, doctrine and structure, the identities of the Army must take a back seat to strategy. This new way of thought requires an alteration in military mentality.

The rigidity of doctrine and the Army’s seemingly stalwart commitment to the current structure cause the military change process to function in a less than ideal manner. These two fatal flaws alter what should be dependent components, doctrine and structure, into constants that are seemingly independent of the threat environment the Army faces.

The current Army buttresses a rigid doctrine and is specifically structured to execute a committed strategy based on this doctrine, thus unwittingly creating a solution before understanding the nature of the threat. To understand how this has happened to the Army, we must look at the roles played by external stimuli and how strategy is affected by both doctrine and the legacy structure of the Army.

External Stimuli

The survival mechanism for most organizations is geared much the same as a frog’s nervous system. Author Peter Senge describes it as the “parable of the boiled frog.” A frog placed in a pot of hot water will immediately sense the danger and jump out. But if it’s placed in a pot of cool water that is heated slowly, the frog will be unaware of the danger until it is too late to react. The same holds true for organizations. A sudden change in the environment will prompt change, but the absence of an external stimulus, either political or situational, makes change within a military organization less likely.

On the other hand, the mere existence of stimuli does not guarantee organizational change, either. After Sept. 11, 2001, the external stimulus was painfully apparent. During Operation Enduring Freedom, the external stimulus that created overwhelming success was the political demand for the Army to act quickly. Because of the nation’s necessity to act quickly, the conventional Army was unable to muster adequate forces in the time required. Therefore, U.S. Special Operations Command sent a handful of detachments to work “by, with and through” indigenous militias — a largely inferior strategy in the minds of the Army leadership as a whole. However, as in the past, this genre of strategy was quickly categorized as a “special case” rather than the “approved solution” to similar threat environments. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 conveniently allowed the military to return to its established paradigm.

The Army’s flaws come more from focusing inward than a lack of focus toward the threat environment. This self-aggrandizement can be credited to the force design shift from threat-based to capability-based after the Cold War.

Strategy, doctrine and structure

The strategy that the Army employs is directly related to the doctrine, structure and technology available, along with the inherent risk associated with the said strategy. We only have to compare and contrast the effectiveness of Army strategies in Iraq with the effectiveness of the Army strategy in the Philippines to understand the manifestation of this relationship between perceived risk and the willingness to implement alternative strategies.

The Army is a bureaucracy and, therefore, must maintain a precarious equilibrium to either exchange or retain. This task creates a paradox within the organization. If the Army changes too much, it may lose its established identity. Yet, if it fails to adjust, it could cease to exist. This explains the difficulty of subordinating doctrine to becoming dependent to strategy.

Retired Gen. Gordon Sullivan in his book “Hope is Not a Method” wrote that “doctrine is the engine of change.” This implies that nothing changes unless doctrine changes. This statement, although I believe it is incorrect, has history behind it. For example, the core of Army doctrine has arguably remained the same since World War II, despite the performance in conflicts for the past 60 years. It is chilling to think that the Army has remained the same doctrinally, while our threat environment has adapted over the past two to three generations.

The Army’s structure is as ageless as its doctrine. Even though the Army leadership acknowledges that the threat environment is changing, it has yet to shift focus toward alternative organizational structures. Leadership continually acts upon the principles of the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine, specifically, that “more is better.”

Who will ensure that the correct action is taken to win the current war? The U.S. cannot afford to have its Army fail in its mission. Yet, the nation has the security of allowing its Army to remain steeped in traditional doctrine and a legacy structure while struggling to adopt, support and execute alternative strategies that could possibly stop the slow hemorrhage.

Will it require a major catastrophe or a nuclear detonation in a major U.S. city to open our eyes?