The U.S. military suffered more than 20,000 casualties in Afghanistan. Then America went home, leaving behind a tattered country with an uncertain future. The victims of this war were left with scars both physical and emotional, from American servicemembers who dedicated years to the conflict only to see the county fall in a few days, to Afghan soldiers who fought alongside American forces and were left behind on a crowded tarmac in Kabul.
Despite these failures, the officers responsible for leading the war were promoted. There are any number of reasons why the United States failed to achieve its objectives in Afghanistan, but a clear contributing factor lies with American military leadership and the way the Department of Defense structures, promotes, and incentivizes it. For two decades, American military commanders embarked on one-to-two-year rotations to plan and execute operations in Afghanistan. While deployed, each commander led as essentially every one of their predecessors did: by counting airstrikes, raids, and terrorists killed on the battlefield. Of course, the numbers always went up. America was “progressing towards victory,” or at least that’s the message commanders reported to civilian leadership. By so doing, these leaders abandoned their duty to provide best military advice and failed to inform elected leaders of the strategic reality that the war was unwinnable.
Their failure cost the United States dearly. And with tensions in the European and Pacific theaters higher than they have been in half a century, this is not something Washington can afford to repeat. This piece is not a critique of America’s servicemembers, but rather of the system in which they work. To win future wars, the U.S. military must overhaul its leadership structure to cultivate adaptable and accountable leaders who are incentivized to invest in long-term strategic success. Drawing on a wide range of examples and personal experiences from military service, Silicon Valley, and top research universities, we have identified several critical problems with the U.S. military leadership as well as two key changes that will help move U.S. military leadership into the modern era.
First, the U.S. military should end the careerism requirement for senior leadership roles. Skilled civilian leaders should be selected to lead some military organizations in order to bring fresh thinking and outside perspectives to the force while reducing the impact of poor promotion incentives on current career military officers. Second, the U.S. military should reward strategic success by promoting officers who actually perform well in command. Command tours should be made indefinite in length, and commanders should be evaluated based upon their units’ progress on strategic, rather than tactical, objectives.
A Homogeneous Leadership
Because of the minimal diversity among senior officers, today’s military leadership suffers from a dangerous degree of intellectual homogeneity. The only way to become a high-ranking military commander is to spend an entire career in uniform. As a result, leaders get minimal, if any, exposure to non-military ways of thinking. The literature is clear: Closed systems do not generally cultivate innovation.
The lack of diversity in job experience among senior leaders receives minimal attention outside the military. Of the top 27 Air Force leaders (major commands and Air Staff), 16 are pilots, while only 3.7 percent of all Air Force uniformed personnel and 19 percent of Air Force officers are. This might make sense for those that think the Air Force is just about planes, but the reality is that the fighter/bomber program has been one of the least operationally relevant parts of the Air Force’s mission for more than 20 years when compared to intelligence, space, and mobility.
Further, U.S. military leadership is neither racially nor ethnically diverse. This issue has received significant media attention because the problem is so egregious: Of the 27 highest-ranking officers in the U.S. Air Force, 93 percent are white and only three of them are women. For context, of the 1.3 million Americans in the military, 43 percent are people of color.
These factors combine to create a system that incentivizes groupthink. Most troubling, this system is self-perpetuating. Because leaders with new perspectives and backgrounds are not promoted, the Air Force has continued to promote the same kinds of thinkers and leaders into general officer roles.
Perhaps more alarming is how this groupthink, continuously reinforced by the perpetual lack of diversity, has stagnated novel thought in the execution of military campaigns intended to support U.S. foreign policy. Consider RAND’s 2011 Embracing the Fog of War, which examines how militaries, particularly the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, measure the effectiveness of counter-insurgency campaigns. The report highlights the failure of various metrics used to assess the “pacification” of the local populace, including the infamous “body counts” as well as surveys designed to measure each village’s support for insurgent forces. Embracing the Fog of War also includes several appendices, one of which is a transcript of a standard situation report sent by Gen. William Westmoreland to President Lyndon Johnson in 1967.
In 2018, one of the authors was tasked with providing situational reports to commanding generals in Afghanistan. These briefings recounted, in mundane detail, the previous seven days of operations and kinetic strikes the general had already approved. But they provided no assessment of the effects of these actions, nor recommended any follow-on operations in support of larger strategic objectives. In short, not much had changed across more than five decades: His command’s daily standard situation reports, sent to the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, read nearly identically to Westmoreland’s. A diversity of leadership, while not a guarantee of change, would help the United States broaden strategic thought and refocus the military towards more effective decision-making.
