With the turn of a new administration and a new year, it’s fun to play king for a day. How about I go first? I would build a 21st-century American General Staff.
Several smart folks have called for this in front of Congress. Jim Thomas said he’d like to see a “true General Staff” that would “advocate for globally fungible power projection capabilities” and act as the “military’s global brain.” Adm. (Ret) James Stavridis also said he’d “stand up a truly independent General Staff,” to be “manned by the brilliant few, selected from their service at the [mid-career rank of major or lieutenant colonel], and permanently assigned to the General Staff.” Both made strong cases for a General Staff (GS) to meet current and coming challenges. And while they’ve put their fingers on a problem and argued that we should stand up a GS, and what this GS ought to do, they’ve skimped on specifically how we’d actually pull it together.
Moreover, prescient as Thomas and Stavridis are, they’ve missed the larger problem: for geographic and institutional reasons, we’ve dispersed our military’s strategic talent in command and staffs across the globe (AKA death by 1,000 commander’s initiatives groups)—we have no central hub for our finest minds to tackle our toughest problems. A GS, operating alongside the Joint Staff, would overcome this oversight.
Some might argue the Department of Defense’s Office of Net Assessment fits this bill, but it’s just too small. Lockheed Martin’s famed “skunkworks” lab is out because it’s beholden to corporate interests and overly tactical, focused on winning dogfights and not wars. DARPA is cool but too sci-fi to qualify. And the National Security Council staff’s portfolio is so broad, wide ranging, and focused on putting out the fires of the day that it isn’t optimized to concentrate on strategic problems specific to war and warfare.
The solution, then, is to bring together a critical mass of our best uniformed people to bear on our thorniest strategic problems. The GS would leverage emergence and the outsize effects that come from a superior synergy of smaller entities—there’s every reason to believe the GS would be greater than the sum of its parts, like, for example, cities. The scholar Benjamin Barber has noted that American cities sit upon a mere 3.5 percent of the nation’s land and comprise 55 percent of the population—yet they produce 80 percent of national wealth, 95 percent of universities, 98 percent of culture, and 99 percent of patents. Any way you look at it, cities are the “fuel and engine,” as Barber puts it, of America. Similarly, by putting together the right GS and letting emergence generate disproportionate impacts, the GS might be the fuel and engine of American strategic success.
Fortunately, another global organization with a vested interest in surviving a competitive future has provided a blueprint for such an organization: Google[x]. In 2010, “X” was stood up as a “moonshot factory” with a single mission: “to invent and launch ‘moonshot’ technologies that we hope could someday make the world a radically better place.” This blueprint functions as a diagram for linking crucial projects and critical people. An X project “must solve a problem that affects millions or billions of people; it has to have an audacious, sci-fi sounding technology; and there has to be at least a glimmer of hope that it’s actually achievable in the next 5–10 years.” X’s goal is to strike the right balance between “high-risk/idealistic” bets and “safe-bet/pragmatic” efforts. Staff-wise, X “seek[s] people who are ‘T-shaped’: they have enormous intellectual flexibility with deep expertise in a particular field, and they can also collaborate easily across diverse domains.”
X’s results are producing rapid breakthroughs in AI, which was likely not envisioned or defined at inception six years ago. Likewise, we might not even know what’s possible or even probable upon the GS’s launch. Like with NASA itself, moonshots tend to generate spinoff successes.
What would the GS’s vision and mission be? Ensure national strategic success; position our military to win wars, today and tomorrow. GS projects would focus on everything not tied to a specific operational geography, with higher prioritization and increased attention on strategies and tactics featuring high impacts and low probabilities (leaving the Joint Staff to higher-probability, day-to-day operational concerns). The GS would be given outsized resources and wide autonomy to take on rugged, relevant research—we always lavishly fund black ops; we should also lavishly fund brain ops. Geographically, when called upon, the GS would provide direct support to combatant commanders in the same manner Strategic Assessment Teams became all the rage in Iraq and Afghanistan. The GS would aim to succeed today without jeopardizing tomorrow.
Who would comprise the GS? It would be 100–150 uniformed individuals, conforming to Dunbar’s number (the cognitive limits for maintaining a stable cohesive group). The GS would select competitively for diversity. As war is too big to fit into one discipline, the question—as Sir Ken Robinson has put it—isn’t just “how intelligent are you,” it’s “how are you intelligent?” We require a diverse set of deep expertise, all capable of collaboration. The GS would seek a balanced, proportional portfolio of experiences and individuals from each of the principal services, as well as the National Guard, Reserve, and Coast Guard.
