Technical Competence Versus Jack of All Trades

by Colonel Korey V. Jackson

Has the Army gone too far in pushing for multifunctional logisticians and combined logistics units?

    A family member suffers a severe head trauma and is rushed to the nearest hospital. The emergency room doctor examines the patient and sends him to the nearest neurosurgeon—a specialist capable of working successfully with these types of injuries.

    What does this have to do with contemporary logistics? For the past 20 years, the Army logistics community has drifted toward generalization and away from specialization. At the same time, the Army has experienced high growth in operation and maintenance costs while equipment readiness, which rose in the 1980s, has trended downward. While there are many complex reasons for this situation—increased costs and reduced readiness—I suggest that a contributing factor is the loss of technical competence in the Army's logistics ranks.

    The dedicated soldiers, noncommissioned officers (NCOs), warrant officers, and contractors who provide Army logistics support perform magnificently, often in adverse conditions and with little thanks. But are they as good as they should, and could, be? Are today's commissioned officers in the logistics branches the experts that many Americans believe them to be? The logistics community should take a hard look at itself and where it is going. We should examine the impact of the "jack of all trades" versus expert trend on today's military and consider where this path is taking us.

Technical Competence

    General Montgomery C. Meigs points out in his article, "Generalship: Qualities, Instincts, and Character," in Parameters (Summer 2001 issue), that General Lawton Collins, when he was head of the machinegun board at Fort Benning, Georgia, was proud that he and his fellow officers could take down and emplace a machinegun as well as his team of instructor NCOs. In Collins' words, "As an instructor there, I always prided myself that I could mount a machine-gun just as fast as Sergeant Wolf could, which was something, I can assure you . . . We wanted to know as much about it as Wolf did, . . . and if we could do that, then we knew our business." As General Meigs explains, officer intellectual development walked hand in hand with technical mastery.

    Yet how many company-grade officers in the Army logistics community today can display technical proficiency, let alone mastery, of the individual and crew skills that they ask their platoons to perform daily? Are our transportation lieutenants licensed to drive heavy equipment transporters? Are our quartermaster lieutenants licensed to operate materials-handling equipment? Do we at least familiarize ordnance lieutenants with metal inert gas (MIG)/tungsten inert gas (TIG) welding, recovery vehicle operations, basic electronics, and soldering and circuit card repair? Does the young maintenance officer know the difference between a "short" and an "open"? (A "short" occurs when a hot wire is connected to a ground, creating a short circuit. An "open" occurs when a circuit is interrupted, say with a broken wire. When I was assigned to instructor supervisory duties at the Army Ordnance Missile and Munitions Center and School in the mid-1980s, an absolutely unpardonable description of a student's inability to be trained was summed up by these eight words: "He doesn't know an open from a short.")

    If we can expect officers in the combat arms and combat support arms to display the technical proficiencies of their soldiers—and we should—why do we not have similar expectations for today's combat service support officers? Infantry and armor officers are trained to command tracked vehicles and to have some familiarity with each job on the vehicle, such as driver, gunner, and loader. (While a combined arms team captain from the Infantry branch may not be a qualified tank commander, his armor platoon leader is expected to be. Armor battalion commanders, operations officers, and company commanders often are qualified tank commanders.) Air defense and field artillery officers actively participate in crew training and table training certification. What is different about the water platoon lieutenant, the supply platoon leader, the maintenance platoon leader, or the heavy equipment transport platoon leader that we do not demand similar technical mastery from them?

    Many successful senior leaders of the past and present were technical experts in their particular fields as young officers, and they continued their professional technical studies as they rose through the ranks. Who can forget the scenes in the television series M*A*S*H* of the fictional Colonel Potter reading field manuals? Now retired Brigadier General Robert P. McFarland, as a maintenance battalion commander and later a division support command (DISCOM) commander, often would have his staff provide him with technical manuals at the end of the duty day. The next morning, he would quiz the owners and maintainers of that particular item, keeping them on their toes and testing their technical competence. I observed then-Brigadier General Larry Lust, as 3d Corps Support Command commander, question company commanders, platoon leaders, and platoon sergeants on the technical aspects of maintaining their high-mobility, multipurpose wheeled vehicles (HMMWVs) and other wheeled equipment; his questions were based on his personal, thorough study and knowledge of technical manuals.

