Sgt. Maj. Kenneth Agueda during an educational event in 2015.

Sgt. Maj. Kenneth Agueda during an educational event in 2015. DOD

Army Generals Are Not Prepared for the Future

Service leaders love to tout innovation, but can they make the changes necessary to succeed?

The Army continues to build general officers who are not adequately prepared to succeed as technology advances. The Army has always done a terrible job at developing and deploying new technology, and though there may be many reasons for the Army's endless failures in innovation, the final responsibility lies with the generals. While it is popular to compare military generals with corporate Chief Executive Officers, these analogies lack empirical analysis. Compared to the top CEOs, Army generals are sorely undereducated in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.

Innovation Leadership and STEM

High performing CEOs increasingly have STEM degrees. In 2018, Harvard Business Review noted that more of the top 100 CEOs have engineering degrees than MBAs. According to Boston Consulting Group's 2020 list, of the top 20 most innovative companies roughly 65 percent have STEM undergraduate degrees, and 30 percent have STEM graduate degrees. There are many reasons companies may seek STEM-educated CEOs, including better data-driven decision-making skills, better understanding of complex systems, and a generally different approach to problem solving, but the correlation with STEM and private-sector innovation is strong.

Army generals, in contrast, are not strong in STEM. According to biographies released by the Army's General Officer Management Office and based on the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics definition of STEM, of the current active-duty Army generals, 32 percent have undergraduate STEM degrees, and only 11 percent have STEM graduate degrees. Additionally, most of these STEM-educated generals are in the engineer branch. The resulting total for non-engineer generals with STEM graduate degrees is just 6 percent.

History Majors and the Future Army

In government, nothing says prioritization quite like rolling out a new organization. Army Futures Command, or AFC, officially stood up in 2018 in tech-savvy Austin, Texas, with the mission to develop operational concepts, future force designs, and material solutions, or, as former Defense Secretary Mark Esper put it: “pioneering the development of emerging technologies.” This organization is responsible for technology innovation for the Army, so one might expect its leaders to be well educated in STEM. The reality is far different.

The general officers charged with leading the Army into the technological future lack STEM education. According to GOMO, of the 15 generals associated with AFC, only five have STEM undergraduate degrees, and none of them have STEM graduate degrees. As with the current cohort of Army generals as a whole, the most prevalent undergraduate degree at AFC is history. While knowledge of history is important, it is unclear the extent to which, for example, intricate understanding of 13th century counterweight-trebuchet contributes to the effective development and deployment of advanced, long-range precision fires.

It is not just AFC generals that lack STEM expertise. Other technical fields, such as missile defense, test and evaluation, intelligence, aviation, and nuclear are led by non-STEM generals—only 7 percent of these generals have STEM graduate degrees. Only 10 percent of generals in cyber, arguably the Army’s most technical field, hold STEM graduate degrees.      

General officers do not make decisions in a vacuum. While the old leadership adage about not being the smartest person in the room still holds, generals cannot rely solely on the recommendations of their staff when it comes to technology decisions. For example, there is a limit to explaining quantum key distribution like “you're speaking to a 5-year-old.” And if “quantum key distribution” sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, that is the point. If technological decisions are so complex that generals must rely on subordinates’ understanding of STEM principles, do those generals not abdicate a major component of leadership? And what about split decisions, when the multitude of PhD-type experts fail to agree on an issue? Generals cannot completely rely on their subordinates for advice, nor, as is common, on the advice of retired generals now working for defense contractors—a most ridiculous form of circular logic.

There is a growing opinion in defense circles that we are losing our technology edge against China, which is making STEM a priority in its officer corps. In the People's Liberation Army (PLA), officers are “required to fight the high-tech wars of the future and must possess scientific and technical knowledge.” According to one report, “A number of officers with engineering degrees or doctoral degrees in computer science now serve as vice commanders or chiefs-of-staff in the group armies.” In its 2020 China security report to Congress, the DOD acknowledged the PLA’s quest for a STEM-heavy education system that “seeks to blend and cultivate military and civilian S&T [Science and Technology] expertise through education programs, personnel exchanges, and knowledge sharing.” China looks to not only surpass us in military technology, but also in officers capable of deploying those technologies.

The venerable innovator and CEO Jack Welch, who held a B.S., M.S., and a Ph.D in chemical engineering, famously said, “change before you have to.” The Army had to change 20 years ago. Now, the world's rapid rate of technological change has only increased the urgency. According to a recent RAND study, “The Army has not greatly valued additional education in the promotion process.” The Army needs to end education pseudo-requirements like having any masters degree—most often from a war college—and mandate more STEM education, choosing future generals based on intellect and potential for innovation. This may mean reserving a part of the meticulously cultivated career timeline for STEM schooling.

The Army can easily accommodate STEM education by deemphasizing aide de camp roles as well as assignments as an executive aide to a senior leader. Of the current active-duty general class, 56 percent held at least one of these jobs—29 percent held at least one aide de camp job, 41 percent held at least one exec job—with many having multiple aide and exec jobs in their career.

The world is entering a period of rapid technological change, and our enemies are aggressively pursuing technological advantages. The Army will continue to fail in technology unless it changes its promotion and education practices. To misquote Einstein, we cannot solve our problems with the same type of general officers we used to create them. The Army loves to tout innovation, but can it make the changes necessary to succeed?