A detailed blueprint for how to rebuild the military personnel system has landed on Defense Secretary Ash Carter's desk.
The dozens of recommendations from the Pentagon's top personnel officials would fundamentally change how the military recruits, pays, promotes and manages the active-duty force of 1.3 million troops, according to a draft copy of the report obtained by Military Times.
The so-called "Force of the Future" reform package aims to yank the Pentagon's longstanding one-size-fits-all personnel system into the Information Age by sweeping away many laws, policies and traditions that date back as far as World War II.
The proposals are designed to address Carter's concerns that the military and its antiquated personnel system will struggle to recruit and retain the kind of high-skilled force needed for the 21st century as the digital revolution continues to gather speed and momentum.
Carter is expected to review the 120-page report and publicly endorse the bulk of the recommendations by the end of September, according to several defense officials.
The proposals will cost money — for targeted pay raises for troops, to build massive new computer systems, to send troops to Ivy League civilian graduate schools and to create new offices with highly skilled employees, among other things. In total, the package of reforms might cost more than $1 billion a year, according to one defense official familiar with the plan.
In that sense, the proposals hitting Carter's desk signal an abrupt change in the Pentagon leadership's views on military personnel.
Just a couple of years ago, the top concern of the Pentagon brass seemed to be the soaring cost of people and the sense that per-troop spending growth was unsustainable and eating into funds for weapons systems development modernization.
That prompted Congress to cut annual military pay raises to their lowest level in generations.
But the new report includes no major direct cost-cutting measures. Instead, it is threaded with targeted pay raises, added benefits and modernization efforts for the new forcewide personnel system.
"We should stop thinking about our people as a cost center but rather as a profit center. They're not an expense, they're an investment," Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Brad Carson said in a recent interview with Defense News, a Military Times affiliate.
Carson, who has led the internal reform effort, acknowledged its costs but suggested they are a fraction of the $500 billion-plus annual defense budget and pale in comparison to many of the Pentagon's other expenses.
"We're talking about something that might be half the cost of an Ohio-class submarine, one-fifth the cost of a new aircraft carrier, the cost of a few fighter planes over time. ... The amount we're really talking about here would hardly supplant any other priority in the department," Carson said.
"It's harder than ever before to maintain a lasting technological superiority over our adversaries. But the thing that has always made us great, and will continue to make us great, is our people. ... That will be our lasting competitive advantage," Carson said.
Members of a 7th Signal Command Cyber Protection Team work in a virtual-training environment on Fort Gordon, Ga., on June 5. Cyber warriors would be able to follow a technical career track under the Pentagon's reform proposal.
Photo Credit: Bill Bengston
The fast-tracked reform effort is controversial in some corners of the Pentagon, making it unclear whether the detailed proposals will take effect and have a lasting impact. The report, circulated internally on Aug. 3, is facing some pushback, especially among the military services, according to several defense officials.
A top concern among critics is the feasibility of adding programs that will cost billions of taxpayer dollars at a time when the department continues to face the unforgiving, if arbitrary, budget caps known as sequestration. And the effort to continue scaling back troops' pay and benefits remains official Defense Department policy.
Some of the most far-reaching proposals in the reform package would require action from Congress; others could become reality with a stroke of Carter's pen. And others would require support from the individual services as part of the annual military budget drill.
Defense officials caution that the draft copy still can change and that Carter will ultimately decide which proposals to approve. A final version is likely to emerge this fall.
Here's a rundown of some key proposals outlined in the draft copy of the Force of the Future report obtained by Military Times.
New pay tables
The Pentagon should ask Congress for authority to fundamentally change the military pay system by creating new basic pay tables for high-demand career fields and allowing commanders to dole out merit-based cash bonuses to individual troops.
The aim is to address one of Carter's top concerns — that today's one-size-fits-all personnel system is incapable of competing for the best people in cybersecurity and other high-tech fields where the private sector offers far more lucrative compensation packages.
The specific proposal would create a pilot program allowing the individual services to "amend" the pay tables for five occupational specialties that face particularly intense competition from the private sector.
Moreover, the services should have authority to use some of their existing budgets for special pays and incentive pays to reward individual troops in other career fields for good performance. Current practice is to award such bonuses to entire career fields regardless of individual performance.
