The Army is amidst a well-known recruiting crisis. While multiple factors potentially drive it, there is evidence that a trust deficit features prominently. Restoring that trust is part of the Army’s value proposition for future generations, not just for potential soldiers but also for their families, who greatly affect their decision to serve. It also requires steadfast commitment from engaged leaders and a deliberate emphasis on preventing harmful behaviors and addressing societal trends that may dwarf resources at installations and amplify structural flaws.
Multiple high-level commissions, from the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee to the Department of Defense–wide Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault (DoD IRC), shed light on systemic issues and provide direction for reform. Specifically, both reports identified broken culture as the root of sexual harassment/assault response and prevention policy failures over the past few decades. While there has been progress in shifting from a crisis and response framework to a proactive, preventative mindset, the Army needs creative ways to complement those efforts and ensure recommendations have the intended effect at the unit level. This starts by embracing the well-established relationship between healthy organizational climates and preventative measures. It should also encourage the Army to discuss and track climate in much the same way it addresses safety and maintenance on a regular basis.
Positive organizational climates require persistent care and maintenance, and though even the most adept command teams will have challenges, poor climates are more prone to tragic consequences. The DoD IRC identified a chasm between what leaders believe is happening under their commands and what junior enlisted service members experience. Unfortunately, some do not think they have a problem despite feedback. This dangerous mindset might be called “command climate change denial” and adversely impacts unit readiness. Healthy organizational climates, after all, underpin endurance and effectiveness in operations. When viewed through this lens, the Army’s readiness constructs seem to fall short. For example, should a unit be able to claim that it is trained on items from its mission-essential task list if its organizational climate is poor? Initial successes are unlikely to endure. The ability to cultivate healthy organizations is an indicator of a leader’s competence and requires development.
While there are laudable efforts to develop and select the right leaders, complementary steps emphasizing the importance of command climate in operations are also imperative. One of us recently coauthored an article that described three low-cost, high-yield reforms in greater detail and summarized below. The other served as a colead on the IRC’s “culture and climate” line of effort, and similar reforms are what were envisioned: namely, bottom-up measures that are entrenched in routine processes, provide a tether to evaluative mechanisms, and enable more comprehensive readiness appraisals. They are simple. They can reduce requirements. They can complement broader, enterprise-level efforts that must address seams in the soldier life cycle (i.e., entering service, changing duty stations, transitioning from uniform). They also recognize leaders’ centrality in building healthy organizational climates.
First, we must evolve our keystone quarterly training briefings to better account for the human element of readiness. A quarterly people and training briefing (QPTB) framework would move beyond traditional contours and reframe these discussions to drive a more meaningful dialogue at the brigade level and below. The Army’s shift toward the Regionally Aligned Readiness and Modernization Model is a powerful expression of our Army’s commitment to putting people first, and predicated on the success of building cohesive teams and radical candor regarding extant requirements and manpower deficits. Building these teams requires more structured and regular discussions that promote frankness on readiness, resources, and risk at the small-unit level. As identified by the IRC, tracking people metrics serves as a development tool for future commanders. A quarterly discussion also reinforces climate education and solutions that are being incorporated at all levels of professional military education.
Key to these briefings is the second recommended reform, incorporating a mission-essential condition (MEC) to “build cohesive teams.” Emphasizing doing so is foundational to sustaining success on other mission-essential tasks and accommodates a measurable baseline that can inform unit status reports. Some units have already successfully incorporated similar efforts. A recent collaborative effort with the Mission Command Center of Excellence and other stakeholders has produced initial criteria for the MEC, which is scheduled for an upcoming pilot. The QPTB, which was recently used by a brigade combat team at Fort Bragg, led to an undeniably more productive conversation. Routinizing these conversations in the operations process is essential and aids leader development. Conversations up and down the chain have always been a requirement around climate assessments. The QPTB provides a forcing function to ensure feedback is acted upon, thus increasing trust between soldiers and leaders.
Finally, in addition to the MEC and QPTB, it is imperative to reform command climate assessments and how they are used. There is much to be done here to build confidence in a system where little exists—from how surveys are distributed to generalizing on low response rates with even poorer action plans. Some units are rightly setting expectations for these assessments, which include mandatory out-briefs up and down the chain of command. This is a positive development and should be augmented by shifting the timing of climate assessments to the end of a command tour and avoiding awkward hybrid results between incoming and outgoing commanders while expanding access to these reports for the incoming commander that accommodates a longitudinal review. Leaders should also maximize the use of tools such as pulse surveys and the Center for the Army Profession and Leadership’s command climate navigator to address organizational challenges. Ultimately, the Army must also get to a place where command climate is discussed in officer and noncommissioned officer evaluations to drive behavioral change and hold leaders accountable. A good first step is to incorporate language into both the rater and senior rater narratives in the near term.
The Army’s complex challenges cannot be divorced from the upcoming fiftieth anniversary of the all-volunteer force. And as it projects toward the next fifty years, any effort to fill its ranks must require an improvement in efforts to prevent harmful behaviors and restore and maintain trust. The modest reforms discussed here, which complement those in the FHIRC and IRC, can have an outsize effect on those closest to the problem.
