Return to Future of Military Education topic area

Return to Military Theory page

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Wednesday, September 28, 2005

SKELTON: TRANSITION TO THE INFORMATION AGE DEMANDS IMPROVEMENTS TO PROFESSIONAL MILITARY EDUCATION SYSTEM

Young Americans Must Be Asked to Enter Military Service, Says Skelton

Washington, DC – Congressman Ike Skelton (D-MO), the Ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, delivered the closing address at the 2005 Dwight D. Eisenhower National Security Conference in Washington, DC.

In a speech entitled “Beyond Iraq”, Skelton discussed the challenges that face the United States in the future. In an effort to meet those challenges, the U.S. military is in a transition from the machine age to the information age. Technological advancements are important, but ultimately it is the quality of our men and women in uniform that gives us the warfighting edge. The human dimension of military transformation must be a priority and this must include a campaign of national leadership to convince young people to contribute to America’s future by entering military service.

A copy of Skelton’s remarks is attached.

“Beyond Iraq”

Remarks of Congressman Ike Skelton (D-MO)
Ranking Democrat, House Armed Services Committee
Dwight D. Eisenhower National Security Conference
Washington, DC -- September 28, 2005

Thank you for inviting me to speak at this important conference. I am honored to have the opportunity to share my views on some of the national security issues that demand our attention and on what we must do to support and nurture the exceptional military leaders we depend upon now and will continue to call upon in the decades to come.

When I was first elected to Congress, I was invited to speak to a group of first graders in Independence, Missouri. Two of my staffers accompanied me, and due to the cold weather, they both wore trench coats. After trying to explain my work in Congress to the first grade class, I agreed to take some questions. One young student raised his hand, pointed to my staff, and asked, “Are those your bodyguards?” The next student asked, “Do you know Robert E. Lee?” As you will note, I will quote Robert E. Lee a bit later.

A number of years ago, when I addressed military audiences concerning the need to reform the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the need for more jointness, which of course culminated in the law known as the Goldwater-Nichols Act, many of my listeners reacted as if I had given them a dose of castor oil. After my comments today, some may think that my bottle of castor oil is not quite empty.

Today, our remarkable men and women in uniform are fighting the war in Iraq and the war against terror in Afghanistan. They are pursuing terrorists all over the globe, and they are cleaning up along the Gulf Coast. These campaigns and actions, like the scores of operations before them, demonstrate why our service people deserve their reputation as the world’s finest military. They are serving every day around the world under the most difficult of circumstances.

It is true that some of those challenges -- particularly Iraq, but also the clean up after the hurricane -- have been made more difficult by the lack of strategic planning. Mistakes have been made. I have spoken about that elsewhere and some of the time my warnings have fallen on deaf ears. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want our efforts to succeed. And while the wars we’re fighting today demand our focus, we need to be careful that we don’t become so myopic that we fail to see what else is out there. There are great challenges ahead as we think about the future.

We must, therefore, look beyond Iraq. This is not because Iraq does not have strategic importance. It does. And if we fail in Iraq, we will be left with a snake pit of terrorism worse than Taliban-era Afghanistan. It is because there are other challenges on the horizon that have the potential to pose even greater threats if allowed to develop. Our national power can be used to enormous good -- we have a tremendous ability to prevent and defuse conflict. But we must be looking ahead to see any confrontations looming.

I don’t want to belabor this point, but just the threats we know make this a complex world. For example, the struggle against radical Islamists will be with us for decades. This radicalized group includes only a segment of those faithful to Islam, but the war in Iraq has made our efforts to work with the Arab and Muslim worlds more difficult. We face the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to states like Iran and North Korea that risk destabilizing regions and threatening our interests and our friends. Terrorists are seeking these weapons too and that may be the most dangerous threat of all. Weapons of mass destruction will arrive on our own doorstep, with devastating effect, if we cannot prevent it.

At the same time, we must be prepared for traditional state conflict, even while we work to avoid it. There are many examples, but the one that strikes me most is China. I traveled to China earlier this year, and I remain convinced that the Taiwan Strait is the most dangerous part of the world today. But, China poses greater strategic challenges for us.

They study us rigorously, consistently, and in tremendous detail. Beyond that, they are developing a system of strategic relationships through aid and military-to- military ties, particularly in areas where we have pulled back, such as parts of Africa, and in Central and South America. China, along with Russia, is exerting influence among the small states of Central Asia.