The GS would privilege ability over age. Eliot Cohen has lamented our promotion system that is currently unable to “seek out exceptional young leaders and bring them to the top quickly.” Cohen cites Gen. Curtis LeMay’s ascension to lead Strategic Air Command at age 42, “having led one of the most important campaigns in World War II in his late thirties.” And there is evidence beyond war to seek out youthful ideas over uniform insignia. The National Bureau of Economic Research studied over 2,000 Nobel Prize winners and found the optimal age for Nobel-winning ideas occurs between the ages of 35 and 39. A GS would capitalize on these insights in ways the current system (harmfully!) marginalizes.
A former West Point superintendent once said on the subject of military talent, “We’re more interested in the ‘doer’ than the ‘thinker,’” hammering home the military’s oldest sin—privileging action over thought. The establishment of a GS, centralizing strategic excellence for outsize impact, would be an excellent step to bring balance to the nexus of American military thought and action—and likely provide yet-unknown strategic benefits.
Good article. However, it appears as though you are only advocating for a “Super CAG/CIG” vice an actual General Staff. The problem we have today with the Joint Staff serving as a true “General Staff” is that it doesn’t have the legal authority to dictate or compel Combatant Commands, on behalf of the Secretary of Defense and Chairman, to achieve global effects to address today’s transregional threats. Additionally, unless the Joint Staff and the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) were fused together, there would be no added efficiencies in it becoming a true “General Staff.” Your recommendation is absolutely needed to help the Defense Establishment think broader and deeper at current and future threats, but a true “General Staff” would need the authority to help organize, synchronize, and direct global operations that currently doesn’t exist.
Very thought provoking! Worth comparing and contrasting to the Prussian-German General Staff system:
This is an interesting suggestion and well-worth looking into in order to maximize the untapped potential that our services have. I would think that there is a possibility for the Joint Staff to serve as a “Super-CAG”, and in some ways I think they already do, but it is not necessarily a formalized role. I think there is real value in having a uniformed brain trust of the services’ deepest thinkers. Additionally, though, a comprehensive strategic forum would need to be convened at the national level in order to consider all the levers of power, Diplomatic, Intelligence, Military and Economic (DIME). President Eisenhower’s “Project Solarium” comes to mind as an example of such broad, cross-cutting exercise in strategic thought https://www.rose-hulman.edu/~pickett/Solarium.pdf. As Chad Pillai noted, however, the concept laid out is not really a General Staff in the true sense. One of the main goals, if not the true purpose of the General Staff, is to consolidate the command authority of the armed forces. The US has a historical and constitutional aversion to such a consolidation of power outside of the President because of the threat of a usurpation of civilian authority, therefore in this respect, a true General Staff is not needed in the US.
First off, the author is correct. We desperately need to transform the Joint Staff. All major problems are trans-regional at a minimum, most are global, rendering Goldwater-Nichols outdated. Regional Combatant Commands are not designed to address global threats, nor command and control global wars. We must adapt for the threats of the 21st Century as soon as possible. And yes, it will require Congress to change the law.
My greatest concern is not structure, but rather talent management. The author of this article is a Strategist. I recently left the Joint Staff after serving as a Division Chief. I led a team of strategists in the war plans division. They were wonderfully talented men and women, but like the rest of us, they bear a few warts.
One of the greatest weaknesses of strategists writ large is that they often become enamored with the problem itself, leaving them convinced that only those of their intellectual equal could possibly solve such complex dillemma. I will be the first to admit that most strategists (59s) are very intelligent, but to be fair, many of them did not thrive leading soldiers. I do not mean this as an insult to strategists, rather, I make a the point that we must note our weaknesses. SOME strategists lacked troop leading skills (inspirational leadership, personal interaction), so they turned to plans and strategy where they thrived. The author stresses collaboration (a weakness for many strategists). I have personally observed strategists guarding their work from peers. They carry their briefcase to the TANK like an aide carrying the football for the POTUS. Their message? I have busted my butt for months on this. I have done good work and I’ll be damned if I’m letting anyone else get credit for the work I’ve done.
Rarely, do I hear anyone speak to an officer’s charisma. To succeed, a good staff officer must be able to sell their ideas – not only brief their slides – but present a compelling argument with confidence. Those who succeed in the Pentagon go office to office before and after the actual briefing to sell their ideas. They share a vision that others can’t help but support.
