WASHINGTON — A new report from more than two dozen leading military and national security experts calls for sweeping reforms to the Defense Department's personnel system, changes that, if adopted, could reshape everything from recruiting practices and deployments to career paths and compensation.
Released Monday by the Bipartisan Policy Center here in Washington, the report lays out 39 recommendations for addressing worrisome shortfalls in areas such as cyber security, nuclear technology and foreign language proficiency, and for making military service more attractive to a broader segment of American society. Some suggestions are aimed at Congress, others the Pentagon. Taken together, they seek to enable the U.S. military to maintain its dominance while enhancing the quality of life for individual service members and their families.
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"This is about our national security," former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta told Military Times. He co-chaired the report's panel of experts. "If we don't deal with this, with the issues related to how we treat families, we are going to pay a higher price in terms of the erosion of the very thing that is our greatest strength, which is the human element in the military."
There is likely to be controversy surrounding some of the recommendations, such as requiring women to register with Selective Service; allowing some mid-career professionals working in the private sector to join the military at a rank commensurate with their experience; and replacing its "up-or-out" promotion system with one that encourages the development of technical expertise, not just greater command responsibility. Such ideas have been proposed in the recent past, and they received cold receptions in Congress and the Pentagon.
But the report's authors insist that change — however uncomfortable — is necessary if the Pentagon hopes to recruit and retain the right type of talent for its most specialized and in-demand jobs, do right by military families, and drive down the Pentagon's single biggest expense.
The report's other suggestions include:
* Establishing annual involuntary separation boards to weed out weak performers from over-staffed career fields.
* Redesigning the military's pay chart so personnel are recognized for assuming more responsibility and quality job performance.
* Implementing healthcare reforms leveraging larger enrollment fees for military retirees and employer contributions for working spouses.
* Exploring the viability of using commercially available insurance plans for military reservists and their families, military retirees and their dependents, and for the spouses and children of active-duty personnel.
* Expanding warrant officer positions for technical, non-command career tracks for military officers and enlisted personnel seeking to specialize in their respective fields.
The report puts considerable emphasis on the need to alleviate stress endured by many military families. One big reason for that is separation. The force has contracted considerably from its peak size at the height of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and today is about 80,000 troops smaller than it was only four years ago.
Ongoing operational commitments — and the hostile, unstable parts of the world to which U.S. troops routinely deploy — force many military families to live apart for much of the year. Inherently expeditionary services like the Navy and Marine Corps are more accustomed to this, whereas the Army and Air Force are not, said Kathy Roth-Douquet, CEO of Blue Star Families and a Marine Corps spouse who has worked in the White House and the Pentagon. She co-chaired the report's working group along with Panetta, former Sen. Jim Talent and former National Security Adviser Jim Jones. At its most extreme, she said, some military families have been together only a combined 18 months over a five-year span.
"We've moved our forward bases," Roth-Douquet said. "The Army didn't used to deploy away from their families; they just moved their families with them. We don't do that any more. The Army is in shock because they're living like Marines — and they didn't sign up to be Marines. ... We can either change the forward basing, we can grow the military, or we can restrict the missions. If we don't do any of those things, I'm not sure how we're going to get there."
Of course, there can be challenges reintegrating when deployments come to and end. The military lifestyle is a grind on many service members and for the spouses and kids they leave behind, she added.
President Trump has pledged to reinvigorate military spending, growing the force substantially while adding ships, aircraft and weapons. The hope is that, as a result, troops will have more time at home between overseas deployments and training workups, said Roth-Douquet.
The report also calls on the federal government to do more to help spouses find meaningful employment. Its authors want to see the Defense Department partner more with the private sector and for Congress to lean on individual states to make it easier for spouses to obtain and transport professional certifications. Boosting family income is another good way to reduce stress, Roth-Douquet said — and it doesn't cost the Pentagon anything.
Proposed changes to Selective Service could go a long way to helping achieve some of the recruitment goals in areas such as cyber security, said Talent, a member of the National Defense Panel who made Trump's shortlist for defense secretary before the job went to Jim Mattis. He called Selective Service a "natural access point" to young adults about to graduate high school and choose what will come next in their lives.
"What an opportunity," he added, "to make them aware of the possibility of military service and to give them some sense for what they would have an aptitude for, and to give the services some information about them so they can recruit them more effectively. ... Even if people don't follow up on it or aren't interested, I think we'll at least learn something about how the military operates and how the recruiting system operates."
The law requires that only men ages 18 to 26 register for possible involuntary military service. Last year, lawmakers came close to lifting the Selective Service exemption for women but ultimately scrapped the plan as many continued to wrestle with groundbreaking changes allowing women to serve in front-line combat units. Those members of Congress, Talent said, need to set aside fears that women could be drafted to fight a war.
"No one," he said during a panel discussion earlier in the day, "thinks there's going to be a military draft."
The group also recommends establishing a common, streamlined electronic application form that all of the services can use to screen prospective talent. Doing so could make it easier for millennials to engage digitally, and potentially to cut down on expensive overhead. "We still do so much brick-and-mortar recruiting," Talent said. "And each service does its own. It's almost hard to join the military."
Many recommendations mapped out in the report depend on Congress to repeal federal spending caps that have kept defense funding suppressed for the last six years. Lawmakers acknowledge that's a priority but have been unable to overcome partisan differences. Moreover, the report's release comes mere months after former Defense Secretary Ash Carter's controversial "Force of the Future" initiative, which advocated similar modernization plans, failed to gain support in Washington and among rank-and-file service members.
This group acknowledges that some of its ideas may be a tough sell. "It can't be done overnight," Talent said, "but a sustained priority over time. If you do that, they'll get more and more comfortable." He proposed presenting the military's uniformed leaders with a menu of options and simply asking: "Which of these are you most uncomfortable with?"
Panetta said he intends to meet soon with the House and Senate armed services committees' Republican and Democratic leadership, followed by the Pentagon's top brass. The hope, he added, is that at least some of the report's recommendations will be incorporated into next year's defense spending legislation.
"There's no slam dunk here," Panetta said. "It's got to be transitioned in. But once we put some of these pieces in place, it puts us on a path toward where we need to go."
Andrew deGrandpre is Military Times' senior editor and Pentagon bureau chief. On Twitter:@adegrandpre