    So what is the difference today? Today's company- and field-grade officers become broad-based "logisticians" earlier in their careers during assignments to consolidated logistics units. The breadth of knowledge required to succeed in these duties is greater than in the past, but the depth of knowledge is less. At the same time, the Army has eliminated most remnants of the old "technical services," with no specialists above the rank of E4. Our personnel structure and NCO corps emphasize corporals over specialists. While the concepts of master mechanic, master technician, and master warrant officer seem to counter this trend, I am left with the overall impression that technical specialization is

    A contributing factor to this trend away from technical mastery and toward generalization is the pushing of the concept of combined logistics down to lower and lower levels. Combined logistics used to begin at the support command level, with support commands at the theater army, corps, and division levels being "logistics" integrators. Below them were the functional brigades, groups, and battalions. Then, beginning with the DISCOMs, functional battalions were reorganized into forward support and main support battalions. While I endorse this concept as an effective reorganization, once this trend started, it kept on rolling. Corps support groups and corps support battalions were created, as were area support groups, and they all but eliminated the concept of logistics functional battalions in active Army tables of organization and equipment.

    The combined logistics concept now is pervasive through the Army, and, with the organization of forward support companies to support Division XXI forces, it is being applied further forward. If we continue this trend—consolidating the core logistics functions of supply, transportation, and maintenance into one entity at lower and lower levels—why not create a forward support platoon? Why not create a forward support squad, or forward support team? Following this line of reasoning to the end, why not designate a forward support sergeant and make him personally responsible for all of a unit's organizational, direct support (DS), general support (GS), or intermediate-level maintenance, supply, and transportation support? He would be a true jack of all trades—a super-sergeant, a modern renaissance man—wielding a breaker bar with one hand and driving a truck with the other while replacing line replaceable units and delivering supplies and the mail. (This actually might describe the trinity of NCOs behind a highly successful unit: first sergeant, supply sergeant, and motor sergeant.)

    But if the Army officer corps no longer has masters of trades in its uniformed ranks, can't we always contract these duties out? The answer is ambiguous in the short term, but in the long term it may be no. The contractors' source of skilled technical labor for Army equipment often is former Army soldiers. Where does a contract employee learn the intricacies of, say, radar system maintenance? While MIG and TIG welding skills may be taught at many industrial trade schools, few if any nonmilitary schools have courses on fire system control maintenance and repair. How are these experts, whether uniformed military, Department of Defense or Department of the Army civilians, or contractors, best developed?

Readiness Versus Technical Excellence

    Partly in response to the high personnel costs associated with highly trained technicians, the Army rightly requires that equipment maintainability and affordability be considered in the acquisition process. Few would question that today's Army equipment generally is easier to maintain than similar equipment was 20 years ago. Modularization, improvements in diagnostics and test equipment, and improvements in MANPRINT (manpower and personnel integration) design all have helped. At the same time, the Army has reduced dramatically the number of spare parts in the field (some would say at a readiness cost) and thus the operation and maintenance Army (OMA) budget.

    What is not so obvious, though, is the reduction of available highly skilled labor, since payroll dollars are not the direct responsibility of system managers. OMA costs also have increased as systems have grown more complex; what once may have been a 49-cent resistor replacement on a printed circuit card, plus the cost of a little time, flux, and solder, now often is a $10,000 black box replacement.

