Military Problem-Solving

There are different levels of problem-solving within the US Military. While there are some cultural differences in how these levels may be applied in different units, the levels themselves are largely uniform throughout the Armed Forces. These levels apply largely to individuals and relatively-small problems. While there are of course larger apparatuses in existence for identifying and solving problems on a massive scale, none of the people I interviewed are/were involved in such matters. For this reason, I will limit my discussion to the resolution of small problems, usually involving individual service members. 

The lowest level of problem-solving is informal. An officer or NCO may notice a soldier/sailor is acting strange or making small mistakes. At this level, the response would generally be to speak privately with the individual and attempt to ascertain what the problem is. Often in these situations, there is a problem in the individual’s personal life that is impairing their work. The officer or NCO will then usually try to work with the subordinate to help them solve their personal problem. Cdr. Cook, who spent several years as an officer in Big Navy after his time as a pilot, told me how he often found himself helping young sailors with financial problems. Many of them had no knowledge of personal finance and were easily manipulated into predatory loans. Cdr. Cook eventually implemented a policy for his command whereby his sailors had to consult with him before entering into any sort of financial arrangement.

The next level of personal problem solving is the non-judicial punishment (NJP). An NJP would be used in a situation where a soldier/sailor had committed an offense significant enough to warrant punishment, but not so serious as to require a court-martial. The terms of an NJP can vary significantly, but such a punishment will be imposed by the commanding officer of the unit. On a ship, for example, this would take the form of a “Captain’s Mast”, whereby the offender is called before the ship’s captain to answer for their charges and receive punishment, which can include extra duties, a reduction in pay, demotion, and even imprisonment. 

The highest level of problem-solving in the military comes through official charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The UCMJ is military law, and charges under it will result in a court-martial. This is generally reserved for fairly serious charges such as sexual assault, drug trafficking, war crimes, or even treason. A UCMJ charge and court-martial is very serious. A serviceman facing court-martial will have access to a military JAG lawyer for their defense. A conviction for an offense under the UCMJ generally has very serious consequences, such as dishonorable discharge or even extended imprisonment in a military prison.

In addition to these more punitive problem-solving systems, there is another important dynamic that helps maintain quality leadership: the up or out officer promotion system. Officers are regularly evaluated by their superiors and subordinates. These evaluations are very important, as they will impact an officer’s chances for promotion. This alone would be a good way of keeping incompetent officers out of the higher levels of command, but would not necessarily eliminate them at the lower levels. However, there is another key element at play. An officer who fails to be promoted after a certain period of time will be honorably discharged from the military. In other words, if you’re not good enough to be promoted, you’re gone. This system helps maintain high-quality leadership at all levels.