The idea is controversial, to say the very least. For many in the rank-and-file military, it seems absurd, a bewildering cultural change that threatens to upend many assumptions about military life and traditional career paths....The thing is, we almost do this now. What we do now is that we hire civilian contractors and integrate them with existing military commands. The contractors are similarly disconnected from the culture in many cases, and they lack the authority to issue orders. But that doesn't really matter much, since they aren't hired to command military forces, but to bring special skill sets to bear on the kinds of problems that are handled by a commander's staff.
This is a key piece of Carter’s “Force of the Future” personnel reform. Unveiled June 9, it aims to help the military bring in more top talent, especially for high-tech career fields focused on cyber warfare and space. Advocates say it will help the military fill important manpower shortfalls with highly skilled professionals and, more broadly, create greater “permeability” between the active-duty military and the civilian sector.
At the same time, it suggests eroding the military’s tradition of growing its own leaders and cultivating a force with a distinct culture and tight social fabric, which many believe to be the heart of military effectiveness. Critics worry it will create a new subcaste of military service members who are fundamentally disconnected from the traditional career force.
“They will enter a culture they don’t know, understand or potentially appreciate,” said Dakota Wood, a retired Marine officer and military expert at the Heritage Foundation. “The Marines around them will likely be challenged to appreciate them as they would a fellow Marine.”
Now, the way this works is that the actual orders don't come from staff officers. They're issued by the Operations officer in the name of the commander. These are usually set out as what are called "Fragmentary Orders" (FRAGOs) that supplement a larger, overarching order governing a whole military operation. So the staff officer puts together a part of the FRAGO that deals with his area of expertise. That draft part of the FRAGO is passed around to all the other relevant staff sections for comment or approval. Once you have buy-in, it's sent to the 3 section (the operations section) to be written up as a part of the FRAGO. Then, the finalized FRAGO is sent out under the commander's authority to subordinate units.
A civilian contractor can write these draft FRAGO parts as well as anyone else, since at no point is he personally ordering the troops to do anything. He's just advising the commander on what to order the troops to do. While working for a couple of brigade commanders in Iraq I wrote many, many orders for military forces deployed at war in just this way. I wrote orders for PSYOP detachments, for infantry and cavalry units who were doing things relevant to my area of expertise, and so forth. None of these orders were violations of the military's culture or chain of command, because they were all staffed around for approval and then sent to the 3 for inclusion in his latest FRAGO. I wrote the orders, but didn't issue them. He issued them in the name of his colonel.
Would it have been simpler if I'd been "laterally entered" into the force as a Major or LTC? Would that have been more of an affront to the military culture than having a civilian in a John B. Stetson hat writing orders for the troops?
Frankly, I think the contractor solution works better than the proposed resolution for several reasons.
1) You can readily fire contractors who don't adapt to the culture. Make Mr. Offa de Street into Major Offa de Street and you're stuck with him.
2) The troops aren't asked to think of you as a soldier or Marine just like them. The difference between who you are and who they are is clear.
3) There's no danger that a civilian contractor will someday be promoted to a position of actual authority over the troops. Major de Street might someday get promoted to a green tab position, especially if he's there for the reasons Raven worries about. He shouldn't be. Command of our soldiers or Marines should be entrusted only to those whom they have reason to regard as brothers.
Ultimately while the military regards contractors as pernicious and expensive, they solve this very problem without introducing new and undesirable features. Nor am I convinced that contractors are actually as expensive as they seem, since you only pay for them while they're working for you. The Congress is also working through a painful reassessment of military compensation and retirement, and the VA, and all the rest of it. With contractors, you just don't have that problem: the day they finish the job you hired them to do, you're done paying for them.
So yes, this is a bad idea because of the danger of allowing the insertion of politicized officers into military commands. But it's also a bad idea for several other reasons, and it's completely unnecessary because we have a reasonable workaround for the problem that's already in place.
Ash Carter has not been the most impressive SECDEF ever.