Top Pentagon officials are mapping out a way to scale back or end the "up-or-out" rules and joint billet requirements that have defined career paths for generations, a defense official said.
The goal is to scale back the rigidity of today's personnel system and create more leeway for officers to pursue individualized career tracks or even take time off in the civilian sector before returning to active duty and resuming a military career.
That will likely include asking Congress to authorize changes to two key Cold War-era laws: the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act of 1980, known as DOPMA, and the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, a defense official said.
The need to change those laws are among the key conclusions emerging from an internal Pentagon review of the personnel system launched earlier this year by acting Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Brad Carson. He's vowed to seek "revolutionary change" and create a military personnel system that emphasizes talent rather than seniority.
Carson plans to unveil a slate of about 50 recommendations in August, the defense official said.
"We're looking at ways to help increase the flexibility to move people around on a timeline that's more conducive to the needs of the individual service but also the individual service member," said one senior defense official familiar with the review.
Specifically, that includes looking at changing, or even eliminating, the parts of DOPMA that impose statutory caps on the number of field grade officers each service can have, the defense official said.
The current law limits the total number of officers in the 0-4, O-5 and O-6 paygrades. That helps create a rigid time-based personnel system with fixed promotion "zones" where selection is based more on seniority than skills, experience and performance. DOPMA was originally drawn up in the early years of the all-volunteer force and aimed in part to ensure that officers' career opportunities were roughly equal across all of the services.
For the services, removing the legal caps on the total number of officers would allow them to promote — or hold back — officers in a way that more closely reflects the private sector.
For officers, changing DOPMA might effectively eliminate the up-or-out system that forces individuals to earn a promotion on a set timeline or see their military career end with an automatic separation.
Under the current system, officers must compete against peers they enter the service with, meaning for example that an officer seeking promotion to the O-5 paygrade must do so around 16 years of service and must compete with all of the other officers who also have about 16 years of service.
The current system rewards officers who adhere closely to traditional career tracks. "It doesn't leave a whole lot of breathing room if you want to, say, take a career intermission to start a family or go get an MBA," the defense official said.
"We're going to address the issue of managing folks by year group," the defense official said.
Carson is likely to suggest that Congress authorize changes to DOPMA in the form of pilot programs and give the individual services a window of time to implement the changes, for example, five years, the defense official said.
The push for change in the military personnel system comes amid growing concern that the military will struggle to recruit and retain the high-skilled, high-tech force needed in an era of cyberwar, drones and weaponized space operations.
And some Pentagon officials see a rare window of opportunity as Congress is finalizing the first major overhaul of the military retirement system in more than 30 years. The new system will help foster a less rigid personnel system by offering portable 401(k)-style individual investment accounts to all service members regardless of whether they serve a full 20-year career.
Another measure that could create more flexibility for officers is loosening the requirements for "joint" service under the Goldwater Nichols Act.
Under the current system, officer promotion boards give priority to those who have served in jobs designated as joint and officially listed on the Joint Duty Assignment List. Those typically include jobs at the Pentagon, with combatant commands and other Defense Department agencies outside the military service branches.
Initially, the law was intended to tamp down interservice rivalries and encourage the services to work together. But nearly 30 years later, many military experts say it's achieved its mission and its requirements are outdated.
"In a lot of situations, the joint billet has become a perfunctory 'check the box' to make sure that your high-performers get past one of five sticky wickets before they are next up for promotion. Let's reject that premise. A high-performer is a high-performer. Whether they execute a joint billet or not, that is an artificial construct," the defense official said.
Carson's team that is developing recommended changes for the personnel system is still hammering out the details for potential implementation. The aim is to give the services significant autonomy to set their own parameters and timelines, the defense official said.
After drawing up an array of related legislative and policy changes, the services might let them take effect simultaneously with a new round of recruits or other cross-section of the force.
"The notion would be a single cohort would go through the system with all of these new changes to get a better idea of how larger changes might look," the defense official said.
Some changes will require Congress to pass new laws and many of the far-reaching policy changes would need tacit approval from Capitol Hill.
"One of the big questions is about how much runway the Hill will give us," the defense official said.