Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter began his tenure with a pledge to modernize the U.S. military. Unlike most pronouncements of this kind in Washington, he spoke not about airplanes and tanks, but about the kind of people required for victory in future battles. In doing so, he acknowledged a central theme of true military reform: an effective force is only as good as the people who serve.
In a new initiative called “Force of the Future,” Secretary Carter established the goal of “maintaining our competitive edge in bringing in top talent to serve the nation.” He recently announced the first steps toward achieving that goal in a speech at George Washington University, detailing several changes to a personnel system that has remained largely unchanged for more nearly six decades. These include updating the retirement system, expanding fellowship programs, and modernizing personnel management software. His actions are a mixed bag: some good, some bad, and some irrelevant for meaningful reform.
But it is what he has so far left unsaid that holds the true potential for much-needed change. The Project On Government Oversight has obtained a draft of the Force of the Future report of proposed reforms prepared by a Pentagon team led by Brad Carson, Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. The most important proposal in the draft, ending the “up-or-out” promotion system, has so far been omitted from the announced changes.
True military reform creates a culture that identifies, nurtures, and protects strength of character and moral courage. Strength of character in the context of military leadership includes the seeking of and joy in taking responsibility and in making difficult decisions. A person with strength of character does what is right regardless of who is watching or the consequences to their careers. The way the military manages its talent affects this immeasurably.
The Best and the Worst Changes
The Secretary announced 12 reform initiatives during his speech, with another 9 detailed in the released fact sheet. These initiatives impact Department of Defense (DoD) in a number of ways, many of which are beyond the scope of true military reform. Some of these reforms are merely incentives, meant to entice people to stay in, such as expanding college internship programs, creating an “Entrepreneur-in-Residence Program,” and establishing a “Defense Digital Service.” Here are a few of the announced changes:
- THE GOOD: “Update and Modernize Retirement System.” Of the announced changes, this is the one with the greatest promise for positive change. The military has long held to a system of a “20 or Nothing” based on out-of-date assumptions made after World War II. Service members generally have to serve at least 20 years to be eligible for retirement. Eliminating “20 or Nothing” could go a long way to combating the careerism so prevalent in the military today. The current system creates officers who are reluctant to challenge the status quo for fear of being forced out of the service before reaching the minimum time necessary to qualify for retirement benefits. Force of the Future continues to refine the Blended Retirement System signed into law in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, which gives service members leaving the military with less than 20 years of service a 401 (k)-style benefit. The intent behind this effort is to provide a portable retirement benefit for the 80 percent of those who depart the service before reaching the 20-year mark.
- THE BAD: “Establish Office of People Analytics.” The DoD is creating yet another layer of bureaucracy to “better harness the Department’s big data capabilities” to manage the military’s talent. Service members are already reduced to a series of numbers, such as evaluation report averages, physical fitness test scores, and academic grades. All of these numbers are plotted and graphed onto briefing sheets, which are then briefly considered by an anonymous promotion board. Secretary Carter apparently doesn’t believe there is enough of this already: “we’re also going to improve our data-crunching and how we leverage big data to inform our personnel policies.” He wants to use algorithms and predictive analytics to “help measure and chart how service members and civilians are doing every day in all aspects of their job,” much in the same way companies like Netflix figure out what movies to suggest. Such an effort seeks to automate the process of evaluating the pool of available talent. But it’s difficult to quantify the qualities needed for a good military leader. Strength of character, charisma, and creativity can’t be enumerated the way hours worked, reports filed, and push-ups done can be. The DoD should be making a greater effort to inject more human judgement when evaluating the quality of people, not less.
- THE UGLY: “Expand Secretary of Defense Corporate Fellows Program.” This proposal has the greatest potential to cause harm. The program allows officers and senior enlisted leaders to spend up to 18 months working in private sector corporations. The Secretary’s stated intent with this program is to have those participants learn all they can about current business practices and then “bring back what they learned to keep us on the cutting edge.” The effect of programs like these is to reinforce the revolving door between the private and public sectors, which creates the appearance of or an actual conflict of interest and abuse of the public’s trust. The revolving door between the military and industry is particularly prevalent in the upper ranks when senior retired officers are handsomely rewarded with corporate board positions for shepherding expensive defense programs even when the program’s usefulness is in doubt. It is irresponsible for the government to create a system that provides even more opportunities for those who would abuse their positions for personal gain. Far too many retired military officers are already peddling their influence in the halls of Capitol Hill and the corridors of the Pentagon.
