Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in January, then Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Eldridge Colby sought to secure support for the National Defense Strategy in the new Congress. Colby explained that the Department of Defense should “expand the competitive space—meaning above all to adopt a competitive mentality in everything that Department personnel do, one . . . that searches for new or untapped sources of advantage.” In short, the Pentagon called for a new mindset to execute radical policy change, and carried that message to Congress. Individual branches need to adopt that mindset and inculcate it in their soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. Yet how do you make a competitive mindset tangible for the troops?

Conflict is changing—and so must the Army. This change runs against an organizational culture that is biased toward combat experience in a static mission set during an era of renewed, persistent competition. The force’s current bias toward combat distinction runs counter to this new reality: as the geopolitical tectonic plates shift beneath us toward great power competition, the vast majority of the Army’s tasks will occur below the threshold of armed conflict. And below this threshold the Army historically performs poorly—in part because it demands a different skillset and mindset.

The uniform can be a powerful tool in implementing this policy change. Collectively, it is a visual reminder of cohesion, unity, and shared purpose. Individually, it represents pride, experience, and authority. David Axe wrote that “a soldier’s uniform is uniform in only the most general sense of the word. Few wear the same combination of patches, badges, and wings. Every soldier’s uniform is like a pressed, camouflaged, wearable resume.” The strength comes from this mix of objective stature and subjective idealism. As a result, the uniform can be leveraged for change. Famously, retired Gen. David Petraeus, as a battalion commander, instituted a policy to button the top button of the combat fatigues, called the “battle button” to both camouflage the top of the neck as well as distinguish the unit from others. This policy conveyed an external message with the goal of binding the unit together. Yet in the face of prolonged and ever-changing competition, when was the last time a US Army uniform change positively impacted the force’s mission? More specifically, when did a uniform change positively impact the force’s future mission?

Given these institutional biases, how does the US Army build the mindset and skillset necessary for victory in a period of persistent competition? Reform the combat patch. The service’s persistent combat bias is perhaps best represented by “shoulder sleeve insignia – former wartime service (SSI-FWTS),” which is emblematic of a paradigm set adrift since its inception nearly eighty years ago. Army SSI-FWTS reform represents an opportunity to better posture the service to succeed in competition by signaling and  stewarding the skills required in future operations.

The Army’s Expanding Role in Competition Below Armed Conflict

Current policy guidance and future projections alike show the nature of conflict shifting toward great power competition. For the first time, the 2017 National Security Strategy proposed an era of continuous competition—one that challenges the US security community to rethink nearly three decades of policy. However, just as during the previous iteration of great power competition, there will be demands for combat capabilities beneath the level of armed conflict. The 2018 Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning replaced the binary war-and-peace model, introducing the competition continuum of cooperation, competition, and armed conflict.  It described competition as a period when “two or more actors in the international system have incompatible interests but neither seeks to escalate to armed conflict.”

The Competition Continuum (Source: Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning)

Rather than resort to armed conflict, states will utilize all instruments of power across the multiple domains of air, sea, land, space, and cyberspace. The National Defense Strategy’s core mandate is to expand the competitive space in part by fortifying alliances and deterring aggression globally. This is why the Pentagon has called on the force to foster a new, competitive mindset that encompasses the skills necessary to succeed. In conjunction with other branches, the Army’s Multi-Domain Operations concept development is now charged with planning how Army forces, as part of the joint force, will prevail in competition. The combined weight of policy and conflict projection shows a drastically new competition focus, at levels less than armed conflict, requiring drastic mindset and skillset changes.

The importance of mission success below the threshold of armed conflict is already valid in today’s complex operating environments. Success here proactively stabilizes a competitive space for future US tools and interests, providing the opportunity to leverage diplomatic, information, and economic tools to maximum effect. It also counters competitor destabilization efforts. The Army partly recognizes this truth already, allocating the vast majority of troop deployments to competition. Brigade and battalion task forces deploy rotationally to the Korean Peninsula, the Horn of Africa, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Southeast Asia. As outlined in the Multi-Domain Operations concept, these units demonstrate a forward, credible deterrent in geographic areas where state interests collide. Whether through partnered training or stabilizing presence, they attempt to counter adversary reconnaissance as well as defeat adversary information and unconventional warfare. These operations communicate strategic priorities originally set forth in the National Security Strategy.

