U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey: How the Army Manages Transformation

Like any large, complex organization that must adapt to new realities, the U.S. Army seeks to knock down silos and rethink the way it looks at itself. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey, Jr., talks about what it takes to modernize a 1.1 million person organization, where getting people to embrace change is the key.

April 14 2009 by JP Donlon


The U.S. faces an increasingly volatile, complex and uncertain international environment, one that now demands a very different approach and force structure to deal with what defense and foreign policy experts call “an era of persistent conflict.” After eight years of continuous combat operations in two distinctly different battlefields, Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. Army came to realize that organizationally it was out of balance in trying to deal with worldwide counterterrorism operations. Where it once avoided nation-building, for example, it now embraces operations where it assists in protecting people from insurgents. At the same time, soldiers on the ground will be differently equipped, using better armor and advanced sensors, which give soldiers a view of the battlefield as they have never seen it before. Accustomed as they are to mobile telephony with text messaging explaining the images they send, today’s youth are fluent in technology and expect the same standards when they join the Army.

Leading this organizational transformation is General George W. Casey, Jr., 60, chief of staff of the U.S. Army and member of the Joint Chiefs. Before assuming his present position in April 2007, he was the commander of the multinational force, a coalition of over 30 countries, in Iraq between 2004 and 2007 and was succeeded in that post by Gen. David Petraeus. A graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in 1970, Casey served in a variety of operational assignments in Germany, Italy, Egypt, Southwest Asia and the U.S. (when Casey Jr. was a young man, his father, George Casey, Sr., also an infantry general, served in Vietnam and perished in a helicopter crash while visiting troops in the field).

Recently, Chief Executive Editor-in-Chief J. P. Donlon talked with Casey in his office at the Pentagon about the risks and challenges of the Army’s modernization strategy and found that like many CEOs in the private sector, even four-star generals do not take buy-in for change initiatives for granted. 

The U.S. Army, according to General Speakes, one of your senior officers, is undergoing its biggest transformation since the end of World War II. Why is this necessary and what is the nature of the threats the country faces that has prompted this?

Like any organization, the Army has to continue to look into the future and adapt. Because it takes so long to get an organization of 1.1 million people to adapt, it’s necessary to move forward now. We didn’t have the army we needed on September 11. It was a good army but it was designed for major tank battles on the plains of Europe or the Middle East. But that is not what we need in order to operate in the 21st century. My predecessors initiated changes, but the Army was slow to accept them. After September 11, people got focused. We began converting to a more versatile organization, one that could rapidly face a range of different threats. The only certainty is uncertainty. So what we were trying to do was to build a versatile organization that can do a range of different things. All of this transformation is taking place while we continue to deploy and redeploy 150,000 soldiers a year and while we rebase the army. In three years, this army will be fundamentally different from what it was.

In what way will it be different?

It will be a versatile mix of multipurpose forces and special operations forces, supported by appropriate enablers such as intelligence, communications, engineers, logistics and other kinds of support. It will be a balanced force, able to operate effectively from major conventional operations to peacetime actions. Before, we were organized to fight conventional wars; now we have to be prepared to face a variety of situations of varying intensity across a wide spectrum of conflict. That’s why versatility is our primary organizing principle in terms of how we train ourselves, train our leadership and equip our forces.

In any change initiative many CEOs in business try to use technology as an enabler. How is the Army using technology to help speed the transformation you seek?

In order to best use technology we try to understand better how leadership in the private sector uses it to effect change. I now tell generals that we have to think differently about leadership. For instance, we will send a senior brigadier to a university’s business school for a week, followed by an advanced course where we have them visit a specific industry in order to understand how they use technology. For example, I am going to Austin this Saturday to visit Dell to see how it undertakes organizational transformation. I was at Cisco and Google several months ago to see how they use technology to enhance their ability to adapt.

Cisco offered a good example of how organizations best collaborate internally. They have a method where you can readily find others in the company who are working on the same things you are working on. I found this very useful, since in the Army I don’t have to worry about people who are not doing anything; I have to worry about people doing similar things but not communicating that fact to one another.

Given that we are in a very tough economy and that you must contend with a new Congress and Administration with very different policies, to what degree has this affected your mission to transform the Army?

It’s up to us, me particularly, to make the case with our civilian leaders and with Congress that we are in an era of persistent conflict. We are at war against a global extremist terrorist network that is not going to quit, give up and go home. We have to be very careful how we figure out the right balance to address this. There are some who argue that we can’t afford to modernize. I say we can’t afford not to modernize.

Speaking at our leadership conference last year, former CIA Chief of Covert Operations Jack Devine identified cyber warfare as the greatest external threat that the U.S. will be facing going forward. To what degree does your transformation model for the army take this into account?

There is no question that the cyber threat to our networks, both commercial and military, is real. It is happening every day and in increasingly sophisticated ways. Therefore, we have to adapt and invest in the cyber career field and grow people that can lead us in our understanding. We chose our first Chief Cyber Officer-a general officer-last year out of the information operations career field, because we need that level of technically skilled leadership, and we are looking to add 2,000 to 3,000 specialists to our cyber career field over the next three years. So, we are building a whole new specialty field, and to institutionalize this takes a long time.

 Equipping Today’s Soldier

We also have to adapt how our culture looks at the network. We have to think of it as a command and- control system and not as a way to just pass information. Commanders need to be involved in the oversight and protection of their command-and-control system, since you are only as strong as your weakest link. It just takes one open portal for the whole system to be at risk.

You asked about how we work with industry. One of the things we are working on-and well behind business, I know-is having one person be in charge of the network. We’ve done this in Korea and Europe, but we have to tear down the stovepipes and silos in the States [that interfere with cross-organizational communication]. If you are going to protect the network, then you’ve got to have one person giving directions. We also have to continue to work with industry to leverage the best technologies available to help protect the network as well as to fix it after it’s been attacked.

There is much discussion of the increased capacity of China to carry out sophisticated cyber warfare. China’s ability to shoot down satellites in space is a case in point. How do you size up the threat, and what is the Army doing to counter this?

I don’t have an operational role. Through the Joint Chiefs we provide military advice to the President. My job is to organize training, equip the Army and provide forces to the commanders, so what I tell you is just my opinion. China is principally an economical competitor. I don’t necessarily see a threat at this point. Certainly they have capabilities that they are building. We have to pay very close attention to this. But countries everywhere are trying to build such capabilities, and China is one of them. We need to build productive relations with China and that’s what we’re doing.

What can the private sector do to help in the readiness area?

The employers of guardsmen and reservists have done yeomen service. My son who is in the Army Reserves works for a company that has a policy that if he gets called up they match the pay difference while he is gone. Many companies across the country do this. I appreciate the strain that employers are enduring. So, my hat is off to the employers out there that do so. We couldn’t be doing what we are doing without such support at home. The guardsmen and reservists are making a difference in this war at a critical time. Secondly, I would encourage employers to consider hiring the many talented people who leave the military because, in addition to having strong technical skills, they have the leadership, discipline and commitment to seeing a job done well.

Looking back on your military career, what single experience proved to be your greatest leadership challenge?

My single greatest leadership challenge was when I was in Iraq trying to help organize and develop three Iraqi governments in a two year period, and at the same time fighting an insurgency and growing the Iraqi security forces to help them take over. That was the hardest thing I have ever done.

The takeaway lesson for me was to appreciate that there are many different ways to skin the cat. As a leader you have to step up, build conviction about the right way to deal with it and then go forward. Like any CEO, you have to look to the future and decide which issues you are willing to take on. It takes vision and courage for the senior guy to say, “OK, this is what we are doing,” and then you must support it and do it.