Repeal 'up or out'
The Pentagon should ask Congress to suspend the federal law that limits the number of times an officer can be passed over for promotion before being forced to leave service. The aim is to make promotions based on experience and performance rather than time in grade. That means some officers would move up the ranks more quickly, while others may remain at the same paygrade for many years.
Removing those up-or-out caps could encourage officers to pursue nontraditional assignments or develop technical expertise without fear that their career progression will suffer.
Current rules generally give officers only a small window of time to earn promotion and force them to compete against their peers as defined by their "year-group," or time of commissioning. That's why today's officers often hew to a very narrow career path to ensure they complete all tasks and assignments deemed desirable by a promotion board. Those who postpone such traditional requirements in the allotted time can be passed over for promotion and forced to separate.
Removing those time-in-grade caps would also allow officers to have longer careers.
Flexible 'joint' requirements
Officers should spend far less time earning their "Joint Officer Qualified" designation, a key to promotion under the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act.
Current rules force many officers to spend several years in a job specifically tagged as a "joint billet." The policy stems from post-Vietnam era concerns that the individual services fostered a parochial culture that diminished the ability of the services to work together effectively.
But after almost 30 years, the new Pentagon report says it's time to change those rules.
The Pentagon should ask Congress to change the federal law dictating joint requirements by expanding the definition of "joint" and removing minimum assignment tour lengths for such positions. That could lead to replacing the current Joint Duty Assignment List that enumerates thousands of specific jobs fulfilling the requirement and replace it with a system that allows officers to accrue points through a more flexible process in which various military missions technically can be approved as "joint."
Even without congressional approval, the defense secretary could give the services new authority to waive the Joint Officer Qualified requirements for general or flag officers whose "promotion is based primarily on scientific or technical qualifications and for which appropriate joint assignments do not really exist," the report says.
The military should encourage closer ties with the civilian business community by creating 50 billets for both officers and senior noncommissioned officers to pursue tours with private-sector companies.
A "tour with industry," or TWI, would be available to those in paygrades E-7 up through O-6. Such tours likely would focus on military career fields with prominent private-sector counterparts, such as logistics, program management or cybersecurity.
Many of those billets would be awarded to the best candidates, regardless of service affiliation. An additional active-duty service obligation of at least 1.5 years would be required for each year assigned to a TWI, a measure that would prevent officers from deciding to separate and immediately go work for that company as a civilian.
In a move designed in part to help retain female service members, the Pentagon recommends lifting the cap on the services' Career Intermission Programs.
Currently existing as service-level pilot programs, these intermissions amount to sabbatical-style leaves of absence that are in many cases used as a form of family leave.
Technical career tracks
The reform plan recognizes that not every service member aspires to command positions; some prefer to hone their skills and practice them in the operational force for many years.
To accommodate those service members, the Pentagon's reform effort calls for the creation of a technical career track. That would allow individuals to remain in their occupational specialty but no longer assume key developmental positions or compete for command. Instead, those troops would spend more time in the operational force or sharing their expertise as instructors at advanced training programs.
This would be less common in combat arms careers but may be widely used for pilots, lawyers, intelligence specialists, cyber warriors or others whose skills grow, rather than atrophy, with age.
These technical track troops would have promotions and pay raises determined through an alternative system. In effect, the report says, the current up-or-out system would be replaced by a "perform-or-out" system.
More civilian schooling
More officers should attend civilian graduate schools, according to the draft proposal.
The goal here is to diversify the officer corps' education and provide the force with more nontraditional expertise in subjects such as technology, business management, public policy and foreign policy.
That would require a policy change to more broadly recognize civilian graduate degrees as fulfilling the "joint professional military education" requirements prioritized by promotion boards.
Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C., attend a graduate-level class on base through Webster University.
Photo Credit: Cpl. Jo Jones/Marine Corps
The draft report suggests a new benchmark that at least 30 percent of the graduate degrees earned by officers each year should be from a civilian institution. The report pencils in $64 million annually to cover increased tuition costs.
Several recommendations in the report would give service members and their families more geographic stability. Today's troops move about once every two and a half years, on average, and some top personnel officials believe that should be more like once every four years.
