An Open Response to “Why the U.S. Military Needs More Leaders with Technical Educations”


A brief summary of Major Bodenhamer’s position…

In case you missed Major Jonathan A. Bodenhamer’s missive at Small Wars Journal, let me summarize it for you, dear readers:

  •  Contrary to the claims (his word, “propaganda”) of Army senior leaders, the US Army would benefit from more officers having a strong background in hard science and engineering skills.
  • To underscore this point, Major Bodenhamer draws upon his his strong background in mechanical engineering.  This knowledge base served him well throughout twelve years of military service–five of which were spent either studying for a masters’ degree in mechanical engineering  or teaching mechanical engineering at West Point, accounting for nearly half his time spent in non-PME assignments.
  • Major Bodenhamer transferred to the Acquisitions Corps, and currently serves as a Product Manager for the JLTV.  A much-needed assignment, for sure, and one which will put his engineering background to good use; but admittedly, not a high strategic vantage point.

In short, psychology majors noted that Major Bodenhamer appears to be approaching military problems from his own unique perspective as a mechanical engineer.  Meanwhile, historians noted that his concluding quote, wrongly attributed to Thucydides, was actually written by Sir William Francis Butler.  And, of course, English majors were quick to point out that this blunder, while amusing, did not fit the definition of irony.

Look, I’ll be the first to admit–Major Bodenhamer’s mechanical engineering experience has paid dividends for the US Army.  For two centuries, West Point graduates–traditionally, from engineering backgrounds–have put their degrees to good use in construction projects, both on the American frontier, and across the world.

Instead of focusing on a particular degree field, let’s concentrate on what military leaders really need:  the ability to solve problems, which stems from an interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving.

Let’s take the example of a program developer for a major weapons system.  Certainly, engineering skills are important.  But weapons development rarely takes place in a vacuum–there are important economic, geopolitical, and domestic political forces which shape weapons development and procurement.  Though program managers in the Army’s Acquisition Corps may not see themselves as strategic leaders, strategy often drives procurement.

First, weapons specifications are often the result of distinct strategic policy goals, doctrine, and indeed, geography.  The design of fighter aircraft during the Cold War, for instance, often reflected each side’s strategic culture (page 101).  Soviet fighters were designed primarily as point-defense interceptors, serving close to their main base of operation, often supported by surface-to-air missiles and radar coverage.  As such, the geopolitical situation of the Soviet Union and its proxy, the Peoples’ Republic of Vietnam, drove the design of fighter craft.

American fighters, by contrast, operated under an offensive doctrine, which drove the design of fighters such as the F-15 (and, by extension, the F-22).  Expected to penetrate Soviet Airspace, they required long range, large missile loads, and their own independent radar systems.

As such, Soviet-designed aircraft, such as the MiG-21, tended to be more maneuverable than their heavier American counterparts during the Vietnam era.  The Americans’ woes were only compounded, as the Ault Report revealed that air-to-air missiles of the era were notoriously ineffective.  Losses to maneuverable fighters and surface-to-air missiles meant that American fighters needed long-range, large missile loads, independent radar systems, plus high maneuverability, air-to-air cannons, and ultimately, stealth capabilities.  A broad understanding of statistical analysis, international relations, geopolitics, and engineering greatly aided designers working on the F-15 and F-16 fighter jets.

Think domestic politics doesn’t play a role in weapons procurement?  Think again: it’s no coincidence that major weapons systems are produced in nearly all Congressional districts. Do economic interests play a role?  You betcha.  Just ask your friends as PEO-Aviation how difficult it is to get AAI and General Atomics to work together on a common Universal Ground Control Station.

And let’s not forget, the humanities teach students to write clearly, succinctly, and without needless obfuscation.  That’s something most PEOs seem to have neglected.

(Pssst…this history major has no clue what this video is about.  And I’ve watched it 10 times…)

Finally, on a cheerful note, I will add with one last observation, culled from my study of history.  During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy was wise to reject the advice of his top generals, who failed to understand the complexities of international relations.  Only because he rejected the advice of his generals are we alive to this day.

About Crispin Burke

US Army Aviator, Military Blogger. Self-described as a "Pocketful of Awesomeness". Does not represent the views of the Department of Defense.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.