Reforms Leave “Up or Out” in Place
The announced changes so far do not include the first proposal in the Force of the Future report, “Replace ‘Up or Out’ with ‘Perform or Out.’” This is perhaps the single most important change the military needs to make in order to be effective long into the future. “Up or out” is the system where officers must regularly be promoted or they are forced to leave the service. The report states ending this system would “relax pressure from the ticking promotion clock that requires officers to complete operational, generational, enterprise, and joint assignments prior to selection for key command billets.” In other words, abolishing “up or out” would prevent officers from focusing so much time and attention on “checking the box” for needed career milestones to remain eligible for promotion.
The authors of the report claim such a change will provide greater flexibility for officers to seek out more educational opportunities. It would also allow personnel decision-makers to assign “the officer who represents the best talent match for a position, rather than continually deferring to the calendar of selection boards for promotion.”
Changing the current system may accomplish these things, but that’s not the real reason such a change is necessary.
Why Replacing “Up or Out” is Crucial
The spirit of careerism in the officer ranks is the real problem with the military today. As Colonel G.I. Wilson, USMC (ret.), wrote, “Careerists serve for all the wrong reasons. They weaken national defense, rob the military of its warrior ethos and drive away the very highly principled mavericks that we need to reverse the decay.”
The problem facing the military is not recruitment, which appears to be the focus of Secretary Carter’s latest effort, but retention. The military already attracts a great number of talented individuals. George Washington University released a study in 2013 showing the military is better educated than the population at large. While it is impossible to quantify, anyone who has spent time around a group of newly commissioned officers just embarking on their careers will be struck by the enthusiasm and spirit of selfless service they exude.
“Up or Out” combined with “20 or Nothing” all but encourages officers to be nothing more than careerist functionaries, going along with the status quo so as not to endanger their next promotion and a lucrative retirement. Officers are constantly competing for the assignments needed to be eligible for promotion rather than focusing on developing the skills needed to prevail on the battlefield. More significantly, they primarily work to please their immediate superior who has almost total control over their future prospects. One bad evaluation is enough to derail an officer’s career.
Dr. Timothy Kane wrote Bleeding Talent, a highly influential book on military personnel reform in 2013. He was a key consultant for the Force of the Future effort. He surveyed 250 West Point graduates, a sample of those who graduated from 6 classes between 1989 and 2004. More than 90 percent said that at least half of “the best officers leave the military early.” This 2011 study, titled “The Entrepreneurial Army: A Survey of West Point Graduates,” goes straight to the root of the problem in the military today, asking the question: “Are the most innovative officers recognized, promoted, and retained by the Army personnel system?” The response was an overwhelming “no.”
Dr. Kane defines entrepreneurial as: “(1) independent, (2) creative/unorthodox, and (3) willing to take risks.” This seems contrary to what most people think of when they think of the military: the importance of always following orders to the letter as a key part of the military way of life. While unquestioningly following orders is important to some degree, particularly in the junior ranks, there are many caveats to such a credo. Officers have a responsibility to do what is right, even if it goes against explicit orders, particularly orders that are out of date or inappropriate to the situation at hand.
Personnel Reform’s Battlefield Effects
In Bleeding Talent, Dr. Kane explains that “performance evaluations emphasize a ‘zero-defect’ mentality, meaning that risk-avoidance trickles down the chain of command.” This is frustrating to a change-minded officer during peacetime. But it also costs lives in combat. A military that does not tolerate risk has no choice but to execute plodding, centrally controlled operations, like the massive frontal assaults of the Western Front in World War I.
Entrepreneurial officers are the ones who are capable of devising innovative solutions to complex problems rather than defaulting to checklists. General George S. Patton, Jr., is a perfect example. He spoke his mind, exasperated his bosses, and would take the steps necessary to get the job done even if it went against specific orders—while still acting within the stated intent of his superiors. General Patton’s willfulness and maverick nature was a matter of character. But it did not happen overnight or when the fighting began. It was nurtured through years of peacetime education and training.