Unfortunately, Army performance, as part of larger joint force, historically struggles below armed conflict. Non-combat operations like those in Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, and Kosovo exemplify where military action did not successfully create space for implementation of all national tools of power. Similar action today leaves opportunity for destabilization by competitors across domains—opportunity more likely exploited at faster rates in the future. In a new era marked by a non-binary relationship between peace and war as well as a reduction of absolute US superiority, improving performance in competition matters. However, one does not need to look far to see why the Army historically underperformed in competition below armed conflict. The service does not prioritize it—and you can see it in the uniform.

“Combat Patch” Policy Drift and its Unintended Consequences

The implementation of the current “combat patch” policy drifted far from its original intent. Currently, SSI-FWTS recognizes a unit’s participation in or support to combat operations against hostile forces, as designated by the secretary of the Army or Congress.

A soldier receives his SSI-FWTS “Combat Patch” during a ceremony at FOB Fenty, Afghanistan, February 2014. (Image credit: Capt. John Giaquinto, 159th Combat Aviation Brigade Public Affairs)

However, according to the Army Institute of Heraldry, during World War II the SSI-FWTS recognized a soldier’s overseas wartime experience in a past unit; troops wore their old unit patch on the right shoulder only after moving to a new unit, and regardless of whether the unit had served in combat. This applied equally to combat and support troops alike, similar to the era’s overseas service bar eligibility for all troops deployed outside the continental United States. In short, the SSI-FWTS recognized deployed overseas service, not necessarily in an area of active combat.

Since World War II, Army SSI-FWTS policy drifted to its current “combat patch” form, but not without consequence. Political science literature discusses the uncoupling of the intent of policy and its implementation effects. A stagnant policy can change over time because of a dynamic environment. This separates the policy from its intended outcome. This drift can occur at any organizational level without proper controls such as continuous goal reassessment. Unguided policy change, driven not by institutional reform but by a continually changing environment, causes unintended consequences over time. As a result, any organization must revisit even its most cherished traditions. In the modern US Army, earning the right to wear a combat patch is a revered accomplishment. However, this visible uniform policy recognizing service in combat may not accurately communicate the Army’s evolving goals, and specifically what is needed to succeed in competition.

Building the Competitive Mindset

If the Army SSI-FWTS is adrift after nearly eighty years of stagnated policy, then why concern ourselves with it? Whether its creators understood it at conception, the US Army’s SSI-FWTS serves two purposes: it is a means of signaling and an influence on group dynamics.

Building the Mindset: Signaling Within the Army

One reason the US Army wears the SSI is to signal the experience-derived skills the institution deems important. In economics, signaling is a process by which one party reveals scarce information to another to overcome information gaps. These signals are heuristics of past experience. While a business partner touts a diploma to signal credibility, a soldier’s foremost signaling mechanism is the uniform. Properly structured signals and incentives can induce certain behaviors. The uniform is an implicit symbol of institutional priorities that facilitate more efficient communication. Amongst these signals, combat experience is by far the most represented: SSI-FWTS and combat badges on the field uniform, in addition to overseas service bars and service ribbon devices on the dress uniform. Signals are not perfect. No two experiences that earned soldiers the combat infantry badge are the same, nor do they necessarily portray current proficiency. Nonetheless, signals remain powerful manifestations of credibility and authority. Signals can ingrain themselves in a culture, such as the infamous “tab check” upon meeting a young infantry platoon leader—whether the lieutenant has completed Ranger School can carry an implicit authority comparable to rank itself. Ultimately, credibility is derived by what an institution chooses to highlight.

However, in today’s competitive environment, our credibility signal is out of balance, because the Army’s emphasis on combat experience inefficiently communicates performance below the threshold of armed conflict. The Multi-Domain Operations concept outlines capabilities necessary to prevail in multi-domain competition—such as calibrating force posture, building partner capacity, and understanding competitive environments. These capabilities’ derivative skills—like interoperability, information awareness, and cultural awareness—are not accurately captured by whether a right sleeve is blank or displays a combat patch. Yet they are practiced daily by much of the force in deployments below the level of armed conflict. As a result, SSI reform presents an opportunity to signal the skillsets required in the current and future operating environments, thereby reflecting the new, “competitive mindset” the Army should be seeking to inculcate in its soldiers.

