The US Army is rightly focused on how to best ready for the next war. To that end it has launched a materiel modernization effort akin to that undertaken in the 1980s. But to make good use of that equipment, as Chief of Staff of the Army General James McConville recently observed, the Army must field leaders quick to take initiative and drilled in the fundamentals. Running counter to his guidance, present policy and regulation risks fielding an Army of bureaucrats, led by company commanders overburdened with administrivia and made strangers to hard, realistic training.

The bureaucratic burden on commands is not a novel problem. Frequently, the Headquarters of the Department of the Army (HQDA) announces measures to solve it, ending some ill-conceived requirement. HQDA reaffirms its commitment to mission orders but addresses only symptoms of the underlying problem. Thus, after fleeting relief, the problem returns. To solve that underlying problem the peacetime Army must understand itself as what theorist James Q. Wilson called a procedural organization.

Outcomes and Outputs

Wilson defines a procedural organization as a government agency that can observe its outputs, what work is being done, but not its outcomes, whether the organization is fulfilling its mission. Unable to see whether it is achieving the desired outcome, a procedural organization obsesses over outputs. It accrues procedures without evidence that they are necessary or beneficial. The peacetime Army does exactly that, collecting and codifying in regulation procedures for lack of evidence from battle that the procedures cost more in organizational energy than they deliver.

Though the purpose of each regulation is good in theory, complying with them often has little to do with achieving their purpose and much more so with executing paper drills. Nevertheless, inspectors rove brigades enforcing regulations. As Wilson describes it, over-regulations and inspections amount to “putting the fig leaf of professionalism over the nakedness of unknown outcomes,” which in the final account “will not fool anybody,” least of all soldiers and their enemies. The “unknown outcome” in the peacetime Army’s case is its readiness for war, something it pursues but cannot measure except by fickle proxy.

What follows are examples of the fig leaf and its costs from day-to-day work in the Army company that are neither exaggerated nor anomalous. They reflect experiences of company commanders across at least four combatant commands and all brigade combat team types.

Additional Duty Creep

Safety standard operating procedures (SOPs), authored by Department of the Army civilians in their capacity as brigade safety officers, often require companies appoint radiological safety officers. The radiological risk in a typical company amounts to the tritium in optics mounted atop weapons and the tritium on sidearm rear sights. Tritium is described by the Army as “a very minor heath concern for military personnel.” It is safe enough to be used in many wireless exit signs. Nonetheless, commanders must appoint two in writing, ensure each completes online training, and train the company annually.

To the brigade safety officer, though the risk is small, the mitigant is cheap. But the duty is at least the thirty-first of its kind imposed on the average company today. These additional duties include motorcycle safety officers, hazardous material officers, physical security officers, crime prevention officers, container control officers, voting assistance officers, building managers, and fire wardens or safety officers. All require appointment orders, online training, printed certificates, and regular action, including training other members of the company.

None of the additional duties are, in a vacuum, a bad idea. No leader wants his or her soldiers drive motorcycles recklessly or to have expired fire extinguishers. But no requirement exists in a vacuum, and so it must pass this test: is the purpose of this requirement the business of the line company? Does this additional duty, if fulfilled, accomplish its purpose? And can the company command afford to direct the soldier time and effort towards that fulfillment in view of the thirty other additional requirements, let alone the company’s mission?

The only echelon incented to ask these questions is the company. That there exists no consolidated published list of duties in regulation suggests strongly as much. The result is that no headquarters has a complete view of company’s bureaucratic burden, which is why additional duty requirements imposed by installation, combatant commands, and Army regulation proliferate with seeming abandon.

If such a list existed, it would throw in relief the mismatch between task and available talent. Given that most companies have fewer than 130 soldiers and officers, and standard operating procedure is to appoint a primary and alternate holder of each additional duty, the ratio of additional duty to soldier in a company is usually about 1:2. It would take a company staff to perform the additional duties without compromising the mission, but the company is crucially the only echelon of command without a staff.

Absent institutional reform, company commanders do what they are told they must always do in garrison and in battle: prioritize efforts and underwrite risk. Less euphemistically, they ignore regulations they cannot fulfill or deem not worth the opportunity cost. Higher headquarters are largely aware that companies do so, and in fact depend on them doing so if brigades are to train for their war-time mission at all. The arrangement works well until inspectors arrive.

