Home > Military, Teaching > A Reflection on Army Force Structure Decision-making

A Reflection on Army Force Structure Decision-making


1. Introduction and background:

In 1994, the United States Army began deciding how to organize itself for future battlefields where the enemy threat, organization and doctrine no longer had the certainty of the Cold War years. Historically, the Army analyzed a specific enemy in terms of size, composition, location, equipment, training, and tactics in order to find the best trade-off between efficiency and effectiveness to produce an appropriate force structure.

Effectiveness means the combat potential in terms of: mobility, protection, firepower, and flexibility. Efficiency is used in two ways. First, it means the arranging forces to optimize a resource, like deciding to pool trucks in groups of 100 at a certain echelon to provide a flexible shared resource for several units, as opposed to assigning 30 trucks to 5 different units when they may go idle for long periods of time between requirements. The second meaning of efficiency concerns the economic costs of producing forces with the minimum amount of resources

In developing this traditional threat-based problem solving method, the Army used three criteria for valuing solutions: suitability, acceptability and feasibility. These criteria enabled decision-makers to rank courses of action by their particular efficiency-effectiveness tradeoff, after passing initial screening criteria.

Suitability is the effectiveness of a given force structure in performing across an array of typical combat missions in all foreseeable environments and conditions. Acceptability is the willingness of stakeholders to support the proposed solution with respect to their culture, tradition and professional judgment. Feasibility is the economic affordability of the proposal in terms of life-cycle costs, implementation and project management.

In 1994, the Army was organized around the division echelon: large fixed formations optimized for fighting conventional wars on the plains of Europe against a massed, industrial-age force equipped with heavy, mechanized, combined arms units of similar technological maturity and with a defined, known doctrine. When the Cold War ended though, this threat was replaced with a much more uncertain set of potential enemies, whose identity, equipment, doctrine, capabilities, intent and purpose were either ill-defined or altogether unknown. The Army conducted an internal review to decide how to organize to meet the new and emerging threats of the next several decades. This is my story of what happened and why.

2. Concrete experience

a. Describe the experience.

The Army delegated the division redesign project to many different internal and external organizations with the intent of getting many points of view and recommendations represented in the final decision making process. The groups included staff agencies with the formal mission to conduct such studies routinely; the staff, faculty and students of Army schools; operations research agencies; contracted defense analysts and think tanks; panels of senior retired officers (“the greybeards”); and senior active duty commander’s and their staffs.

Initially, these groups worked independently and in parallel to develop a robust set of insights, observations and designs from their own unique perspective. They were then brought together in phases to continue the planning and coordination effort, supported by various analytical strategies that included deep, formal analysis and modeling, qualitative experimentation and live-agent, active experimentation. Historians supported with meta-research on Army reorganization initiatives dating to World War 1, and incorporated lessons learned and studies of other modern armies as well.

In a series of expert panels and staff updates, the groups merged their findings and prepared for a second round of integrated qualitative and quantitative analysis and evaluation. Three concepts emerged from the smoke for consideration by a combination of senior active and retired Army generals, with final recommendations presented to the Army Chief of Staff. The three proposals consisted of (1) retaining a modified version of the current division-based structure, (2) adopting a brigade- centric, combined arms structure that would eliminate at least one of the existing layers of headquarters and (3) adopting a battalion-based modular force that would eliminate at least 1 level of higher headquarters.

The greybeards and the senior active Army generals strongly supported course of action 1, retaining a modified version of the current divisional structure. They believed that most compelling evidence supporting their recommendation was the successful performance of this structure in previous wars and their confidence in its adaptability to the current environment, based on their extensive experience in commanding such organizations.