They are going to great lengths to steal American technology. Their shipbuilding has grown by leaps and bounds, and they are producing world class fighter jets. Their missile technology is steadily improving, and of course they are a nuclear power. It is by no means ordained that we will fight China. But they are making every preparation for the day when they may have to fight us. They speak our language, and their officers have studied our doctrine and tactics

That is just to name a few of the challenges before us. And with that said, I do not want to follow on with some statement like, “now that we know what we are facing,” because we don’t know. I am sure I have missed some obvious threats. If history is any guide, we should expect that something out there is waiting for us that no one has imagined yet.

Let’s return for a moment to the two biggest challenges facing us today: the ongoing insurgency in Iraq and the aftermath of the recent hurricanes, Katrina and Rita. The ferocity of both was unexpected, and the nature of the crises they represent has been determined by a full range of human interactions. This is not two great armies clashing on an open battlefield somewhere, each uniformly executing the will of a national power. We can probably handle that. This is about thousands, millions of people who come together, form associations, act, disband, and reform, seeking to fulfill their hierarchy of needs. They engage in commerce, political activity, organized violence, and unorganized violence – the whole range of human activity.

In the case of Iraq, that is layered on top of an additional national or quasi- national military competition of sorts. In the case of Katrina, it is layered on top of a region somewhat underwater and left without even the most rudimentary infrastructure. These human interactions cause great uncertainty surrounding our military efforts. This is why success is not just a matter of doctrine or technology, but achieved also because our military understands people, cultures, and the root causes of problems or conflict.

And, although both the insurgency in Iraq and the consequences of a massive hurricane were forecast with some accuracy by certain experts, neither were adequately anticipated or planned for at the national level. The result is that burden of response and execution falls upon our men and women in uniform. And they are performing magnificently, in many cases making up for a lack of strategic foresight with an abundance of energy and common sense. But as we know, it has not gone flawlessly.

This is not due to a lack of a good faith effort on the part of our soldiers, but it is instead because they have been at times ill-equipped, intellectually, for the challenges we have placed before them.

I recently had the occasion to walk the battlefields at Gettysburg. I have done that several times before, but this time I was accompanied by Major General Robert Scales, the former Commandant of the Army War College. Bob is a great American and a master historian and this is what he told me: On the afternoon of July 3rd, 1863, as broken units and bleeding men streamed past General Robert E. Lee during their retreat back across the bloody field now known as Pickett’s Charge, he greeted them solemnly. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It is my fault.”

In contrast, two days earlier, on July 1st, Federal troops were retreating back through Gettysburg toward Cemetery Ridge. A Confederate victory seemed certain. The next day, General Longstreet, commanding one of Lee’s Corps, argued that they should use the superior mobility of Lee’s army to maneuver between the Union forces and their supply lines. Longstreet reasoned that an attack on the rail and telegraph lines to the north would cut off the Union forces’ supply lines and communications links, and would force the Union to abandon its position and attack Lee across open ground.

But Lee was not persuaded. Instead, he ordered Longstreet to make a frontal attack against the Union left and to take heights at Little Roundtop. That decision cost Lee a third of his force. Unable to grasp the significance of what had just happened, Lee again ordered a frontal attack the next day, this time on the Union center. The results of Pickett’s Charge are well known.

So, how is it possible that Lee, arguably the greatest general in the history of the United States, found himself on July 3rd looking into the eyes of his defeated soldiers when victory had seemed so certain just two days before? Quite simply, Lee stood astride a transitional period, as warfare moved out of the agrarian age and into the machine age. New technologies such as the rifled musket, the train, and the telegraph were quickly changing the science of warfare, and Lee was unable to update his understanding of the art of warfare as rapidly.

Today, we stand astride a similar transitional period, as the machine age moves into the information age. New technologies are increasing our military capability almost daily. But new technologies are also empowering real and potential adversaries in unpredictable ways. When we consider these technologies are spread across the security landscape I outlined a moment ago, the result is an exponential increase in the complexity of the modern battlefield. To that we must add the dimension of human interactions I described when discussing Iraq and Katrina. People are coming together in new ways as information technologies enable new forms of dynamic social, political, and economic interactions. For many, this is a welcome change that holds great promise. But for some, this change represents something to fear.

Which brings me to my real point: the challenges before us place an enormous intellectual demand upon our military professionals. Their understanding of the art of war today is pretty good. Tomorrow it must be even better. The employment of a joint force, successful across the full range of military tasks and at every subordinate level, demonstrates today’s height of expertise. Tomorrow, our forces must continue to perform with the same proficiency, but their task will be complicated by two factors:
1) our transition to the information age, and
2) our global relationships in regions of potential conflict.