The author also seems to draw a line between the ability to lead soldiers in the field (operators) and intellectuals, as if you can’t have both. Leaving officers on a general staff for life is a mistake! Yes, Army GOs have argued for years that the Air Force and Navy kicks Army’s butt on the Hill because they have officers working issues that have served multiple tours in the Pentagon. They have solid relationships with staffers. I agree that those relationships matter, but I argue that the right person, with the right skills, can equal them. It’s about winning friends and influencing people. I know several officers who are gifted from the tactical through strategic level. The beautiful thing about these officers is that you can also enjoy a dinner engagement with them, as well as play corn hole or frisbee football.
Right off the top of my head I think of Colonel (Ret.) Will Zemp, Colonel Brad Brown (currently at Texas A&M), Colonel Tom Burke, who is at Tufts getting an PhD now, but is also on the brigade command list. I think of Major Joe McCarthy who is getting a PhD, but who served as my Brigade S3 and XO in Afghanistan. Colonel Scott Halter has a balanced pedigree. Also, MIT graduate Jillian Wisniewski, who is currently teaching at West Point, would thrive on a GS. I am confident that there are many others who resemble pentathletes vs. insects that overly specialize.
I did not agree with Gen. Odierno’s focus on PhDs when he was the Chief. I fully endorse advanced degrees that broaden our officers, but most all PhD programs are narrowly focused. The General Staff must be cross-functional. Today, by design, the staff is stovepiped. We must reorganize the Joint Staff so that the specialties do not collaborate virtually, or merely in meetings. The structure must force constant collaboration. Today, officers emerge from their lairs to attend meetings. They seat themselves at the table bearing their own agenda. They attended the meeting, argue for their equities, and go home happy or bitter having won or lost the argument. The only way to overcome this dilemma is to transform the staff to address global problems with cross-functional teams.
Finally, I fully agree with the author that we must get over age and rank. In my book, PALE HORSE – Hunting Terrorists and Commanding Heroes with the 101st Airborne Division, I note that the greatest problem with the Army is that the Army thinks that the dumbest major is just a little bit smarter than the smartest captain. This hierarchal phenomenon is evidenced daily in the Pentagon. Division Chiefs receive calls for meetings and the message is, “Be sure to send a colonel. The 3-star is chairing the meeting.”
I loved following that guidance up with, “Do you want the colonel, or do you want the smartest person for this problem-set? The smartest person just happens to be a Major or a GS-12.” This is easy to solve – low-hanging fruit – yet the desire to revert to rank seems to be in our DNA. The truth is that most all three and four stars have been away from troops for a long time. They are generationally removed from our company and junior field grade officers. They think they understand them and how they think, yet they do not, and you can’t convince most of them otherwise. This is dangerous. These young folks have wonderful ideas. They are bright and talented. But, in order to get young officers to share ideas, the culture of DoD must change. They will be shut down and will not share their ideas if the culture is not right. The question is – are the senior leaders willing to change? If not, our discussion is merely academic.
Okay, enough from me. This is a problem that must be addressed over the next few years. It will be exciting to watch. I hope we get it right!
You’ve put your finger on the problem…the structure we have in the Joint Staff spends most of its time on day-to-day process, and not adding much value to it. The combatant commands already do the operational day-to-day work, and the services do the same on the organize, train, and equip side…and neither welcomes the Joint Staff breathing down their necks while they’re doing it. Strip it down to bare bones, and focus it on strategic problems. But don’t give it the impossible task of “ensuring national strategic success.” Unless given authorities currently reserved for the political leadership, at best just be able to fulfill the current mission of the Joint Staff: to provide expert military advice to the SECDEF and the President. Ensuring success requires providing coherent, consistent direction across the government, and the resources required…that responsibility is also reserved for the President and Congress.
If you’re going to maintain a young staff, you’ll need to design a path out of the GS (or JS) as well, lest it become an unattractive, dead-end assignment, particularly if you’re plucking officers fresh off company command or battalion/squadron/ship XO/Ops O and diverting them to a track that may them to miss selection for the next level of command (unless you don’t keep them long, which defeats some of the purpose).
Last, with all due to Eliot Cohen, the youth of WWII and post-WWII leadership was more due to position and timing than deliberate design. The military’s rapid expansion and high attrition rate for those unable or unlucky catapulted pre-war majors and light colonels into general’s billets, and the transition to the Cold War sustained the size of the force that kept them there, rather than dropping back as happened with mass demobilization after WWI.