The power of the culture of generalship was palpable in these meetings. The deference paid from active duty generals to senior retired flag officers was a physical force, and trumped the qualitative and quantitative insights developed through analysis. The greybeards underweighted the growing body of evidence from ongoing operations that the current division-based structure was unwieldy, inefficient and unbalanced given the increasing numbers of unique, limited force deployments world-wide which were beginning to consume force structure at a pace and frequency unseen in the Cold War. This was occurring at the very time force structure was being dramatically reduced world-wide as politicians lined up to harvest the “peace dividend” apparently available with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.

The active duty, senior leadership of the Army approved the recommendation to retain a division-based force structure in the mid-1990’s. They were not forced to adopt the current brigade based force structure until the overwhelming operational tempo driven by Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom and subsequent troop-intensive nation building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan threatened to strain the active and reserve force structure beyond repair. While many of the initiatives and insights from the analysis of the mid-1990’s studies were incorporated into the final designs of 2002-2005, the Army certainly faced additional challenges from trying to adapt units, doctrine, equipment and personnel while simultaneously fighting a war on two fronts and maintaining a deterrent capability world-wide.

No one can know with certainty what the effects of adopting the brigade based force structure designs in 1995 would have meant in the first decade of the 21st century, but it is reasonable to assume that many of the organizational change pressures and shortcomings of reinventing the force in the middle of the war could have been avoided.

This experience raises the question of assessing the affect of the powerful, hierarchical, and conservative culture of senior military officers on the decision-making process in the mid 1990s which incorporated many sound principles of distributed problem solving, but which drove a decision to minimize change at a time when more wide-sweeping, analytically supported change, would have been more feasible. This is an important topic given that the Army faces a similar situation in 2008 as it prepares to learn lessons of the operational environment from Iraq and Afghanistan and will go through a period of reflection to decide on the organization and structure of the future force. How will the Army incorporate multiple points of view and culture from within and without its ranks to learn from its experience in order to shape its future?

b. Subjective experience:

During this 8 month process, I was a senior captain, and a member of the TRADOC Force Design Directorate. Trained as an infantryman and working as a force structure analyst, I developed designs and conducted analysis on a brigade-based force structure. Other members of our organization developed similar staff studies for the division-centric, and battalion-centric forces. Our group’s routine mission of integrating force designs from all Army proponents prepared us well for our design and analytical role. We participated extensively throughout the Army problem solving process and interfaced with Army operations research analysts, the Command & General Staff College staff groups qualitatively studying the concepts of the Mobile Strike Force, and with the panels of greybeards who met to consider the recommendations of a variety of analyst groups. The greybeards served as the repository of cultural wisdom with their perspective of years of commanding large formations and being responsible for integrating force structure changes throughout their commands. Most of the greybeards were retired 3 and 4 star generals, and had served with great skill and distinction throughout their careers.

The active Army general in charge of the problem solving process was a 1 star general (brigadier general). I observed the change in his behavior when receiving staff briefings from active army analysts and study groups (generally led full colonel) and when participating on a panel with the senior retired generals. The greybeards, who had commanded at the very highest level were thought leaders in their tenure on active duty, and retained a considerable amount of informal power among the rarified atmosphere of flag officers. The active duty brigadier general was forceful, deliberate and asked detailed, penetrating questions of the military analysts. He concurred with the assessment that the brigade-centric force structure offered the best trade-off between suitable capability, an acceptable amount of change, and a feasible solution that would be affordable and manageable within the current budget.

When the brigadier general participated in the panel discussion with the senior retired generals however, he became careful and guarded in his comments, and fully supported the observations and recommendations of the greybeards who believed that the current traditional force structure, slightly modified for modern technological advances, offered the best solution for the Army over the next 10 years.

At the time I remember being incensed at his silence on the insights offered by previous analysis. I didn’t see him support what I considered to be the stronger alternative, a conclusion I had seen him support in a public way in previous forums.

