Defense Secretary Ash Carter greets the audience before participating in a roundtable discussion with members of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y., March 31, 2015.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter greets the audience before participating in a roundtable discussion with members of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y., March 31, 2015. DoD photo by Glenn Fawcett

3 Takeaways from Ash Carter's 'Force of the Future'

With the Pentagon already struggling to cap rising personnel costs, are the defense secretary's new plans too ambitious to be sustainable?

Last week, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter gave a speech at his former high school that laid out his vision for reforming the military’s manpower policies. For those like myself who have argued that the current system is inflexible, antiquated, and poorly adapted for the needs of millennial service members, it was refreshing to see a sitting defense secretary stake out such a forward-thinking position on personnel issues. Carter laid out an array of different policy proposals, three of which I found particularly intriguing:

  • Expand “sabbatical programs” that allow personnel to take time off from the active duty force without harming their careers.
  • Create a path for individuals to enter the military in the middle of their careers, rather than just at the beginning.
  • Provide service members who have specialized skills assistance with paying off college loans they incurred before they entered the military.

Both a sabbatical program and a mid-career entry option would require the biggest changes to the current promotion and accession systems, but I am optimistic the ideas could be implemented without fundamentally changing the way the military selects, trains, and grows its leaders. The sabbatical programs already exist and are being tested by the Navy, Air Force, Army, and Marine Corps. They provide service members the option to spend up to three years outside of the active duty force while remaining competitive for future promotions. Although the number of individuals who have chosen to take advantage of the programs remains low, the relative newness of the programs is undoubtedly working against them. Institutionalizing the sabbatical option and providing clear evidence that taking time off will not exclude service members from being promoted should go a long way toward increasing the program’s popularity. So, too, will unequivocal statements of support from senior leaders.

Carter could have taken the opportunity to go one step beyond sabbatical programs and advocate for a continuum of service manpower model. Both the Chief of Naval Personnel, Vice Admiral Bill Moran, and the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force have gone on record in support of the continuum of service approach, which would provide personnel with “on ramps and off ramps” between the active duty and reserve components so that service members could switch from one component to the other throughout their careers. Such a program would provide personnel more freedom to calibrate the intensity of their military service according to their personal lives. For example, an intelligence analyst could choose to work for a period of time in the risk management sector, picking up critical new skills without having to deploy, before returning to active duty as a “more mature, more experienced sailor.”

(Related: Navy May Allow Sailors To Take a Break From the Military)

Carter’s second proposal, allowing civilians to join the armed forces at mid-level positions, would expand on programs the military has already adopted for specific cases. Although the vast majority of service members are required to begin their careers at entry-level ranks, the services currently permit exceptions for individuals with specialized jobs, such as lawyers or doctors. The military justifies this policy based on the length of schooling these specialist positions require and the fact that most of these direct entry officers are not permitted to command troops in combat. However, some Marine Corps lawyers start their careers in the fleet as captains—a rank that other Marine officers only reach after approximately four years—and are nevertheless classified as unrestricted line officers capable of holding any billet in the Fleet Marine Force.

Some military job specialties, such as infantry or special operations, clearly have no civilian analogue, but many are not military-specific and could benefit from the infusion of new thinking a mid-level civilian could provide. And a few positions, particularly in tech-heavy areas like cybersecurity, could very obviously be filled by individuals who have gained outside experiences at the cutting-edge of civilian technological development. It would be hard to entice a computer engineer from Google into the military if the only possible entry route was as a second lieutenant. If there were an option to start as a major, with a commensurate level of responsibility, that decision would look very different.

I am most skeptical of Carter’s proposal to create new loan repayment options for military members who have “special skills.” The Pentagon is already struggling to contain rising personnel costs, which have increased significantly in the last decade partly because piecemeal benefits were created by policymakers who paid insufficient attention to new benefits’ effect on overall costs. We know that, when the value of their total compensation package is assessed, both enlisted personnel and officers are paid better than over 80 percent of their civilian peers—even after adjusting for education and experience. We also know that the median college loan debt load in 2010 was $13,000. This is hardly an unreasonable financial burden for an individual, like a service member, who is receiving a generous compensation package. Unless Carter has additional data suggesting otherwise, I think that any military-specific college loan repayment program is a solution in search of a problem—and one that could raise personnel costs at a time when the Pentagon is desperately trying to do the opposite.

Ultimately, the path to implementation for any of these proposals will be long and paved with numerous obstacles, not least of which is that some will likely require congressional legislation. However, Carter seems determined to make headway against a military personnel system that still works much the same way it did when the United States had a draft. His acknowledgement that recruiting qualified millennials will become increasingly difficult without adopting more flexible manpower policies is an important first step. As a consummate Pentagon insider, Carter has a better idea than most senior leaders what sort of bureaucratic roadblocks he is bound to encounter. For the good of the U.S. military, here’s hoping he has some success.

Editor’s Note: This article originally stated that Marine Corps lawyers start their careers as captains. In fact, some Marine Corps lawyers begin their operational careers in the fleet as captains. This has been corrected.

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