The Inspection

The Army audits unit adherence to regulation via several inspection programs. Those inspections are themselves subject to regulation, namely Army Regulation (AR) 1-201 Army Inspection Policy, which states inspections must be “related to mission accomplishment,” “performance-oriented,” they must “minimize the inspection burden on subordinate organizations,” “focused on feedback” and cancelled if at all possible.

The typical organizational inspection does not live up to these aspirations. Though well-intentioned, because of the sprawl of regulations and the difficulty of accurately measuring desired outcomes, inspections stray from questions of mission accomplishment, become paper- rather than performance-oriented, become a burden on companies which rehearse for them months in advance. Rarely are inspections canceled. Rather than materially verifying a readiness for war they in Wilson’s construction place a fig-leaf on what is unknown.

Perhaps the most fig-leaf-like practice is the creation of company SOPs for various programs. Regulations require companies have their own SOPs for driver training, arms room, unit supply and key custodians, among many others. There is no need for a parochial approach to such programs, so nearly all such SOPs are a mere restatement of existing regulation, copied from other companies with letterhead replaced. They are, at best, an exercise in box-checking.

Inspection checklists illustrate the regulatory sprawl well. A typical installation arms room inspection checklist requires over ten separate forms on hand, six memoranda signed by the company commander, and cites nine separate Army and installation regulations governing arms rooms. The FORSCOM-endorsed Ground Readiness Assessment Team (GREAT) checklist for driver training programs differs little. It requires the company maintain at least five separate forms documenting training, eight documents requiring command signature, and cites five separate regulations. At no point does the checklist ask an operator to drive a vehicle.

Company-level deployment discipline programs require six different additional duties per a FORSCOM regulation addendum. Four of those additional duties require at least eighty hours of training administered at formal Army schools, slots for which in turn require at least three signed documents and months of waiting to secure. Thirty-three of sixty-three arms room checklist items are checked on paper. The same is true for twenty-nine of thirty-one driver training requirements, ninety-seven of 105 supply requirements, and the entirety of the deployment readiness program. Audits of additional duties like voting assistance, Army Emergency Relief representative, field sanitation officer, and physical security, are all similarly paper thin. Companies have a chance of passing almost exclusively through a night-before blitz of paper production.

A Recurring Problem

The above is not a new problem. In the early 1970s, General William Westmoreland sought to “eliminate the requirement for officers to sign statements certifying an action” and to “consolidate at brigade and battalion level as many company-level additional duties to officers as possible.” Chief of Staff General John Wickham, Jr. in 1984 wrote that “though they have no staff” the “requirements on company commanders are heavy,” and to “unburden” them, “we must do more.” He oversaw the authorship of the aspirational AR 1-201.

Nevertheless, the problem persisted. A decade later, Chief of Staff General Dennis Reimer found himself constantly admonishing “micromanagement” and “overhead” observed on the line. A 2002 Army War College study found that for a company to fulfill all requirements would take more training hours than available in a year. In 2015 Leonard Wong and Stephen Gerras analyzed the resultant epidemic of self-delusion in Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession. In 2019 RAND reported that company leaders spend more time on administrative concerns than training their formations at a roughly 3:1 ratio.

In 2018 then-Chief of Staff of the Army General Mark Milley and Secretary of the Army Mark T. Esper authored a memorandum announcing “a systematic simplification, reduction, or elimination of required activities (training and non-training) which consume commanders’, leaders’, and Soldiers’ time that they might otherwise spend building and sustaining combat readiness.” Of late, the Chief of Staff of the Army and Sergeant Major of the Army urged commanders not to do online training, and instead “set priorities for your organization.” Nevertheless, the burden remains.

The Costs

The concern is not for commanders’ convenience. The Chief of Staff of the Army has said that to win the next war, the Army’s small units must operate independently and master the fundamentals of their profession. The bureaucratic burden on companies fatally undermines small units’ ability to do either. It deprives leaders of the time needed to train iteratively to achieve mastery. It also conditions leaders to avoid the risk inherent to mission command and its decentralized approach to operations.

To understand how the bureaucratic burden imposes these two costs to readiness, it is useful to return to Wilson. Wilson argues that whereas private agencies respond to markets, government agencies respond to political constraints. Political means here not partisan, but of the legislature and executive oversight and action. For example, the company radiological security officer is simply over-compliance with the Occupational Safety and Hazards Act of 1970.

Wilson also distinguishes between primary goals, or the reason why a government agency exists, and contextual goals, which are any tasks assigned to an agency not directly related to its raison d’etre. Readiness for land war is encapsulated in the Army’s mission statement. Because existing is a precondition to readiness, almost any concern can be prioritized in the name of readiness, from dental health to life insurance. Nonetheless, some goals, though noble, are recognizably contextual. Motorcycle safety and voting assistance are examples.