Most of you understand this, either intuitively or as the result of your recent combat experiences. Generally speaking, the language the Services use to describe the requirement for high quality people recognizes the need for this sort of change. I hear a lot about the importance of qualities such as vision, innovation, agility, adaptability, creativity, wisdom, as our soldiers adapt to the pace and lethality of the twenty-first century battlefield.

I see an enormous effort on the part of all the Services to pursue new information age technologies as a means to further the science of warfare, and that is important. We need to ensure that our Air Force can establish and maintain global air dominance. Our Navy needs additional ships to control the seas and patrol the littorals. The Army is proceeding with the development of the Future Combat System.

But in our urgency to adopt technological transformation, I fear we are neglecting the human side of the equation. We are devoting enormous amounts of money and talent to advance our weapons technologies, but I do not see a similar commitment to advance our service men and women’s understanding of the art of warfare. While I do not pretend to understand the Future Combat System in all its complexity, I do know that it will be useless unless it is employed by those who understand how to use it effectively on the battlefield.

We spend a lot of time talking about new technologies, new platforms, and new gadgets. The reasons for that are pretty simple. First, of course, there is always a constituency somewhere whose interests are intertwined with the sale of a particular piece of equipment. The second reason is that it makes it easy to quantify the increase in capability we are buying. Twice as fast. Five times the range. Ten times the payload. This is especially appealing to those who have only a rudimentary understanding of warfare, because how do you quantify the value of a Lee? Or of an Abizaid, for that matter?

Imagine what might happen if a Rembrandt received a box of 16 crayons, and an average Joe was given a full palette of oil paints, easel, and canvas. Which one is more likely to produce a work of art? The analogy may not exactly fit, but the point is clear – the tools matter less than the talent, training, and dedication that create the art. You can’t have a masterpiece without a master. I think we forget that sometimes in the realm of warfare.

If the complexity of the modern battlefield requires a deeper understanding of the operational art of war, we must push the joint professional military education system to meet that need. Today, the system is adequate, but it needs to get better. It must be rigorous and robust. It must give students the intellectual tools they need to fight the next war – not the war they are fighting today. The time spent at professional military schools needs to be longer – not shorter.

I will believe that the Services understand this message when I see student performance in their PME systems start to matter. Sure, selection matters. You need to go to this Staff College or that War College to get promoted. But where does intellectual performance matter? I assure you that performance matters in non-military professions. For instance, top law firms recruit only the top law school students, not mere law school graduates. Perfomance ought to make a difference in a military career as well.

Because complex modern battlefields will likely be defined by many types of human interactions in the broad range of regions and circumstances I described a moment ago, our forces must develop greater cross-cultural understanding at all levels. Accessions policies should reflect that need. Perhaps we should require future officer candidates to study a relevant foreign language as a pre-commissioning requirement, for example.

We must also expand opportunities for mid-career graduate level education. The graduates of these programs should then go right back into the operational force – not be shunted off to some utilization tour at the Academy, for instance. We must remove the stigma that exists today when officers take time out of their operational careers to pursue liberal arts graduate degrees. These principles ought to extend into the non-commissioned officer corps as well.

But I suspect you think I am describing the impossible. Presently, going to graduate school risks getting off the beaten path and being passed over for promotion. There is no time to cram more PME in today’s career timeline. Well, you are right. What really needs to happen is for the legacy machine age personnel systems to be disassembled and put back together again in fundamentally different ways to meet the demands of the information age population they are trying to recruit, retain, train, and educate. It is tough to see how the Services are going to attract adaptive, innovative, agile people without adaptive, innovative, agile personnel policies to suit them.

Most importantly, this career timeline model, with all of the gates officers must hit in a certain sequence in a certain time to remain competitive for promotion, must be seriously reviewed. It is a tyranny. Generally, promotion is associated with greater challenges and responsibilities, as well as a deserved pay raise. But since warfare is becoming more complex at lower levels, greater challenges and responsibilities are coming to officers as a natural course of their duties. As a result, it takes longer to develop the required expertise at each level – but we don’t see recognition of that in today’s compressed career timelines. A flexible pay system, not rigidly linked to rank, could properly compensate people throughout their service life and reduce the fiscal pressures soldiers feel to get promoted. This would buy them the time they need to truly master their profession at each level.