My staff director was a retired full colonel who had served for 30 years on active duty before serving an additional 20 years as a specialist on army force structure and force management. He educated me on the effect of retired senior generals on the career and reputations of active duty generals. He made it clear that a one star general who wants to compete for more stars has a powerful incentive to support the positions of influential senior officers even if they are retired. As a result of this experience I saw first hand the political realities of life at the senior level of Army management. I decided that my highest value would be to cultivate my own professional judgment on all Army matters and vowed not to let career ambitions influence my recommendations. I began developing a successful financial advisory business on the side soon afterwards which allowed me to remove concern about career implications from my decision-making process.

This lesson in Army culture stayed with me for the rest of my career, as I watched the Army struggle with adapting its division-based structure with the increasing operational tempo that required smaller, more agile formations until the pressure of meeting deployment requirements forced the Army to adopt a brigade-based structure in the middle of a war.

3. Reflective Observation:

a. Perspectives of the key actors:

Operations research analysts used detailed, exhaustive analytical modeling principles to conduct thorough quantitative analysis of the design options in question. They approached this projects as scientists and were very careful in describing their results and the limits of their insights, consistent with generally accepted modeling principles.

The staff, faculty and students of the Command and General Staff College, experimented with several of the designs in a set of qualitative free-play experiments designed to test the suitability of modular formations fighting in non-linear, non-contiguous operational settings. They clearly identified the limits if their insights in this qualitative approach.

The TRADOC force design staff and proponent schools analyzed designs and various methods of implementing the require force structure changes based on extensive experience with the art and science of incremental force management efforts that would take years to complete and fully implement.

Historians analyzed previous Army initiatives in large scale organizational design and offered insights into the design of the problem solving process and the circumstances and narratives of previous efforts.

The greybeards offered insights developed from decades of service around the world in command of large formations. Their perspective included conventional combat as well as responding to various political and military contingencies within their areas of responsibility while on active duty. All had remained vital and active as senior military advisors to the Department of Defense after their retirement and were current in doctrine and insights.

The one star general tasked with conducting the staff problem solving process was keen to continue his military career in positions of greater responsibility in command of large units. His professional judgment, leadership and staff skill would be on full display as a result of the conduct and final recommendation to the Army Chief of Staff on a subject of great import.

b. Why did people behave the way they did?

I believe that each group acted professionally within their perceived area of responsibility to reflect the perspectives and disciplines associated with their organizations mission. There was clearly a professional military culture at work that provided a broad context for this work, but there was equally evident a set of subcultures at work that represented a powerful force in the group dynamics.

Meetings and discussions were invariably professional, and disagreements were addressed in a mature, comprehensive manner that acknowledged the freedom to offer professionally based dissenting points of view. Compromises were made without coercion and which reflected a deepened understanding brought about by the frank exchange of differing positions. Where compromise was not possible, the respective positions were fairly characterized and the group consensus was identified with acknowledgements of significant dissent.

I cannot comment on the inner workings of the 1star general’s mind to apparently change his professional opinion once exposed to the thinking of the greybeards. I can only observe that during the formal staff analysis meetings, he made strong statements in favor of the brigade-centric design, but during the greybeard council he was content to remain mostly silent and finally supported their position in favor of retaining the division based design.

It may very well be that his mind was changed based on the commentary and insights of these senior leaders. Having attended all the meetings and heard all the arguments from both qualitative and quantitative analysts however, I heard nothing new or especially compelling offered by the greybeards that had not already been considered in other forums. My judgment as a senior captain may not have been as nuanced however.

4. Abstract Conceptualization

a. Concepts and theories from the readings that apply
i. The Kolb model of problem solving (Osland, 2007)
ii. Appreciative inquiry (Osland, 2007)

b. Detailed explanation of how they apply

i. The Kolb Model of problem solving:

This model is a normative, dialectic process of problem solving, meaning that it asserts that this is an ideal method to follow. Based on Kolb’s experiential learning theory, the model is well suited for complex problems that require a combination of thinking and learning styles to progressively proceed through phases that include: problem framing, problem defining, decision making, planning and implementation. Each phase features both divergent and convergent thinking processes. Each phase also has a defined start point which begins with the output fashioned in the preceding phase. It is dialectic in that it employs dialogue and argumentation in its discovery process to ensure that multiple points of view and alternatives are comprehensively examined. This model is familiar to military planners, since the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP) is similarly constructed and applied.