Wilson explains the effect of constraints and contextual goals on government agencies in this lucid passage:

First, managers have a strong incentive to worry more about constraints than tasks, which means to worry more about processes than outcomes. Outcomes are often uncertain, delayed, and controversial; procedures are known, immediate, and defined by law or rule. It is hard to hold managers accountable for attaining a goal, easy to hold them accountable for conforming to the rules.

The above is the inverse of mission command. Yet, in today’s Army, companies are held to account almost exclusively for conformance to rules, be those rules inspected commander’s programs, infamous 350-1 training, or reporting requirements. The result is a generation of the leaders now coming of age, unpracticed in mission command for lack of opportunity. That generation also has not mastered the basics. As the time-studies and regulatory regime suggest, there is little time for the iteration mastery requires.

Explanations and Recommendations

So, what to do? Wilson’s characterization of the Army as a procedural organization unable to discern whether it is accomplishing its purpose and therefore obsessed with rule-compliance explains the eternal return of bureaucratic burdens well. Skeptics may find that companies are misinterpreting regulation, misunderstanding inspection feedback, or imagining requirements where there are none. If this is happening either in this piece or across installations, the confusion only illustrates the point that the regulatory regime is unintelligible for its intended audience. That said, to pick off administrative requirements ad-hoc rather than address the underlying tensions of a procedural organization is to play bureaucratic whack-a-mole.

In the closing of Bureaucracy, Wilson offers advice to mitigate the bureaucratic burdens in procedural organizations. Two suggestions apply particularly to the peacetime Army: devolve tasks unrelated to the primary mission of an organization to an alternate agency, and judge organizations by results (or the closest proxy for results possible) rather than compliance.

HQDA should take the shift to a division-centric force structure as an opportunity to consolidate tasks at that echelon. It should eliminate expeditionary deployment as a company-level mission essential task unless the company is expeditionary, and shift related additional duties to the division. The division should subsume contextual goals such as motorcycle safety, voting assistance, building management, fire safety, and anti-terrorism. Those capabilities at the company are desirable in theory, but the cost to readiness is indefensible and the capability illusory.

Proponents of regulation should immediately clarify to which echelon they refer when listing requirements to specify which constraints are essential for whom. Regulations such as those concerning safety, arms storage, supply discipline and others currently use the term “unit” when listing requirements. To ensure over- rather than under-compliance, inspectors often interpret this to mean all units down to the company level. Regulation should instead refer to the desired echelon for that requirement.

The Inspector General should work with GREAT, Command Maintenance Evaluation and Training (COMET) teams, and divisions to align practices with the principles of Army Inspection Policy. To tailor to the inspection to unit needs each checklist should receive brigade command approval line-by-line. To “minimize the inspection burdens on subordinate organizations,” to echo policy language, inspections should not trigger several rounds of preparatory staff-assisted visits. To avoid duplicate inspections a GREAT inspection should replace the annual organizational inspections for that fiscal year.

Other minor reforms are worth implementing. HQDA should prohibit any requirement for an SOP at the company level save tactical SOPs. Army headquarters should amend AR 600-20 Army Command Policy to include a single Army-wide list of company-level additional duties and restrict it to the most essential. Army headquarters should codify its position on online training in regulation by prohibiting the requirement of it for additional duty holders whenever possible.

Most importantly, the Army should check companies’ results rather than their binders. This is a cultural shift that cannot be affected by tinkering with regulation. Readiness for war is, in Wilson’s language, “uncertain, delayed, and controversial.” Attempts to quantify readiness or render immediate results are fig leaves that divert effort away from meaningful work. The Army should treat readiness as an outcome, and measure it using only the best proxies possible, such as at combat training center rotations, where deployment readiness, safety, mission command, and lethality reveal themselves more faithfully than in the orderly room.

Our Army’s legacy during this interwar period will be the degree to which it fields companies that have mastered the basics and can fight on their own. Doing so requires a generation of leaders who are comfortable with risk and have the time to iteratively drill their soldiers. The bureaucratic burden under which companies presently work, which alienates them from risk and deprives them of time, ensures that generation will not materialize. How to reform the Army to ease that burden is not an academic question but an existential one.

Theo Lipsky is an active duty US Army captain currently in command of a cavalry troop at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. He holds a BS from the United States Military Academy.

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, Department of the Navy, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Sgt. Evan Cooper