To that end, the report says, the services should develop options that grant troops their first choice of duty station in exchange for an extended service commitment, according to the report.
The duration of important leadership posts and management positions could extend to reduce turnover and encourage more long-term planning. Fewer joint billet requirements could reduce the need for frequent moves. And allowing highly-skilled troops to opt out of the command-preparation track would reduce their need to leave the operational force.
A key recommendation calls on the Pentagon to attempt a sweeping reevaluation of its own culture and try to shed the constraints of traditional bureaucracy. On a practical level, this would mean more telecommuting, desk "hoteling" and fewer cubicles.
"Increasingly, research shows that employees thrive in a variety of office settings designed to maximize creativity and collaboration, either by creating quiet spaces or open-floor plan meeting places," according to the draft report.
More broadly, the Pentagon should create an internal social network inspired by LinkedIn. Budgets would be adjusted to offer "micro-grants" for local offices or low-level commands to develop new ideas or support new training programs.
The Defense Department headquarters would encourage more "small temporary groups or distributed networks to assemble for high-intensity, short-duration, cross-disciplinary projects to solve a problem collaboratively (e.g., 'hackathon' model), competitively ('innovation contests'), or virtually (e.g., crowdsourcing)," according to the report.
Those efforts would be coordinated by a newly created "Defense Innovation Network" staffed to support the military components.
The report recommends new ways to improve diversity — not just in terms of gender and race but also professional diversity.
To reduce professional homogeneity, the Defense Department should set a forcewide goal that at least 25 percent of the members sitting on command selection and promotion boards should be from outside the specific competitive category under selection. In other words, officers would be evaluated in part by other officers from outside their immediate branch or career field.
The services also should conduct a series of mock promotion boards that are race- and gender-blind. Stripping all photos, names and pronouns from promotion packets and then analyzing the outcome will help the services identify any subtle biases that might exist in the current system.
New 'people analytics'
A key pillar of the Force of the Future plan is the creation of vast new Pentagon-level central computer system to track detailed information about military personnel. One piece would be a multi-component personnel tracking system that would make it far easier for troops — and all of their records — to transfer between the active and reserve force or serve in nontraditional assignments elsewhere in the Defense Department.
Another part of the data modernization effort would be creation of a new Office of People Analytics to help consolidate and standardize the data currently scattered across a stove-piped, service-level record-keeping system that has changed very little since the 1980s.
The personnel reform proposals would fundamentally change both how the military finds new entrants and the incentives directed toward street-level recruiters.
The services should launch pilot programs that offer cash rewards for recruiters based exclusively on the number of their recruits who successfully complete the first two years of service. In the same vein, recruiters should receive no credit for recruits who fail to complete initial training.
One option that will be on the table is the creation of an "enterprise recruiting system" that would coordinate all of the military services and the civilian sector, allowing those components to share information and pass along recruits among one another.
The recruiting process also should include a new battery of tests to provide a more complete picture of individual recruits, their existing skills and strengths.
Those tests would go beyond the current Armed Forces Vocation Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB, largely considered a measure of academic-style intelligence, or "cognitive" abilities.
The report says new tests should include "non-cognitive" traits that are more subtle but also contribute to future success, such as motivation, discipline, social skills and resilience, according to the recommendations.
Providing recruiters more special pays and incentives will cost money. But the report suggests that would be offset by savings derived from better recruits who don't wash out at the same rate. A 1 percent reduction in first-term attrition would save the Defense Department close to $100 million annually, the report says.
Many defense experts express some doubt about the reforms and Carter's ability to get Congress to support them.
While this Congress has backed other reform efforts — for example, significant changes to the military retirement system — this particular effort comes in the lame-duck phase of the Obama administration and lawmakers will soon be anxious about next year's elections, making votes on controversial issues unlikely.
The "Force of the Future" proposals are far more ambitious than any others in recent memory, noted said Richard Kohn, who teaches military history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"It's really its historic," Kohn said in an interview after reviewing the draft copy of the report obtained by Military Times.
"It's been almost 25 years since the end of the Cold War and this is the first real attempt by the Defense Department to compete in the labor force for the recruiting, retention and development of people" whom the military needs, he said.
Staff writer Karen Jowers contributed to this story.
Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.