Noted military historian Martin van Creveld, writing in his book Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance 1939-1945, compared the two armies by their institutional underpinnings rather than by their feats on the battlefield. In selecting officers, the Germans placed a heavy emphasis on strength of character, unlike the American army which primarily equated talent with raw intelligence. The Germans went to great pains to screen potential officer candidates and considered intangible personality traits that are difficult to quantify on a cadet or candidate “blue card” or checklist.
“Willpower and the inclination toward an outdoor life, technical competence and a warlike nature (manifested, among other things, by rebelliousness at school; to have repeated a class or two was accordingly taken as a point in favor),” were all qualities highly prized by the Germans according to van Creveld. The Germans in World War II feared General Patton more than any other allied commander. They recognized his military greatness at the time because his qualities were the same they placed such a heavy emphasis on within their own ranks. His Third Army slashed its way through Europe at a time when the lesser commanders were plodding along.
It is easy for modern readers to dismiss the German model because the allies won the war. The Germans failed at the strategic level of warfare in large part because Hitler insisted on a two-front war. His military conducted several brilliant individual campaigns. It took the allies ten months to compel Germany’s surrender after landing on D-Day. Even then, the allies had to use overwhelming physical strength to defeat a country that was already engaged in vicious fighting on its other flank. The Germans had covered the same ground in the opposite direction against numerically superior forces just four years earlier—it took them just six weeks.
General Patton remains famous today because he’s a rare example. He snuck through a system that would normally have driven him out early in his career. It is extremely unlikely he would be able to make it far in the military today. In fact, in his day, he dodged several career bullets because he was saved by superiors who knew they needed someone of his caliber to command in war. Those same superiors quickly abandoned him as soon as the fighting stopped when they no longer needed him, in typical careerist fashion.
General Patton should not be an exception. Unfortunately, the current system deals harshly with officers like him almost as soon as they begin to display the kind of individuality necessary to meaningfully influence the system. One brave young Army officer expressed his frustration with being micro-managed, with not having a voice in the institution, and with the limited opportunities to rise above lesser performers. He wrote about matters of true military professionalism, the type of issues that can only be improved by drastic changes in the personnel system. Most like-minded individuals don’t even try because they view the cause as hopeless. They simply depart the service at their earliest opportunity and take their talents where they might be appreciated. A few do stay, but are easily neutralized by being passed over or given poor assignments.
What we are left with at the senior ranks is what author Andrew Bacevich describes as “good guys.” According to Bacevich, “The good guy projects the right attitude, strikes the right pose, and recites all the right clichés. Good guys are team players. They don’t rock the boat. They get ahead by going along. In practical terms, demonstrated adherence to orthodoxy becomes the premier qualification for admission.”
There are many who do recognize the problems. One survey found more than a quarter of the interviewed officers credited frustration with senior leaders as their reason for leaving the service. The point of working towards meaningful personnel reform is to create a system that encourages more of the truly effective officers to remain in the service. Some who are frustrated with the current leaders have good ideas about how the military should work. The personnel system should encourage them rather than drive them away.
Such a major change is bound to meet significant resistance within the services, particularly among the senior leaders who have the ear of the Secretary of Defense. And why shouldn’t they believe the system is fine the way it is? It worked for them.
Changing the military’s promotion system requires a change in federal law. The current system is mandated by the 1980 Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA). And it appears there is an appetite for change in Congress. The chairs of the armed services committees in both chambers of Congress have expressed interest in personnel reform in the past several months. This creates a real opportunity to enact meaningful changes.
Reforming the military’s personnel system is crucial for overall military reform. Getting the right people in the right positions will have long-term effects across a range of defense-related issues. They will make better decisions about how the military operates and how it is equipped. Imagine if anyone of sufficient rank in the Joint Strike Fighter program office had had the moral courage to stand up and say “stop” when it became clear the program would not meet its stated goals. Reforming the personnel system the right way would go a long way to ensuring officers like that would rise to such positions.