Lt. Col. Jaron S. Wharton, PhD, US Army, is a chief of staff of the Army senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is a United States Military Academy graduate and holds advanced degrees from Harvard and Duke University, where he earned his doctorate in public policy. He is also a Goodpaster scholar and a research fellow at the Modern War Institute.
Ms. Kris Fuhr is a 1985 graduate of West Point. She served as a climate and culture colead on the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military. She currently serves as an HQE on Gender Integration at US Army Forces Command.
As previously noted in the essay, elements of this article are informed by an earlier article published in Military Review of which Lt. Col. Wharton was a coauthor. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Sgt. Logan Ludwig, US Army
This article basically is a whole lotta words saying nothing. The army is having trouble recruiting because it has become a social club instead of a "point of the spear" organization.
If you want a positive command climate, push your soldiers and sweat them to a point where – though they might hate you for it – they are proud to be a part of an element that challenges them.
This glad-handing bullshit over hot-button political issues is a distraction from what makes truly effective and happy military units – being held to a high standard of success and being allowed to meet that standard. If you want soldiers to act integrously, force them into situations where they must earn results with honor and integrity. Don’t just tell them they should be so, build that habit.
All the values that are encompassed in SHARP, anti-bullying, and every other namby-pamby initiative out there is better embodied in tough field training with austere and demanding standards driven by well-supported trainers than through any surveys or PowerPoint lectures.
When back from the field, this is best embodied through strict adherence to discipline and decorum. It may seem minor, but the “yes, sir,” “thank you, ma’am,” polished shoes, starch & press, hospital corners mentality that used to be drilled into military men went much further in training soldiers to work with the civilian populace than will any SHARP brief ever.
The whole article focuses on trust in leadership, but nests that concept in the idea of a safe work environment. It’s the fucking military, we kill and die as the mission demands. Safety should never be the primary concern. Security, yes. Safety, no. Mitigate risk, don’t hide from it. If your sergeant raises his voice to you, it’s often because what he has to say has value that a cooler tone simply won’t convey. If your combatives trainer punches you in the face during a clinch drill, it’s so you can better deal with someone who won’t stop at punching.
We’ve become a legion of cowards and sycophants, and nothing deters real soldiers more than that.
Agree, article tries to apply "office" principles to the army, and I can say for sure, not in a million years it's going to work. This is not your 8 to 5 work, this is Army.
While trying to find something positive to say about this article, all I can come up with is “thanks for all the tired old buzzwords.”
Other than that, some random thoughts:
1. Close examination of this article, in a way contrary to how it was intended to be received, makes some important problems self-evident.
2. The article takes the concept of “reactive,” which is generally negative, and makes it obscene. If one focuses on quarterly reports, you’re 90 days behind focusing on soldiers. Strangely absent is the recommendation to closely examine exit surveys, “amidst a well-known recruiting crisis.” That would fit within this reactive approach but might yield useful and frank insights.
3. Want undeniably true metrics? Want a real-world take on “gender integration”? Pick up all rucksacks for a squad going out on an operation, which I’ve done in a combat area. The female’s ruck weighed ten pounds, at most. A handsome male’s ruck weighed about twice what the other male’s rucks weighed. In combat, how does a female infantry private compensate the male private for carrying her gear? It’s probably not stock options.
Was the female private experiencing the Army as you’d wish for your daughter? (Pardon the repetition, I’ve asked that question on this site before, but that question still stands.) How available is birth control in combat? Do the math.
Is the experience of the male soldier carrying her gear in combat what you’d want for your son? How likely is he to be injured, or worse, as a result of carrying so much weight?
Is the experience of the other male members of the squad what you’d want for your son? How much cohesion will there be among the members of the squad who aren’t receiving certain favors? What’s their take on Army values going to be?
4. The Army wants to make believe that all soldiers in combat arms MOSs perform equally, regardless of gender. Even the initial roll-out of the ACFT was within that fictional world. But the truth is that combat-arms soldiers don’t live in the gender-studies / gender-integration / “Xena: Warrior Princess” fantasy world. They see first-hand that female soldiers usually don’t perform to the same standards as males and are not required to. In combat, in the best of circumstances, female soldiers are provided some measure of extra concern or protection, regardless of the resulting distractions. At worst, soldiers having so little physical strength that they’re limited to ten-pound rucks simply will not survive on the battlefield.
5. Soldiers see the effects of the left’s political imperatives every day. Prospective soldiers see the disastrous results over the last two years, and it has to be affecting their decision to place themselves under the total control of a national command authority which the vast majority of Americans believe is taking the country in the wrong direction. But on 10 October, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said, “I’m not sure what ‘woke’ means.” When asked about “woke-ism,” MG Johnny Davis, Commanding General of U.S. Army Recruiting Command, said he is “not seeing that at all.” This is all disingenuous at best, and everyone sees that plainly.
6. The Army must be apolitical to protect this nation, and to survive as an all-volunteer force. It’s not, and everyone sees that too.