2011/07/01

On the pursuit of 'excellence'

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Two to four generations ago, the highest form of school degree was rare; only about 5-20% of the youth graduated with such a degree in developed countries. Governments understood that better education drives up productivity nation-wide, and the aim was for 40-60% graduation with the highest form of school diploma.
This objective was largely reached, but in the meantime said diploma was watered down in most places.

Such a quantitative improvement of quality at the expense of real quality happens to be a rather common problem. It doesn't meant hat you shouldn't strive for broadening the high quality part, but the problem should be taken into account.


Back in the mid-90's there was talk in the Bundeswehr about how we should have one Feldwebel (an NCO who completed an advanced NCO course and was historically a rather senior NCO) per squad instead of squads led by junior NCOs.
Last I learned is that this goal was largely achieved. Sadly, the reputation of Feldwebel course graduates is now decidedly inferior to their reputation 15 years ago.
This development was part of a greater rank inflation problem, of course (easier promotion was the only idea that the ministry of defence seems to have had in regard to improvement of the soldier's job attractiveness and it was also a politically easy form of pay raise).

The integration of women followed a similar pattern; there's not even a serious attempt to hide that standards were lowered for them.

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Another typical trend in regard to quality improvements affects hardware procurement: The 'death spiral'.
Back in the early 90's there was still talk about more than a thousand F-22 fighters, then about 750, then about 650, then 300-something ... it ended up at less than 200. The quest for superior quality ended up costing so much (for several reasons) that only a operationally problematic quantity* was still affordable even with an incredibly bloated budget.   (*: In context of the expectations.)

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Finally there's the special forces syndrome. The attempt to gain near-perfect infantry (special forces) led to a concentration of much high quality personnel in few "special" units - at the expense of the regular infantry. The planners got their hyper-competent 'direct action' units. The drawback?
Those 'special forces' now get missions that were historically done with regular infantry ... because higher echelon headquarters ceased to entrust their regular infantry with such missions.
There are now less fully trusted special forces than previously fully trusted infantry in some armies that jumped enthusiastically on the special forces fashion wagon.

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These examples of quality improvement efforts gone bad are really bad news (well, not really 'news', but bad!).
Everyone who wants a cost-efficient pursuit of national security should naturally demand a high quality of our forces. There's always a 'too much', even in regard to quality (or do you think a Maybach car is not 'too much' for you and your purse?), but low quality forces have been clobbered in military history with such a regularity and thoroughness that high quality is the way to go, obviously.

My concern is that many if not most proposals for improvements are somewhat similar to at least one of the examples given. We really need improvement and reform proposals that take these problems into account (and many more problems!); we need well-informed and smart proposals.

A mere proposal to add this hardware, to add that requirement, to increase a quantity of something that's fine - that's not going to cut it. Historically, many successful reforms have been rather subtle or required a great deal of effort and self-discipline. Some of the greatest and most lasting advances were rooted in arduous training and doctrinal improvements and could not be quantified in money or percentage.

There are likely few truly easy options for major improvements left - if any.


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1 comment:

  1. This is what happens when military aspects fade from view. In the western world, military affairs are not seen by the general population as vital to the survival of the nation as they used to be. There used ot be a time when "everybody" knew what weapon systems were in use in the army - not anymore.

    It has become a sort of political backwater, only useful for the occasional prestige linked to a mission or a project.

    It is also a reflection of transitory times. One could argue that the army as we know it is increasingly viewed as a thing of the past, just as knights used to be when Charles VII built a french "national" army with dedicated artillery, and standardisation.

    The great evolution is the drone, and his follower the combat robot (which is autonomous & doesn't have to be teleguided). This is where the money and effort is going. Increasingly, armed forces are viewed as employment for the economically impaired , which is not competitive with its mechanical/ electronic counterparts.

    On the other end of the spectrum ("boots on the ground"), the increased use of "local authorities" (more and more akin to feodality, be it "drug lord" or "war lord" or "mafia boss") and mercenaries (Xe services) also makes the soldier as "public servant" (Staatsbeamter) redundant.

    These are the same forces that are changing the economy, and one has the army of one's economy.

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