The Defense Department needs to adapt to needs of the modern work force if it wants to continue to recruit and retain service members, the Trump administration’s nominee for Pentagon personnel chief told lawmakers in his confirmation hearing.
“If confirmed, I will be charged with making life easier for the men, women and families, military and civilian, who carry our future on their shoulders,” said Robert L. Wilkie, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee Nov. 2.
DoD is “hamstrung” by policies and procedures put into place decades ago, said Wilkie.
Those policies were put into place during the time of the draft, when DoD was managing a force with multiple millions of service members, refreshed each year by thousands of draftees and ROTC graduates, Wilkie said. “Today our military is vastly different, comprised entirely of high quality volunteers,” he said, including women serving in the front lines in numbers and positions unimaginable to women of the World War II generation.
Wilkie, an Air Force Reserve colonel who has also served in the Navy Reserve, most recently was senior adviser to Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill. He served on the Trump transition team, and held positions in the George W. Bush administration, and in the private sector.
He’s experienced military life from many angles, he said: as a dependent, as the son of a gravely wounded combat soldier, as an officer with a family in the military health care system, and as a senior leader in the White House and the Pentagon.
The next personnel chief at the Pentagon faces a number of challenges, including a military force that is strained after 16 years of continuous conflict, as well as implementing some sweeping personnel reforms that have been passed by Congress, said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“The all-volunteer force has performed miracles,” Wilkie said. “The dwell times for frontline Marine and Army infantry units are now down to 1 to 1.14 years. On any given day, 15 percent of the Army is medically unable to deploy.
“We must address those hard facts or the force will break,” Wilkie said.
“The next undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness will be the senior official responsible for issues that have been a priority for this committee in the last three years,” McCain said. “Sweeping personnel reforms Congress has passed in recent defense authorization bills reflect the importance we place on these issues,” he said, adding that lawmakers expect Wilkie to “faithfully implement these reforms.”
Those include changes in military retirement, Tricare and the military health care system, and changes in the commissary benefit.
Some of the issues that Wilkie cited echoed some focal points of former Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s Force of the Future initiative, which was met with stiff resistance inside the Pentagon.
Wilkie cited promotion models where “we rely on the 20-year up-or-out model for servicemen and women who are forced to leave the military in their prime.” And success in the information age, he said, “will increasingly rely on the technical ability of our troops, yet our assignment system values breadth over depth of experience.”
Service members aren’t allowed to move freely among active, Guard and Reserve components “to meet changing circumstances in their lives,” he said.
Today, more than 60 percent of troops have families. “Constant rotation, based on a 19th century Army model, prevents spouses from putting down roots and gaining meaningful deployment,” he noted. “Child care is at best uneven.” And while the center of military families’ lives can be the military health care system, “that system has been slow to keep up with modern medical advances for conditions like autism and other behavioral disorders.”
“The bottom line… is that if the family is not happy, the soldier walks,” Wilkie said.
Wilkie pledged to build on the committee’s work, and noted that the solutions for many of the issues he’s mentioned have already begun to be put into place.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., expressed concern about the shrinking number of young Americans who are eligible for military service. And of that number, he noted, an even smaller number are interested in joining the military.
Wilkie said he doesn’t believe DoD has adopted “the modes of information collection that America’s young people have. We have not mastered social media. We have not mastered something I consider to be fundamental: online recruiting across the country,” he said.
He also cited the declining number of Junior ROTC units in high schools in the last 15 to 20 years. “We’re losing those units across the country,” he said, noting that especially in communities with no ties to a military installation, those units are a way to provide youth that first experience with the military.
“Obviously in a time of budget crunching, that’s probably low on the list. But if you’re looking at the long term, looking at trying to change the perception of young Americans, those kinds of interactions, and the ability of the government through the department to adapt to the way young people think is vital, or we’ll never get caught up,” he said.
McCain said the committee hopes to convene soon in order to report out Wilkie’s nomination and others for action by the full Senate.
Over the last decade or more, inconsistency in leadership in the Defense Department’s personnel and readiness office have weakened the effectiveness of that organization, sources said. Many decisions affecting benefits of service members and families have been and are being driven by others in the Pentagon concerned primarily about the budget.
Some within the personnel and readiness office of DoD as well as family advocates say they hope the new personnel leader will be an advocate for troops, families and the civilian DoD employees who support them.
“I think the person should be an advocate for DoD people — service members, DoD civilians, and military families,” said Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association. “To do that we need some stability in that position — there’s been entirely too much churn and what’s suffered in all the leadership changes at [Personnel and Readiness] has been the absence of a holistic approach to developing and implementing initiatives to support people.
“There are some big issues in [Personnel and Readiness] where leadership focused on the people who are serving and who are served by this office is absolutely essential: implementation of and continued education about the new retirement system, implementation of military health care reforms, and decisions about how to maintain an efficient and responsive military resale system.
“We need someone who has a commitment to family readiness and sets clear standards about policies needed to enhance support to families, spouse employment, survivors, and special needs family members, to name just a few. And, the person must fight for the resources needed to help the department reach those standards. It would be great if the person could build on some of the force of the future discussions to enhance DoD’s support for a changing military and military family population.”
According to one source in DoD, “Many hope new personnel and readiness leadership will simply permit the hard-working people in personnel and readiness to do their jobs. That is what they apparently want to do, and what the nation deserves.
“For many years the ‘leader of the month’ syndrome has provided a carousel of personnel and readiness leadership that has resulted in unfocused efforts and some unethical actions.”
There are currently at least three complaints filed against some of the leaders and former leaders in the personnel and readiness office, related to alleged ethics violations and alleged discrimination under equal employment opportunity laws.