WASHINGTON — Only a quarter of the Army’s officers and enlisted soldiers believe the nation’s largest military branch is headed in the right direction — a survey response that is the lowest on record and reflects what some in the service call a crisis in confidence.
The detailed annual survey by a team of independent researchers found that the most common reasons cited for the bleak outlook were “ineffective leaders at senior levels,” a fear of losing the best and the brightest after a decade of war, and the perception, especially among senior enlisted soldiers, that “the Army is too soft” and lacks sufficient discipline.
The study, ordered by the Center for Army Leadership at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, also found that one in four troops serving in Afghanistan rated morale either “low” or “very low,” part of a steady downward trend over the last five years.
But the most striking finding is widespread disagreement with the statement that “the Army is headed in the right direction to prepare for the challenges of the next 10 years.”
“In 2011, [active duty] agreement to this statement hit an all-time low,” according to the survey results, a copy of which were provided to The Boston Globe. “Belief that the Army is headed in the right direction is positively related to morale.”
In 2010, about 33 percent of those surveyed didn’t agree with the statement; the number was 38 percent in 2006.
The apparent lack of confidence poses a new set of challenges to the Army as it undergoes budget cuts and shrinks its ranks. The Army’s top officer, General Raymond T. Odierno, says he is taking the findings to heart.
“It is very important for us to be introspective, and we are committed to continual self-assessment,” Odierno told the Army Times newspaper in a statement.
A major concern that the survey identified was whether the Army would be able to keep top-notch leaders as it cuts its ranks, as well as fears it would be stretched too thin to meet unforeseen demands. Junior officers were particularly concerned about retaining good leaders.
The active-duty Army, which is currently about 570,000 strong, is preparing to reduce its ranks by about 90,000 soldiers in the coming years, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down and the Pentagon budget is subject to a government-wide belt-tightening.
“Comments on downsizing the force reflected concerns by leaders that troop reductions would significantly impact the Army’s ability to respond to future conflicts,” the study’s authors wrote.
The Army has historically surveyed attitudes within the ranks to improve professional education and training. But since 2005 it has undertaken the empirically based Army Leader Development Survey each year in an effort to identify trends and leading indicators for leadership problems and signs of dissatisfaction.
The survey, conducted by the management consulting firm ICF International, was administered online in November and December 2011 to a variety of ranks both at bases in the United States and around the world. The findings, from about 17,000 responses, come as the Army is struggling with a host of internal challenges, including a record number of soldier suicides. In July the number of suicides doubled, to a total of 26, from the month before.
The leadership survey is cause for special concern in an institution that is defined by its hierarchy, one where confidence in one’s superiors and a common understanding of goals and objectives are considered critical to success.
“Senior leaders need to translate their guidance into more practical terms for more junior leaders,” said retired Brigadier General Thomas A. Kolditz, who directed the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the Military Academy at West Point and now teaches at the Yale School of Management. “If that transmission isn’t being done, those junior leaders could feel disconnected.”
Other experts said they believe the figures are a reflection of the deep uncertainty after a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The age of counterinsurgency has been declared to be over,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a military scholar at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution in Washington. “It leaves the Army a little adrift. There is not an obvious big threat. No one is talking about Iran or China as overland invasions.’’
O’Hanlon pointed out that earlier this year the Pentagon unveiled a new national security strategy that emphasized the Asia-Pacific region and preparing for securing American interests in the face of a rising China. That strategy emphasized the strengths of the Navy and Air Force.
The Army, which has carried the brunt of the fighting in the last decade, is not expected to play as significant a role.
The new strategy “took away the Army’s raison d’etre and didn’t replace it with anything else,” he added. “Many in the ranks may be losing their sense of purpose.”
For those troops surveyed while serving in Afghanistan, the picture of troop morale was mixed. Nearly half said that morale was “high or very high,” but a full 25 percent rated it as “low” or “very low.” That compares with 15 percent of those posted at bases in the continental United States.
The study’s authors wrote that those numbers were consistent with predictions last year that morale in Afghanistan was on a five-year downward slide. But it cited another disturbing figure from a previous internal study: One in five of those surveyed in Afghanistan reported they suffer from a psychological problem, such as acute stress, depression, or anxiety.
Kolditz and others suggested the lack of overall confidence in the Army’s direction could also be a feeling among battle-hardened troops that superiors do not adequately incorporate the actual experience of troops in the field into the service’s future planning.
“Most of the operations are being performed by leaders at a lower level,” he said. “They may feel they have an intimate understanding of the future of war going forward but their superiors do not.”
That possibility was echoed last year in a speech by retired Army General Stanley A. McChrystal, the former commander in Afghanistan, who cited the need for the Army leadership to be “reverse mentored” by more junior officers.
“How does a leader stay credible and legitimate when they haven’t done what the people you are leading are doing?” he asked.Bryan Bender can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeBender