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Pentagon's quiet push for military personnel reform

May 11, 2015 (Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Edward Garibay/Army)

Support for far-reaching military personnel reforms that would change some of the most traditional facets of troops' promotions and assignments is taking root at the highest levels inside the Pentagon.

Ideas once considered implausible and far-fetched — like waiving time-in-grade rules for fast-tracking promotions — are emerging as top priorities for new leaders at the Defense Department.

The shifting mindset reflects a growing concern that the military's traditional personnel system, essentially static for decades, is falling behind the freewheeling and technology-driven practices of the private sector. That, in turn, is sparking anxiety that a serious recruitment and retention crisis may loom on the horizon.

"This is a moment that calls for revolutionary change in the human resources practice of DoD," wrote Brad Carson, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, in a recent memo obtained by Military Times.

Unless the "calcified personnel system largely unchanged since 1947" gets a radical update soon, "we will increasingly bleed key talent to the private sector, for which words like flexibility and agility are more than slogans," Carson writes in the four-page memo to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, dated April 20.

Carson vowed to deliver a "full package of potential reforms" by August, which will include both high-level policy changes and proposed legislation for Congress. The proposals may include:

  • Overhauling the jobs assignment process to give individual troops and unit-level commanders more control over how billets are filled. Carson suggests personnel bureaucracies could play a more limited role in a system that may resemble the civilian job market, which relies on individuals' resumes and personal interviews.
  • Giving troops more career flexibility to transfer between active and reserve components multiple times during a career.
  • Improving "permeability" between the armed forces, the private sector and other government agencies by creating "customizable paths to service" such as midcareer entry, stints in the reserve components or even assignments outside the Defense Department.
  • Revamping the promotion system to place less weight on time-in-grade and more on merit, skills and performance.

Controversy likely

Carson, a former Oklahoma congressman and Navy reservist who deployed to Iraq in 2008-09, is ramping up an aggressive campaign within DoD to build support for the reforms, which are likely to be controversial.

He said he plans to meet personally with the service secretaries and will be prepared to brief the Joint Staff's "tank" if requested, according to the memo.

He'll work with Carter to "develop a campaign including op-eds, think tank engagements and other public speeches ... to build public and external support for revolutionary change," the memo states.

Carson's effort comes at a time when a new team of leaders is taking over at the Pentagon. Carson assumed his job in April shortly after Carter took DoD's top job in February. President Obama on May 5 nominated a new chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford.

Carter has already signaled that personnel reform is among his top priorities. In March, he voiced concern about near-term recruiting and retention, and publicly called for reforming the personnel system to create a "force of the future."

The new spotlight on the personnel system also coincides with an emerging consensus on military compensation reform.

A wide-ranging proposal for a new retirement system, an issue once considered dead on arrival, appears to be moving forward on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers have publicly expressed support for the plan, which would shrink the current pension by 20 percent and create new individual investment accounts for all troops, including the 83 percent who never serve a full 20-year career.

The right time?

Some military personnel experts say the time indeed seems ripe for changes to once-sacrosanct policies for managing military manpower.

"I think the stars have aligned for a lot of these reforms to come into place in the next year or two," Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said in an interview. "Modernizing the personnel system goes hand in hand with modernizing the compensation system."

For example, creating a portable 401(k)-style retirement benefit for all troops may help motivate some to pursue nontraditional career paths that include years in the reserve components and may not ultimately qualify them for the traditional 20-year cliff-vesting pension, Harrison said.

Yet encouraging people to work and gain experience outside the military and rotate through reserve assignments also will require fundamental change to the military promotion system.

For example, current rules penalize service members who work or study in the private sector, and rigid career tracks give a distinct advantage to troops who follow traditional paths.

Time-in-grade requirements, which give more weight to seniority over performance, are coming under new scrutiny, and Carson indicated this particular issue may be at the center of his reform effort.

"We promote based primarily on time in grade," he wrote in his memo. "We permit only a fraction of our service members to seek training in civilian educational institutions, to move between services or occupational specialties or to transfer between active and reserve components.

"In managing personnel, we use only a narrow slice of information about service members and, as a result, we cannot optimize assignment, training, development or utilization of the available talent pool. In short, we have a one-size-fits-all model of production, in which people are not seen as uniquely valuable so much as almost interchangeable inputs into an industrial machine."

One major project under discussion is a massive, first-of-its-kind personnel management system featuring a new internal social media network to help match troops with commanders in need of their skills. Such a system could be used to track detailed information about every individual service member and transform the way the force is planned and managed, according to one defense official familiar with the discussions.

This type of new information technology platform would be a massive project, "especially when you stop to consider the current state of DoD IT systems — it's a total mess," the defense official said.

The cost to build the platform would be on par with "a small- to medium-sized weapons system," and some top Pentagon officials want to include initial funding in the preliminary planning for the fiscal 2017 defense budget that is under development, the official said.

In his memo, Carson noted that modernizing the personnel system may require creating unique rules for specific career fields.

"We should not assume identical permeability and personnel policies across all disciplines, as what we need to generate and retain tomorrow's cyber warriors is different than what we need to produce tomorrow's infantrymen and fighter pilots, roles for which there is no natural civilian analogue."

The age of specialization

The current system is built to develop future leaders in traditional career fields. Yet today's military increasingly relies on specialists in fields like cyber, communications, intelligence analysis, space, medicine, law enforcement, linguistics or civil military affairs.

In short, not everyone aspires to be a general or flag officer.

"They have a talent and they just want to be specialists — they don't want to play the promotion game," said Tim Kane, a former Air Force officer and author of "Bleeding Talent: How the U.S. Military Mismanages Great Leaders and Why It's Time for a Revolution."

One option may be to greatly expand the role of warrant officers, said Bill Hatch, a retired Navy officer who teaches military manpower classes in the Naval Postgraduate School's business administration program in California.

Hatch said civilian specialists could be appointed to warrant officer positions without having to attend the same boot camps or fulfill the same career-progression requirements as other troops. He pointed to the example from the Vietnam era, when the demand for helicopter pilots was so insatiable that it forced the Army to fast-track civilians directly into flight school and onto the battlefield.

"We couldn't make pilots fast enough going through the traditional pipeline," Hatch said. "So they made them warrant officers and sent them to flight school. They put them in Cobras and made them killers or medevac helo pilots and put them in positions of great responsibility."

Carson declined a Military Times request for an interview, but in his memo, he called the current situation a "crisis" and said he hopes for change "no less ambitious than [Vietnam-era Defense Secretary] Robert McNamara's innovations in defense planning or, 50 years before, the introduction of the general staff into military bureaucracy."

"The diverse talents, skills, abilities and backgrounds required for us to successfully carry out our many important missions are increasingly difficult to identify, attract, access and retain," he wrote.

"These problems are likely to become more acute in coming years, as the memories of Sept. 11 fade, the economy improves and the preferences of the millennial generation shape the American labor market."

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