Andrew Tilghman, Military Times, Apr 6
Defense Secretary Ash Carter is worried about tomorrow's military.
He's worried about recruiting and retaining a high-skilled force when the economy is improving. He is worried the military will be unable to compete with corporate America for the best and brightest young people.
He's worried that military life will be unattractive to the young cohort known as millennials, including some who were in kindergarten on Sept. 11, 2001, and can't remember precisely where they were that morning.
"As the so-called 9/11 generation begins to leave our ranks, the Defense Department must continue to bring in talented Americans, from your generation and others," Carter told students on a recent trip to his alma mater, Abington Senior High School in suburban Philadelphia.
"To meet all these challenges, the Defense Department has to think hard about how to attract, inspire and excite people like you."
To that end, Carter is proposing a dramatic overhaul of the military personnel system, changes that would redefine the way service members are recruited, promoted and retained.
During a visit to the Army's Fort Drum, New York, on March 30, he spoke to a crowd of soldiers and outlined proposals that included:
• Making fundamental changes to the promotion system that will place more weight on merit and skills — and less on seniority.
• Offering more "sabbaticals" that allow service members to move in and out of the active-duty force according to their family needs and professional preferences.
• Creating new midcareer entry points so that older, well-trained civilians can enter active-duty service without having to start at the bottom rungs of the rank structure.
• Changing enlistment standards, particularly age requirements, for some career fields, including cyberwarfare.
• Overhauling the military retirement system to offer some benefits to troops who serve fewer than 20 years.
• Creating new recruitment tools that would offer to pay back student loans for people who have already attended college.
Carter made his call for sweeping change after only five weeks on the job, signaling he intends to make personnel reform a central issue of his tenure in the Pentagon's top office.
The changes are designed to compete with corporate America's high-paying jobs, fast-track promotion opportunities and comparatively flexible workplace rules. And they reflect concerns about a shrinking pool of people who are qualified and interested in military service.
Yet collectively, they also point to a civilianization of the military profession, and could make war fighting, and the increasingly technical tasks needed to support it, a far less novel career.
Promotions, as well as pay and benefits, might more closely resemble the corporate sector. Career service members might have more interaction with civilians through sabbaticals. Troops who may be older, out of shape or otherwise ill-suited to traditional military roles might be allowed to join for alternative jobs that require highly specific skills.
The proposals highlight the new challenges facing today's all-volunteer force. Rough-and-ready combat troops are still central to the military, but so are cyber warriors, nuclear engineers, drone pilots and support personnel across the force who have to master the complex software needed for today's logistics and maintenance operations.
"Increasingly the military isn't just one profession, but it's many professions. There is a very complex division of labor and the question is: 'How is the military going to maintain its sense of identity or oneness as a singular profession?'" said James Burk, who teaches military sociology at Texas A&M University.
"For the military to adapt in a way that preserves its core values is easier said than done," Burk said.
At the center of Carter's call for change is the military's rigid promotion system that emphasizes seniority or "time in grade." Today's young people want to be evaluated "not on just when they joined but even more, based on their performance and their talent," the secretary said.
However, that will be a challenge, especially in the officer corps, where some time-in-grade requirements are mandated by a 35-year-old law called the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act, or DOPMA.
One potential solution that might not require changing federal law is adopting policies that blur the lines between officers who are "in the zone" for promotion, "above the zone" or "below the zone."
That would curb the tradition among promotion boards across all services of overlooking qualified younger officers who are just barely eligible for promotion in favor of colleagues who are in the zone, or higher on the time-in-grade list.
On the enlisted side, the services are less constrained by law and often allow for a more rapid rise through the ranks for the most qualified troops.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has been aggressive in exploring personnel reforms.
The Navy's personnel chief, Vice Adm. Bill Moran, has begun to shift enlisted promotion criteria away from tests and more toward performance evaluations. "The question we're asking ourselves is: 'Do we have the right balance?'" Moran said in an interview.
The Navy is also looking for ways to give local commanding officers more discretion to unilaterally promote sailors, Moran said.
Carter voiced strong support for pilot programs that allow officers and enlisted service members to take time off from active duty, to spend several years in the civilian world and then return on a career path toward retirement.
"Right now these programs are very small. These programs are good for us and our people, because they help people bring new skills and talents from outside back into the military. So we need to look not only at ways we can improve and expand those programs, but also think about completely new ideas to help our people gain new skills and experiences," Carter said March 30.
The current Career Intermission Program limits each service to 40 troops a year. Congress first authorized the program in 2009, but most services have been slow to use it. The Navy has used it for several years. The Marines offered it for the first time in 2013 and initially had only three volunteers. The Air Force and Army began granting sabbaticals last year; the Air Force found 32 airmen who wanted sabbaticals, and the Army granted nine.
One reason the volunteers are so few is because career troops, especially officers, fear that absence from the traditional career track will hurt their chances at promotion. Under the current rules, an officer who takes a couple of years off to get a business degree from Harvard is at a distinct disadvantage compared to an officer who takes a joint staff job at the Pentagon.
That's why the Defense Department recently asked Congress to lift the 40-people-per-year cap and also grant the authority to stop the clock on an individual's traditional promotion timeline. That would prevent troops who take a sabbatical from competing against others who stayed in the service checking boxes on the conventional career path.
Carter also wants to consider big changes to enlistment rules and standards.
First, he wants to create new entry points that would allow older midcareer civilians the option of entering the active-duty force and skipping over the lower ranks if they have important skills and experience.
He also wants to take a new look at enlistment standards to make sure recruiters are not losing high-quality enlistees due to rigid rules and requirements. The details on that remain unclear. Carter cites the example of granting age-restriction waivers for people with cyber warfare skills. It could also include weight and fitness standards for some troops, or possibly suggest more lenient rules regarding tattoos. Just last week, Army leaders announced they were relaxing rules for tattoos out of concern that good soldiers with ink would opt to leave the service rather than comply with more restrictive regulations.
Carter for the first time voiced support for changing the current military retirement system to create a new benefit for troops who might serve fewer than 20 years.
Under the current system, those people — more than 80 percent of all service members — receive no retirement benefit.
Carter said he supports the idea of providing cash contributions to individual investment accounts that service members would own outright regardless of whether they stay 20 years or just a single four-year term of enlistment.
Carter's push for personnel reform comes at a time when military compensation is also under intense debate in Washington. In January, a blue ribbon commission impaneled by Congress published 15 specific recommendations that would make fundamental changes to the way service members are compensated.
Many top Pentagon officials believe that now is a good time to simultaneously tackle the noncompensation side of the personnel system and push for reforms that would make the military more effective and efficient.
Many experts say it's unsurprising that a personnel system that has changed very little since the Vietnam era is facing a push for large-scale reform.
"When [the Defense Department] went to the all-volunteer force in 1973, they just had very little idea of the kind of force they would need 40 years later. They thought they'd be competing with McDonald's and Denny's for workers. That's not the case now. For these high-tech skills, they're competing with colleges and Google," said David Segal, a University of Maryland sociology professor whose research has focused on military manpower and demographics.
"They don't have to beat Google; they just need to close the gap. They need people who can succeed in a Google world, not make the military into the next Google," Segal said.
Nevertheless, Burk cautioned against changing the traditional military hierarchy too much and risking harm to a culture and management system that arose over many generations of war fighting.
"In battle, nobody can say for sure what will succeed, so one has to rest on the value of experience to establish a command structure," Burk said.
"You find rigid hierarchies in organizations where uncertainty is high. And here I'm not talking about the uncertainty of whether Apple's next phone is going to sell. Here I mean existential uncertainty, the uncertainty about life and death."