Pentagon & Congress

Personnel task force wants to see changes start this year

WASHINGTON — A group of national security experts pushing for sweeping military personnel reforms wants to see Congress start overhauling the system this year by allowing more recruits to enter at higher ranks, improve child care offerings and radically rethink recruiting.  

They insist the moves could be worked into the annual defense authorization debate this summer. But so far, lawmakers aren't committing to any moves.

On Wednesday, members of the Bipartisan Policy Center's Task Force On Defense Personnel testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on their March report calling for "a flexible personnel system for a modern military."

The ideas include rethinking the military promotion and pay systems, changing education and physical standards for some specialties, and allowing troops more career control -- all ideas that task force members acknowledged will likely take years to debate and implement.

"This system does work for certain core functions. That's why it has lasted so long," said former Missouri Republican Sen. Jim Talent, a co-chair of the group. "You have to be careful in any changes you make that you don't do any harm to the system in areas where it is working well."

But the group also noted that current military personnel policies were largely established in the wake of WWII, and fitting them to a young, modern workforce "is like trying to do your job in a straightjacket," said Kathy Roth-Douquet, CEO of Blue Star Families and the task force's other co-chair.

They want to see steps toward modernizing the rule begin now. Their priorities for the upcoming defense authorization debate include expanding lateral-entry authority for midcareer civilians to enter the military (as some medical specialists already do) and expanding online outreach for young recruits, possibly closing some traditional brick-and-mortar recruiting stations.

The task force is also pushing lawmakers to look at improving access to child care services for military families, an issue that Congress has worked on in recent years.

Those ideas could be broached with pilot programs and other rules adjustments in coming months.

But some of the other short-term ideas appear more politically complicated.

The task force wants to see all young Americans register for the Selective Service System —  an idea discussed and dumped by Congress last year — and require that registration include completion of the military’s Voluntary Aptitude Battery, for more targeted recruiting efforts.

Talent said the goal is to "expose millions of younger Americans to the possibility of military service," but the idea would require overhauling Selective Service operations and navigating a host of privacy issues. Senators at the hearing called the idea intriguing, but stopped short of endorsement.

Task force members also want to see legislation this year to create an online database giving troops a better chance landing future assignments "closely aligned to (their) unique abilities."

That would likely start as a series of five-year pilot projects for a range of different specialties, but would also involve a major retooling of the current job assignment process.

Senators applauded the proposed rethinking of the personnel system at the hearing, but stopped short of officially backing any specific ideas.

The legislative calendar may be the biggest obstacle to any major personnel moves this year. Typically, House and Senate defense lawmakers pass their respective drafts of the annual military authorization bills by late May, but that work may not happen until July this year because of the change in administrations and the delay in receiving the White House’s official fiscal 2018 budget request.

But Talent insisted that changes are needed in the near future, or military leaders will miss adapting to looming recruiting and retention problems facing their missions.

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at

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