The second problem is that commanders cannot lead personnel to long-term success because they do not spend enough time in command. When officers take command of a unit or task force, they are generally limited to a single two-year term, with the caveat that members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff serve for four years. This structure exists to ensure that units regularly receive new leaders with fresh perspectives. However, the unintended consequence of this model is that commanders are incentivized to pursue short-term successes to improve their chances of further promotion, as they are neither held accountable nor rewarded for anything after their two-year stint. This standard contrasts starkly with executive retention across non-profits, industry, and even the political realm. In the United States, the average tenure for a CEO at one of the largest 2,500 companies is roughly five years. Moreover, outside of the military, executives have a dramatically different expectation of longevity, and thus incentives, when they take the helm. Executives rarely take a job knowing they will stay for a precisely predetermined amount of time, and therefore are more likely to focus on longer-term strategic objectives.
As it stands today, a new commander often spends a year learning the intricacies of an organization, then another six to 12 months trying to get some pet project off the ground. But truly meaningful changes require years of work. Too often, reforms are prematurely abandoned when a new officer accepts command, as new officers are unwilling to push through major initiatives before understanding an organization. From command to command, leader to leader, changes begin too late and end too early. Personnel become frustrated with the constant whiplash — the start and stop of meaningful action — and the organization remains stagnant. Ironically, while the two-year command tours were designed to reduce stagnation by bringing in new leaders, the opposite occurs: Units stagnate because leaders are not in command for enough time to invest in long-term change.
This is not speculation. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction does not mince words in his 2021 lessons learned report: “[S]hort tours of duty for both military and civilian personnel undermined institutional memory and programmatic continuity in Afghanistan. These tours limit the ability of staff to build a nuanced understanding of their role, their environment, and the Afghans they worked with. By the time they found their bearings and built important relationships, they began preparing to depart.”
Finally, despite some promising changes, the officer promotion system continues to incentivize groupthink. As first revealed in 2016, then further examined in 2018, the Air Force’s confidential “high-potential officer” system determined which officers would be promoted to the general officers ranks based not upon their performance as colonels, but instead upon their performance as captains. Further, once a captain was designated a high-potential officer, it was exceptionally difficult for that officer to get “off track” from promotion to senior ranks, and similarly difficult for others not so anointed to get “on track.” This meant senior commanders were not selected based upon their performance. Instead, they were identified early, shuttled along a preset career path, and barring any scandalous conduct, were essentially promoted based on their initial performance — not their conduct in subsequent ranks and positions.
While the Air Force has since acted to improve its officer evaluations, the system continues to be self-sustaining. The reforms simply ensure that officers now compete for promotion only within their functional area — for example, intelligence officers compete against each other rather than against bomber pilots — but does nothing to dismantle the ingrained high-potential officer system. Officers currently in senior leadership positions are products of the system the Air Force is trying to change. These officers were identified early in their careers, and then-senior leaders ensured they followed the path to further promotion. Now in senior leadership positions themselves, it is immensely difficult to break the cycle, and despite attempts at reform, the system remains largely unchanged in practice. Officers assigned to promotion boards can be given instructions on how to select for higher grades, but ultimately a promotion package is what gets officers promoted, and the strength of that package is still primarily determined by the same legacy system. Officers reared in this system still comprise the majority of individuals promoting and mentoring young officers, and barring more radical change, seem likely to perpetuate the current system because it is the path of least resistance.
In Afghanistan, all three of the above problems coalesced into a perfect storm of myopic decision-making. A lack of diversity among senior leaders led to banal, overly broad, non-specific strategic guidance. Short deployments and leadership assignments led not to lessons learned, but lessons relearned — again, and again, and again. And an over-emphasis on the “right assignments” led to promotion boards over-emphasizing deployment performance, regardless of its strategic significance. One of these authors was involved with nearly a thousand kinetic strikes in Afghanistan, received exemplary praise on his performance report (as presumably many before him had) and yet ultimately brought America no closer to securing its strategic aims.
To begin solving these problems, the services should end the careerism requirement for senior leadership positions in the military. This requires recognizing several realities about executive leadership. First, executives do not have to be able to do the jobs of their subordinates. Second, merely installing advisors or civilians with different perspectives will not promote change: They should also be given the power to do so.