When I map the Army problem solving narrative to this ideal model, I find that all elements of the model were considered and applied, in almost the exact sequence recommended by Kolb. Inductive and deductive reasoning processes can be identified. Divergent and convergent thinking processes were readily apparent. Decision-making forums were convened at appropriate stages in order to proceed through the model to meet scheduled delivery dates. Implementation strategies were considered as part of all potential courses of action to ensure that the plans-reality connection was feasible. Visioning, imagination and creativity were encouraged at appropriate moments while analysis from different disciplines and multiple sources helped illuminate the detailed implications of the decisions.

Even though I have highlighted my concerns with the effect of political and career considerations in the process narrative, it is clear that the final decision did meet criteria of suitable, feasible and acceptable and could be supported with convincing evidence.

ii. Appreciative Inquiry:

This is a radically different form of intervention into organizational behavior, that features the four steps of: Discover, Dream, Design and Destiny. It is designed to leverage the power of positive thinking with a focus on the organizations strengths, in an effort to avoid the negative considerations of focusing on existing problems or shortcomings. My impression of this process is that it is more suitable for organizations that are looking to reinvent themselves and are early in the process of establishing vision. It does not seem to lend itself, on first glance, to being effectively applied to the type of complex analysis of existing functions described above. I can certainly see its use in the early phases of the Kolb model, however, when questions of purpose and strategy and the vision of the successful endstate are being considered.

5. Active experimentation:

a. What did I learn about problem solving and creativity?

I learned that the Army did a creditable job of designing and implementing a comprehensive problem-solving process that was theoretically sound and appropriate for a problem of the size and complexity it faced.

Managing creativity is not simply a matter of endless brainstorming, but must also include a way of harnessing that energy in a focused way in order to proceed through subsequent phases on a decision-making process that must satisfy many constituents.

I learned that an organization must include explicitly in its process a means for recognizing divergent positions while having a method of selecting from among many viable alternatives in order to get to the action and implementation phase with buy in from all stakeholders.

b. What did I learn about myself?

I learned through this reflection that I am very judgmental and that when I settle on an explanation for the behavior of others I am prone to believing in its truth as given, especially when I have invested thought and energy into trying to divine intent and purpose.

The detailed reflection I undertook here allowed me to recall some of the compelling details of the process that were involved in the final decision that didn’t conveniently fit into my narrative of the triumph of the political and careerism over hard, logical fact.

I learned that I should be a little more humble when making my own decisions as a group or staff leader, and provide opportunities to let my team members examine my decision process in order to help them answer any observational questions. This is especially important for teams that will remain a a team and proceed on to other projects together.

I learned that although I have developed the ability to operate effectively within a bureaucracy, I can maintain my independence and intellectual integrity by creating career alternatives. I have found this to be a very freeing ability, and it has made me a more effective officer and educator.

c. What action steps can I take to become more effective?

I am learning about the power of narrative and story-telling and am seeing the practical utility and historical necessity for documenting decisions about process and content so that others can benefit from the insights of the moment by participants in the process. I found some of my old notes buried in a filing cabinet concerning this narrative and I was amazed at how quickly I found myself back in time examining these important force structure issues as if it were yesterday.

The documentation process of the problem solving project noted above were useful to the Army 8-10 years later when a decision to convert to a brigade based army became a matter of clear necessity. Good staff work is never wasted.

Osland, J., Kolb, D., Rubin, I., & Turner, M. (2007). Organizational behavior: an experiential approach. New Jersey, Pearson.
Osland, J., Kolb, D., Rubin, I., & Turner, M. (2007). The organizational behavior reader. New Jersey, Pearson.

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