    Costs are shifting more from the Army wholesale and depot levels to field commanders. Where once a PEMA (procurement of equipment and missiles Army)-funded module was readily available and quickly swapped out, now the field battalion and brigade commander sometimes must choose between funding unit readiness and soldier quality of life. Other units in the institutional support base, such as the Army Training and Doctrine Command schools, which are barely funded for their missions anyway, must resort to cannibalization at times. Hard choices then are made: should the readiness of an M1A2 Abrams tank in the training base have priority for parts or dollars over a tank that will not deploy early?

Levels of Support

    The Army has long claimed to have four levels of maintenance, but typically there are five. Just look at the numbering scheme for technical manuals: operator (-10), organizational maintenance (-20), DS (-30), GS (-40), and depot (-50). In the missile and aviation communities, DS and GS normally are combined, which, though it often results in more skilled labor in the field at DS and GS maintenance units, tends to increase the need to send modules or end items back for depot repair and maintenance.

    The Ordnance Corps is pushing for just two levels of maintenance. Why two levels? Largely, it is due to perceptions that the logistics tail must be reduced. Senior leaders push for a reduction in the tooth-to-tail ratio in the hope that reducing the number of logisticians (or pushing active-duty soldiers into the Reserve components) will result in overall dollar savings. Given a cap of 480,000 soldiers on active duty, our most senior leaders, all from combat arms branches, believe combat force structure must be preserved. Though I do not believe any senior leader really wants to see the Army logistics force structure being pinched, the combat force structure will dominate when a choice must be made between maintaining logistics force structure and preserving combat power. A mantra without solid foundation has developed: "More tooth, less tail."

    The reduction of the tail can go too far. Small-unit leaders can be forced to create "shadow logisticians" who lack the needed technical training to execute their immediate logistics requirements. The sophistication of today's equipment and logistics systems makes on-the-job training less feasible today than it once was. The cruel irony is the possible effect on the unit: even less tooth and less combat effectiveness.

Consolidating MOSs

    Just as logisticians are pressured to reduce "the tail," the logistics training base is pressured to reduce costs. While this pressure in itself is not necessarily bad, the implementation may be shortsighted. Some questions should be asked after any military occupational specialty (MOS) consolidation. How have readiness and its associated costs been affected? Is the quality of support better or more efficient? Or has the result been less efficiency, lower quality of support, and an uneasy acceptance of decreased readiness and increased costs? What has MOS consolidation bought us?


    Certain high-cost, high-value items, including aircraft and missile systems, have stovepipe support. While some arguments against stovepipe support are valid as transportation and supply capabilities increase, it makes little sense to take the debate too far. For instance, some might want to consolidate the separate standards and equipment for aviation and ground fuels, but few would want to risk their lives in helicopters fueled from a truck park. Nor would it make economic sense to pay increased fuel-handling costs to burn aviation-quality fuel in multifuel trucks and HMMWVs. We would not want our unit generator repairers to work on large regional power plants, at least not without significant additional training. How many of us would want a mechanic from the local garage to change the gas turbines' engine oil on a CH-47 Chinook helicopter or lube a C-17

    I believe that there are appropriate circumstances for stovepipe logistics support. Unique items of equipment, newly fielded equipment containing new technologies, low-density equipment, and unusually high-cost, high-value equipment may be worthy candidates for stovepipe logistics support.

    There is a rightful place for generalists in the Army. They usually are the first echelon of support, which is similar to the concept of general practitioners in the medical community. However, there also is a rightful place in the logistics community for experts, as there is a rightful place for neurosurgeons in regional medical centers. What we seem to be doing in much of the logistics community is cutting out the "regional centers" with their subject-matter experts: the DS, GS, and depot-level support. Will the result be the willing acceptance of loss of life or limb of our soldiers because we lack these admittedly high-cost specialists?  ALOG

    Colonel Korey V. Jackson is chief of operations at the Army Nuclear and Chemical Agency. An Ordnance officer, he is a graduate of the Army Command and General Staff College and the Army War College. He holds master's degrees from the Florida Institute of Technology, the Naval Postgraduate School, and the Army War College.