Building the Mindset: Symbols and Unit Cohesion Within the Army

Another reason the US Army wears the SSI is the improved unit cohesion caused by strong symbols. Symbology and its effects are important components of several different fields of scholarship including anthropology, psychology, sociology, and political science. A symbol’s power comes from the desires of the organization itself. As a result, symbols can change over time to meet the organization’s needs. For example, a recent Army pilot program sought to similarly harness the power of symbolism to build unity of effort across components, permitting active, reserve, and National Guard soldiers to wear unit patches of “associated units” in different components. Similarly, Army leaders can widen the meaning and prestige currently associated with the SSI-FWTS to include competition, reflecting the shifting warfighting focus in the recent National Defense Strategy.

Unfortunately, signaling and symbology can negatively impact unit performance. The reverence surrounding the combat patch encourages distrust and apathy toward today’s mission set below the level of armed conflict at the unit level. Further, it creates ingroupoutgroup effects, both within deployed task forces and within the larger force. This, in turn, creates risks to retaining and promoting the right talent. Soldiers can perceive significant professional advantage or disadvantage based on a combat patch either amongst unit leadership or formal promotion boards.  As a result, a unit patch provides a measure of individual worth effecting both career decisions and service satisfaction. Those who deploy to zones of competition participate in valuable work that supports the Army’s strategic goals. However, the US Army is leaving untapped sources of individual motivation and group cohesion on the competitive sideline.

Building Support for the Mindset

SSI-FWTS reform would help to operationalize the mindset required to succeed across the competition continuum. We propose two alterations to Army Regulation 670-1, Wear and Appearance of Army Uniforms and Insignia, whereby SSI-FWTS would be authorized for deployment (temporary change of station) in a declared “competitive zone.” A competitive zone would be a specified geographical area where state actor interests collide, placing formations and systems in contact across different domains. The revised regulation could appear as follows—based on the current AR 670-1 paragraph 19–17, a, (1), (a) and with revisions in italics:

(1) The Secretary of the Army or higher must declare the theater or area of operation as a hostile or competitive environment to which the unit is assigned or Congress must pass a Declaration of War.

(2) The units must have actively participated in or supported ground combat operations against hostile forces in which they were exposed to the threat of enemy action or fire, either directly or indirectly across the multi-domain spectrum.

Using this definition, the Army uniform offers more ways to build the competitive mindset. The Army should also award overseas services bars for competitive zone deployment time.

Deployment Patches: So Everyone Gets A Trophy?

Our argument is not intended to minimize the sacrifices, heroism, or skills required for combat deployments. They deserve recognition for the experience gained in the most challenging and dangerous circumstances. Deservingly, there are still many ways to reward performance in combat—like the Combat Infantry Badge, Combat Action Badge, and Combat Medical Badge, as well as the new combat-related device for awards. This recommendation is similar to the recent change in ribbon device policy. The new combat-related device does not minimize contributions that earn a “V” device, but is an additional way to demonstrate a soldier’s valuable contributions. Today, a “binary indicator” characterizing combat service is no longer matched well with the framework through which we view and prepare to operate across the global landscape. Small adjustments to uniforms can offer ancillary benefits including unit cohesion during policy change. A decade after 2001, the Army amended its uniform policy for Pentagon personnel to the Army Service Uniform, because the Army’s headquarters mission required a different mindset than that at the pointy end of the spear. Influencing the entire organization’s mindset will require a larger change.

SSI-FWTS reform is not the magic bullet in an era of great power competition. It is one symbolic plug in a gap in the Army’s conceptual framework, aimed at building the “competitive mindset.” The Army can lead the Department of Defense, profiling the values and skills required to deter conflict on favorable terms, succeed in the competitive space below armed conflict, and when needed, enable rapid transition to armed conflict. Reforming SSI-FWTS policy would signal a force-wide expectation of proficiency and success in competition.

Finally, while SSI-FWTS reform facilitates the competitive mindset necessary in future fights, it does not detract from garrison combat preparation. The military must still block and tackle. While the majority of deploying forces are destined for competitive environments, the majority of the entire force readies for high-intensity combat. The Army can, and must, incentivize success in operations other than war and yet still prepare for full-spectrum conflict.

The game is changing, and the US Army has work to do. While new technological and doctrinal innovations will be critical, the Army must build a new mindset to succeed in competition. To get there, the things the Army deems most important and the way the service signals them, must change.


Capt. Paul Merklinger and Capt. Ryan Orsini are Army officers currently attending Yale and Georgetown University, respectively. They have previously served in the 101st Airborne Division and 82nd Airborne Division with four operational deployments in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Freedom Sentinel, and Joint Guardian. Connect with them on twitter @MerklingerPaul and @TheOrsiniDevice.

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.


Featured image credit: Cpl. Amber Stephens, US Army