Napoleon said, “Ask me for anything you need, except time.” How do we buy the time in the service lives of our officers so that they can develop the deep expertise they will require? The only way to do it is to make the proper investment in the size of our forces. I have been calling for more active duty forces for years and at no time has the need been greater. We need more forces just to meet the demands of today -- to more evenly spread the load of these multiple deployments you are experiencing now.

But just as important, we need these additional forces to buy time in the present to prepare for the future. Only with a deep bench can we meet the demands of today while providing our service members the opportunities they need to develop the expertise required at each level, to broaden their professional military education, to pursue civilian graduate educational opportunities, and to take the time needed to pause and reflect upon what they have learned and experienced. This is how knowledge turns into wisdom.

But all of that is pie in the sky when we stop to consider the reality, which is that we are struggling to man the Army today. I have great faith in our soldiers, but I have been worried for quite some time that the demands we are placing on them are beginning to break the force. Public support for the Iraq War ebbs lower and lower – that is evident in the polls of course, but more pointedly, it is evident in the recruiting stations across the nation. This is also reflected in the declining numbers of high school seniors who are willing to compete for appointments to the service academies.

Iraq represents a looming crisis we did not expect when we began the war two and half years ago. The Army’s recruiting numbers are below its goal this year, and next year looks tough as well. Retention is doing fairly well, but both recruiting and retention are trailing indicators that fail to identify a problem until after it has arrived. Serious damage may have been done already.

The signs of strain are unmistakable. If we want to think about leading indicators, the increasing rates at which Army marriages are failing bodes ill, as does the rise in junior officer attrition. The bottom line is that if some of these trends do not change soon, the Army may not recover fully for years. That is a national security threat we can ill afford.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to carry this message to the American people. Since I do not believe the youth of America is unwilling or incapable of serving our country, I tend to think that our country is not making a clear and compelling argument about why they should.

The former Speaker of the House, the late Tip O’Neill, used to tell a story about his first run for public office. He assumed that he didn’t need to campaign in his own neighborhood. Because he took their votes for granted, he ended up losing that election by 160 votes.

Just before election day, an old friend told him, “Tom, I am going to vote for you tomorrow, even though you didn’t ask me to.” The future Speaker was shocked and surprised by this. “Why, Mrs. O’Brien,” he said, “I’ve lived across the street from you for 18 years. . . I didn’t think I had to ask for your vote.” “Tom,” she replied, “let me tell you something: People like to be asked.”

This is a lesson for all of us to take to heart -- people like to be asked. So today, I am asking America’s young people to enter national service. I urge all of our country’s leaders to make a similar call.

Leaders at all levels, not just the recruiters in our neighborhoods, have a responsibility to ask our young people to serve our country. We cannot expect America’s sons and daughters to volunteer for the military just because they live in the greatest country the world has ever known.

When we ask young men and women to volunteer, we must be able to explain to these potential recruits and to their families why their service is so necessary. Essentially, the message must be this: The issue is no longer just about what is good for the war in Iraq. It is not just about losing a nation with the potential for representative self-government after so many years of tyranny. Nor is it about allowing a snake pit of terrorism to flourish in the heart of the Middle East. Those reasons are powerful geopolitical considerations, but there are other compelling reasons for America as well.

This is about what is good for the long term health and security of our nation. If our military is going to make this transition from the machine age to the information age, we need that deep bench I spoke about. That means significantly increasing the force and populating it with high quality people at a time when Americans’ tendency to serve in the military is on the decline. We must turn that around.

The best of America must continue to step up to serve and we need them to come forward in even greater numbers. If they will not, our military will be unable to take the time to adequately prepare for the transformation to the information age, and the finest force in history will atrophy to the point where it will be unready to fight the next time it is called upon -- whether that is responding to a terrorist attack, deterring a conflict on the Korean Peninsula or across the Taiwan Strait, or somewhere else we can’t yet foresee.

The cost of preparing for the challenges of tomorrow pales in comparison to the price we will pay should we be caught unawares. The future of our country depends upon the next great generation of citizens who will answer our call to service. Their contributions will shape the country that they hand down to their children and grandchildren. I believe that young Americans understand this, and they are willing to answer the call, but we must never take them for granted and fail to ask.

- 30 -

Congressman Ike Skelton (D-MO) serves as Ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. For further information, please contact Lara Battles or Whitney Frost at (202)225-2876, or check Congressman Skelton's web site at http://www.house.gov/skelton.