Last month, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced what are being called an “initial tranche” of proposals for the Pentagon’s “Force of the Future” initiative. The Force of the Future is an initiative to update the U.S. military’s personnel policies, most of which remain mired in industrial age labor practices that are anathema to the modern workforce. The proposals Carter released recently are a watered-down version of a plan that was on his desk this summer, but was met with opposition from military leaders.
The opposition of the military raises an interesting question: might the original, stronger proposals have been spared dilution if they hadn’t been applied uniformly across the military services?
The initial proposals announced in November include portable retirement accounts, easier re-entry for personnel returning to the military after spending time in the civilian workforce, and a Department of Defense-wide recruiting chief. According to Nora Bensahel and retired Lieutenant General David Barno, both now instructors at American University, the most important proposal is a new exit survey that will gather data on why personnel are leaving the military. The data will be used to determine if there are trends on who is leaving the force and why they are leaving to better inform personnel policies in the future. As Bensahel and Barno note, “Exit surveys mean that we will soon have that data—and to the extent that they reveal any problems, DoD and the services will face more pressure to address them.”
However, some of the most important proposals on the table for the Force of the Future were left out of Carter’s announcement. According to a recent Q&A with Mark Cancian and Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the initial round of proposals fall far short of the “revolutionary change” Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Brad Carson had promised this summer. As Cancian and Harrison said in response to a question about what was left out,
The [original] proposals would have changed the way military personnel were recruited, educated, promoted, and managed, for example:
- Basing officer promotion more on experience and less on time in grade
- Allowing some personnel to opt out of the up-or-out system and remain permanent specialists
- Increasing the number of personnel going to civilian graduate school and on tours with industry
- Targeting pay raises
- Increasing maternity and instituting paternity leave
Harrison suggests that part of the problem is that agreeing to end the up-or-out promotion system might sound like an admission that it is responsible for “brain drain” in the military, and may seem to suggest that some leaders currently serving are less qualified than those who left the force. Moreover, paying for service members to attend civilian graduate schools, allowing tours in the defense industry, and providing for increased family leave time will be costly, and will make large numbers of personnel unavailable for duty for long periods of time.
These are important objections. However, not trying to implement these reforms across the board might have eased the worries of some senior military leaders.
As Cancian and Harrison argue, “Trying to make military service more attractive to millennials and competing with Google for talent were not, in themselves, an adequate argument” for military leaders to embrace major change. But which military services need to compete with Google for talent? It is telling that the U.S. Navy and Air Force have been, as Mieke Eoyang of the national security program at Third Way noted, “working really broadly with the think tank community to identify out-of-the-box thinking about personnel reform.” While the entire military has become increasingly reliant on information technology essentially, the Navy and Air Force are the most IT-dependent and therefore the most likely to want to improve their competitiveness vis-à-vis Silicon Valley.
The Marines, on the other hand, desire a different skill set. This is only natural. The separate services exist because of their different functional specializations. This is one reason why the Marines have been especially resistant to the proposed changes to the personnel system—though it’s probably not the only one, given the service’s position on women serving in combat positions.
According to the most recent demographic data from the Department of Defense, Marine Corps personnel tend to skew younger than the other military services—with a larger percentage whose highest level of educational achievement is a high school diploma. Leaving aside gender issues for a moment, if the Marines believe this age and educational profile suits them well, then it makes sense to allow them to continue recruiting from this pool. If the Marine Corps does not feel the need to attract recruits interested in extended family leave or civilian graduate education, then it need not adopt them, and some of the costs of these programs might be avoided. But if the Navy, Air Force, or Army does adopt these new benefits, and turns out to be more successful than the Marines in recruitment, then the Corps should reconsider offering a similar package. The services ought to be able to customize these proposals to suit their specific needs, and to learn from each other’s experiments.
As the Congressional Budget Office found last year, personnel costs are the largest driver of growth in the defense budget since 2000. But military benefits such as health care and retirement compensation are applied across the services. This uniform approach to compensation provides the services, who determine personnel needs, with few feedback mechanisms to tell them how best recruit, retain, and structure their personnel because the cost is distributed through the Department of Defense as a whole. Applying the Force of the Future proposals in a similar uniform fashion risks a similar result.
The point here is not that the Force of the Future is either the optimal personnel policy or a set of fatally flawed proposals. Force of the Future is meant to make the military more competitive in a labor market far different from the one it faced when its current personnel policies were designed. Many of the proposals seem at first glance like a sound approach to doing so. But given the different needs and cultures of each service, why should Pentagon officials, military leaders, or members of Congress assume a one-size-fits-all approach to attracting recruits will make the military more successful at competing in today’s labor market? Allowing the services to compete for talented personnel might lead to creative approaches to recruiting and retention that the other services might mimic.
Members of the defense establishment are fond of saying that people are the military’s most important resource. The services are the primary user of this resource. They therefore need to make decisions of how best to use it. Those decisions require them to better understand the costs and consequences of poor decisions.