Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Wednesday vowed to push forward on an array of changes to the military personnel system, but omitted many of the ambitious proposals that top-level Pentagon officials talked about earlier this year.
Carter announced plans to create a new high-tech personnel management system for matching individual troops with job assignments, an online network he compared to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Other changes he intends to set in motion include streamlining transitions between the active and reserve components and creating a new "chief recruiting officer," a civilian to oversee forcewide efforts to attract top talent.
The secretary said other reforms -- including those that could impact military pay, benefits and the way officers are promoted -- may be on the horizon.
Speaking to students at George Washington University, Carter outlined a slate of reforms to address his concerns about the military's ability to recruit and retain highly skilled workers and maintain an excellent workforce into the future.
"We live in a changing and competitive world, and we have to earn that excellence again and again — because our force of the future has to be just as great, if not even better, than our outstanding force of today. Our security depends on it," Carter told the roomful of students in Washington, D.C.
A three-page memo that Carter issued Wednesday to top Pentagon officials, outlining his plans for modernizing the personnel system, is far more modest than the sweeping proposals his office floated internally this summer.
The memo includes no major changes to military pay and benefits or to the promotion system. Reforms targeting pay and promotions initially were featured prominently in draft proposals that Carter's staff provided to the Joint Chiefs in August. Copies of those draft proposals were obtained by Military Times.
Some experts say the Pentagon's top brass opposed the fundamental changes.
"My take on the situation is that the senior military leaders killed it," said Todd Harrison, a defense expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"They've watered it down to something that is almost unrecognizable. There's just not much in this compared to the earlier draft of the document."
But Carter described the changes unveiled Wednesday as "just the beginning ... so stay tuned in the coming months."
Among the specific proposals missing from Carter's latest announcement is the idea of revising or ending the "up-or-out" rules that force troops to separate if they do not get promoted within a certain time. Changing that would require congressional approval.
An overhaul of the up-or-out rules was touted by top Pentagon personnel officials as a way to make military careers more flexible, to encourage nontraditional career tracks and to appeal to a younger generation of troops.
But those measures were opposed by some military leaders, especially in the Army and the Marine Corps, according to several defense officials familiar with the discussions.
Carter's personnel reform effort — and the resistance it appears to be encountering from some quarters within the Pentagon — highlight a growing tension in today's all-volunteer force.
Large cadres of young and physically fit combat troops are still central to the military's mission, but so are highly trained specialists such as cyber warriors, nuclear engineers, drone pilots and support personnel across the force who have to master the complex software that fuels the modern military's logistics and maintenance operations.
One senior defense official acknowledged the significant resistance from some pockets of the military.
"Many of the concerns are genuine and heartfelt," the official said. "And they are not devastating critiques; it's people saying, 'You're changing something that's been around for 75 years.'
"You don't do change in a willy-nilly fashion," the official continued. "You think about it a lot. And you discuss it. And you don't abandon things that seem to have worked for you in some way, unless you have a compelling case about the need for change."
Shortly after Carter took over the Pentagon's top job in February, he vowed to seek a major modernization of a military personnel system that has changed little since the inception of the all-volunteer force in the 1970s.
The Army has struggled this year to meet its recruiting goals, a problem that some Pentagon leaders fear is a bellwether of a bigger crisis on the horizon as the civilian economy improves and the post-9/11 surge of patriotism fades.
Carter has repeatedly cited the example of cyber warriors, who can earn far more money as civilians. To compete for top talent with the private sector, some top Pentagon officials want to fundamentally change the military compensation system that gives the same pay rate to everyone in the same ranks, regardless of their career field.
Yet for now, Carter is not asking Congress to make changes or exemptions to the laws governing active-duty military compensation. Instead, he plans to conduct a "comprehensive study for the purpose of better aligning basic and special pays with the principal of talent management," according to his new memo.
One option could be to leave the basic pay tables unchanged but expand the use of special pays and incentive pays, such as the retention bonuses or the stipends paid to doctors or troops with special language skills.
"If we have to pay more to get an E-5 cyber expert here, or to retain that person after we've spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions of dollars, in training them ... how do we do that?" the defense official said.
"How does the culture accept that? Or how can we structure the pay system to accommodate the kind of differential opportunity cost based upon skills? That's what we're trying to get at. We don't have answers to that yet."
Other changes that Carter outlined in his memo to the Joint Chiefs include:
- Establish an "exit survey" for separating troops to better understand retention trends.
- Expand corporate fellowship programs that allow service members to work in the private sector.
- Establish doctoral-level programs inside today's military colleges.
- Establish a Defense Digital Services directorate to boost the Pentagon’s "digital innovation."
- Support increased "telework" and other nontraditional workplace configurations
A spokesman for Carter emphasized that the changes detailed Wednesday are the start of a broader effort.
"The new initiatives Secretary Carter outlined today to develop the force of the future are just the first in a series of reforms to modernize the DoD workplace," said Peter Cook, the spokesman.
"There is more to come as he continues to get input from inside and outside the Pentagon. The changes are intended to make the DoD a more attractive employment destination for talented Americans, while also providing new incentives for people already in the department to stay," Cook said.
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.