Battalion Commanders Are the Seed Corn of the Army
We’re often asked why the Army has created the Battalion Commander Assessment Program, or BCAP. The short answer is 30 percent, the number 8, and from worst to first.
But figures are meaningless without context, so let us provide some.
What Is BCAP?
As discussed in a recent episode of the War on the Rocks podcast, this new program is a series of in-person assessments designed to enhance the Army’s selection of battalion commanders. It includes measurements of physical fitness, written and oral communication ability, and cognitive and non-cognitive skills.
It is designed to complement the current centralized selection process we have, not replace it. Rater and senior rater assessments are a key component of identifying future commanders and will continue to be so going forward. Specifically, the recommendations of the centralized selection board will still represent the single most influential factor in determining the final order of merit list for command.
BCAP is not an indictment of the centralized selection process or anyone who is a product of it. BCAP is an acknowledgment that modern data and assessment techniques can and should inform our selection of commanders. Good is not good enough. We must select the best commanders possible, and BCAP is part of how we will do that.
Battalion commanders are arguably the most consequential leaders in the Army. Their experience, placement, and influence give them an out-sized ability to shape the future service of the soldiers they lead. They train and develop our young soldiers, non-commissioned officers, and officers and have more impact on their decisions to continue serving (or not) than any other leadership position.
Battalion commanders are the seed corn for the Army’s future strategic leaders. They are the leaders from which we select most future colonels and general officers. They will one day lead the Army and make decisions that directly impact American national security.
The Army adopted the centralized selection process to select battalion commanders in 1975 as part of larger efforts to improve personnel processes. Its advent is largely overlooked today as it is overshadowed by more recognizable changes from the post-Vietnam era like Air-Land Battle, the development of the “Big 5,” and the institution of the all-volunteer force.
As the term “centralized selection” suggests, prior to 1975, the Army process for selecting battalion commanders was de-centralized. It gave brigade and division commanders sole discretion in the hiring of subordinate commanders. The weaknesses of such a system, with its inherent lack of oversight and potential for uneven application across the force, became clear. Now, four decades later, imagining the Army without a centralized selection process is difficult, seeming almost as far-fetched as having foregone Air-Land Battle or the “Big 5” in favor of Active Defense, Patton tanks, or Cobra helicopters. Centralized selection brought consistency and transparency when the Army badly needed both things, and it has served us well for many years.
But over 40 years later, is the centralized board process the best we can do? No.
As great power competition has re-emerged as one of America’s most significant strategic challenges, the Army has re-evaluated all its systems and processes to determine their viability to help us win in the future. As a result, we are replacing the “Big 5” with new signature systems. Instead of Air-Land Battle, we have developed multi-domain operations. We are building new units, transforming the way we train, and adapting the way we acquire, develop, employ, and retain talent — all in the broader context of modernization. And it is this larger context that we are using as a lens to evaluate our people processes, including how we select battalion commanders.
We can do better and must do so in order to win on the future battlefield. It is our sacred obligation to ensure our soldiers are led and cared for by the best leaders in the Army. The way we live up to that obligation is by building on the centralized selection process.
We often get asked this, but the better question is: “Why not now?” If we think we can do a better job at selecting battalion commanders (which we do), then why would we not make that change as quickly and prudently as possible? Organizations in government, industry, and professional sports have demonstrated the power of assessments-based selections to identify the best candidates to fill critical positions. Now, we are using a similar model, tailored for the Army, to do the same for battalion commanders.
By the Numbers
The Army conducted a pilot of the BCAP in the summer of 2019 involving 23 infantry and armor officers sourced from the centralized selection alternate list and a four-officer control group from the primary list. The complete alternate list totaled 30 officers, three of whom were unavailable due to operational deployments. A fourth officer was activated to the primary list and assumed command prior to the execution of the pilot. Of the remaining 26 officers identified for assessment, three no longer wished to compete for command and declined to participate in the pilot. The four officers selected from the primary list all ranked in the top 10 percent of the primary centralized selection list.
The assessment consisted of an Army Physical Fitness Test including height and weight measurement, an evaluation of written communication skills, a series of cognitive and non-cognitive assessments, peer and subordinate assessments, a psychologist interview, and a double-blind panel interview.
Now, let’s go back to the numbers and context we presented in the beginning.
30 Percent: Eight of 26 officers failed the assessment or requested to be removed from consideration for command after being informed of the assessment requirement.
The Number 8: For those officers deemed ready for command, there was an average change of eight positions (35 percent) up or down on the order of merit list for command.
Worst to First: One officer who assessed as last out of 30 on the centralized selection alternate order of merit list for command ranked first on the list according to the BCAP assessment.
Though anecdotal, these numbers are attention-grabbing and certainly worthy of deeper exploration. They also indicate the potential value in a program like BCAP.
Officers who failed the assessment did so for a range of reasons. Some were unable to pass the physical fitness test or height and weight. Others demonstrated indicators of toxic behavior or lacked cognitive ability deemed necessary for command. Interestingly, the four officers from the primary list passed the assessment and did well, but all four of them were outperformed by candidates from the alternate list.
So, do we have it right? Will the full-scale program yield similar results? The truth is we do not know. But we do know that we should have commanders who can pass the PT test and meet height and weight standards. We should have commanders who are deployable, can lead without being toxic, and have the mental faculties to be successful in command. And we know that the current centralized selection list system on its own is not getting us there.
For all the reasons we have laid out here, we made the decision to have all officers competing for battalion command complete BCAP beginning in January 2020.
We are changing the paradigm. No longer will we spend weeks selecting a private for the Ranger Regiment while spending an average of two minutes to select battalion commanders. We can and will do better. We may not have it exactly right with BCAP in its current form. If not, we will learn and adapt. However, no matter what we do, we will be fair and transparent while protecting the integrity of the selection process. We know there is angst out there about the unknown, but we will embrace the change, continue to put people first, and be a better Army for it.
Gen. James C. McConville is the 40th chief of staff of the U.S. Army.
Maj. Gen. J.P. McGee is the director of the Army Talent Management Task Force.