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This paper examines the trend towards risk aversion in contemporary Army, lack of trust in decentralized decision-making ability of the operatives on the ground, and the cumbersome, time inefficient centralized approvals process that tends to hinder time sensitive military operations. As the Army again enters a “zero defect” era brought on by the general wind-down of large scale combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ripple effects of this mentality can be felt throughout the special operations forces.
“Fortis Fortuna Adiuvat” is a Latin phrase that stands for “Fortune favors the bold,” attributed to a Roman playwright Publius Terentius Afer, known as Terence. This phrase is the guiding principle for many of the world’s militaries, and United States is no exception. To this day, a number of military units use this phrase as a motto. But as the United States military enters a new phase in the War on Terror, one fought largely by special operations forces, these words are increasingly ignored. Risk aversion has permeated all levels of decision making, and lack of failure is regarded on the same level as mission success. Increasingly, tactical level decision authority is being taken away from the operational elements, and now rests at the levels of higher command. The effects of this are felt throughout the special operations spectrum, as now even the simplest operations require approvals from task force or higher levels.
As the downsizing in the military continues, mistakes become less and less forgiving, regardless of the level at which they were committed. In 2015 the Army moved away from a two decade old policy of masking junior officer evaluation reports to future promotion boards once they reached the level of captain or chief warrant officer three, Tice (2015). This is bound to have a profoundly chilling effect on junior leader initiative, as the consequences from even a relatively insignificant failure can be potentially catastrophic for one’s future prospects. As stated by Kissel (1999), “the subordinate, realizing or perceiving a cost (penalty) for making a mistake avoids risk taking by either doing nothing or deliberately abdicating the majority of his decisions to his superior”.
It can be argued that some of the propensity for risk aversion also lies in the generational attributes of the leadership involved in the decision making. In the peacetime years prior to 9/11, the military moved towards standardizing, and by that virtue rewarded leaders that employed the “sensing-judging” personality style over those with the “intuitive-thinking” style, former being one that favored maintaining tight control over the situation and minimized risk taking situations, Moyardec, (2009). Those junior leaders of the end of the 20th century are now high ranking officers in charge of task force level commands, and still favor micro-managing rather than decentralizing their command and delegating decision making. On the other side of the spectrum are the current junior leaders, largely of the millennial generation, described as those born between 1980 and 2000. According to Breckenridge (2017), studies have shown that many of the millennials are uncomfortable taking initiative and making decisions. This is sometimes attributed to “helicopter parenting” often experienced by the by this generation, and the overbearing and micro-managing style of command provided by the “sensing-judging” senior commanders only exacerbates the problem. Recent survey of demographics of the military shows that 57 percent of officers and 86 percent of enlisted fall into the millennial category, DoD (2014), presenting significant concern to independent decision making and taking calculated risks.
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