To this end, the Department of Defense should create viable pathways for seasoned and motivated executives, innovators, and leaders in the private sector to take on meaningful leadership roles in the military as civilian commanders. The Air Force should pilot this program by recruiting a small number of skilled civilian leaders, installing them as commanders to squadrons, groups, and wings, and assigning them an O-5 or O-6 from the military to serve as their deputy. These civilians would contract to serve for a four-year command tour and would (at least initially) be non-deployable. High performers might, if they so desired, be considered for promotion to higher grades after their contract ended.
Once in place, it is likely that these leaders would begin making meaningful changes rather than sticking to the status quo. Unlike career military officers who too often lead in accordance with their promotion incentives, these leaders would instead do what they signed up, and are empowered, to do: Make their units more effective and efficient by investing in long-term success. Moreover, unlike many career officers, they will have the ability to be truly vocal up the chain of command regarding the necessity for changes, because doing so will not put their careers at risk.
Perhaps most importantly, they will provide longer-term continuity for the unit and have the necessary time in the position to start and see significant initiatives through to completion. A civilian with the power to execute his or her vision across several years could place promising officers in a deputy position to advise and lead a military “novice” through the circuitous bureaucracy of the Department of Defense. This would not only shift what is desired for promotion, it would provide these officers with a different type of leader to emulate as they move upward through the ranks.
There will, of course, be objections. Some may say that these “outsiders” will lack the credibility to lead military personnel. Initially, this may be true. In time, however, personnel will quickly see that these individuals are creating the change that many of them want to see by initiating tangible policy reforms and following through with them. To be clear, we are not advocating for the U.S. military to start recruiting 55-year-olds as Navy SEALs, nor are we advocating for former business executives to command deployed personnel in combat operations. This is also not reiteration of the oft-repeated but usually wrong “businesspeople know how to lead better than government people” argument. Indeed, the Department of Defense has already tried this approach in the research and development realm with “innovation” initiatives which offer non-traditional career paths for officers. At a moment when a growing number of people have expressed a desire to do impactful work, the military should take advantage of it.
Reward Strategic Success
The services should also redesign the military promotion and assignment system to reward long-term strategic successes and make job performance the key factor determining eligibility for promotion. Young officers are often told, “bloom where you’re planted” after they don’t receive their dream assignment out of training. The military should embrace this principle to the fullest, particularly after officers reach O-3 (around four years of service). Rather than making an officer a commander for two years, the military should instead assign officers to command billets for indeterminate amounts of time. Then, to determine if a commander should be promoted, her superiors should determine if she did a good job in her current role, as performance as a mid-level commander is a likely the best indicator of potential for success in higher grades. This promotion strategy would incentivize officers to invest in long-term improvements in their units rather than rushing short-term changes to add points to the promotion scoreboard. They might think more critically about establishing strategic goals, finding the best people to accomplish these goals, and lowering costs. Furthermore, removing predetermined assignment lengths for commanders would break an essential aspect of the current promotion system because officers would no longer be able to hit assignment timelines and milestones that underpin the current schema. Once all officers stop hitting these milestones and timelines, these factors will no longer drive promotion decisions and leaders will be forced to look to other factors when evaluating an officer’s fitness for command.
The U.S. military should also implement comprehensive reviews of commanders after they have completed their tours to assess their suitability for higher grades. This can be done by distributing an anonymous survey to all members of the unit that commander led, as well as that commander’s peers at other units and their superiors. These surveys should, at minimum, ask all parties whether commanders clearly articulated priorities and a plan to accomplish them, how well that commander executed the plan, and how the commander reacted to challenges. This data should become a part of their record, thereby giving assignments teams and promotion boards substantially more insight into how they actually executed their mission. The result would be to make commanders that much more accountable to their units. Critics may worry this system would mean that bad leaders would spend more time in command. However, implementing longer command tours would mean that fewer officers ultimately serve as commanders, and thus potential commanders could be vetted more thoroughly.
America’s next war will likely be far more consequential than the war in Afghanistan. The United States will need adaptable and forward-thinking leaders to win that war, but a system to produce these leaders cannot be built overnight. Changing course now is the only way for the U.S. military to ensure that it is ready.
Maj. Joseph Mellone is a U.S. Air Force intelligence officer. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Air Force.