Marines with the 6th Marine Regiment, 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit load onto an MV-22 Osprey aboard the USS Bataan before an exercise in Greece, on March 7, 2014.

Marines with the 6th Marine Regiment, 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit load onto an MV-22 Osprey aboard the USS Bataan before an exercise in Greece, on March 7, 2014. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Austin Hazard

What Stands in the Way of the Pentagon Keeping Its Best and Brightest?

The Defense Department's impending force drawdown could accelerate the departure of some of its best personnel. Here are a few ideas on how to keep that from happening. By Amy Schafer

With July 1 marking the fortieth anniversary of the military’s all-volunteer force and with the continued military drawdown, it’s time to take another look at retention.  While budget cuts and sequestration may lead to fewer men and women in uniform, it is essential that the military considers ways to keep their best and brightest. There are many challenges to military retention, including the lack of a “meritocracy,” limited to no control over assignments, the “all or nothing” twenty-year pension system, and the role a family or spouse plays.

Tim Kane, a former Air Force officer, examines this issue in Bleeding Talent: How the U.S. Military Mismanages Great Leaders and Why It’s Time for a Revolution. As he argues, “The Army has bled talent for decades, a consequence of a deeply dysfunctional organization that poorly matches jobs with talent and doesn’t trust its officers to make choices about their own careers.”

There are several areas where reform could be highly effective in influencing the best junior officers to stay past their minimum service requirement; among the most promising is a system that more resembles a meritocracy.

A recent survey of over 5,000 active duty Navy personnel by CDR Guy Snodgrass presents hard data on the challenges and concerns facing service members as they decide whether or not to separate from the Navy.   According to the survey, 64 percent of sailors believe that performance rankings are based more on timing than merit, with 21 percent citing timing and merit, 9 percent citing neither, and only 6 percent believing performance rankings are based upon merit alone.

Meanwhile, Tim Kane interviewed 250 West Point graduates (from class intervals five years apart, to encompass a breadth of ranks and experience) and found 93 percent believed that, “[H]alf or more of the best officers leave the military early rather than serving a full career”.  As one former Marine Corps officer notes, “Among my peers, the ones with ideas are the ones getting out, because they just don’t feel the organization values them”.

The recent Interim Report of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission acknowledges, “[T]he uniformed services must be empowered with flexible personnel management tools to shape the force as security needs change.”  The commission examined the challenges of recruitment and retention in a time of fiscal austerity and made many recommendations for the modernization of the compensation and personnel systems of the armed services.


The “all or nothing” twenty-year mark for received benefits creates an imbalanced retention system. Members of the military are best served to either leave after one term—or stay the whole twenty years. This structure does not easily permit merit-based advancement. Source: Interim Report of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission

The commission recognized that if the compensation and personnel systems are not robust and modern, “[They] risk the inability to attract and retain personnel who may find greater employment opportunities in the civilian sector.”  Most importantly, the commission recognized, “Our people are the strength of our uniformed services”.

When it comes to retaining high achievers, it may be time for the military to seek lessons learned from the private sector.  An excellent performer should be able to reach promotion based upon merit rather than a pre-determined number of years.  If you examine the age and management distribution of Silicon Valley, you’ll see a community that values intellectual capital above all else—least of all age—and boasts incredibly competitive, merit-driven promotions.

The CEOs of Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat are 30, 37, and 24, respectively.  Should a 24-year-old whiz kid a few years out of West Point be commanding a battalion?  Probably not, and the tech industry’s “move fast and break things” philosophy certainly does not grapple with the life-or-death implications faced in the military.

That being said, should a 26-year-old O-3 who has consistently excelled through multiple assignments and deployments be promoted two or three years early?  It certainly shouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility.  Tying promotion strictly to years served, particularly in the early years of a career, does a disservice to those who excel and outperform their peers.

Promotions based on merit ensure that high performers receive promotion faster, rather than making each new grade in lockstep with 5,000 of their peers. Using merit as a factor at every stage of an officer’s career progression could mitigate many reasons officers separate.

For example, the military could explore allowing those at the top of their class of peers to choose between several assignments, allowing them some say in their career and location preferences.  A bright and talented officer who has an opportunity to chart his or her own path will likely select an assignment where they are excited to serve and which meets the needs of their family—both huge factors in morale and retention.

Though the philosophy behind assignment orders is almost always “service before self,” the private sector has demonstrated that employees who are engaged, passionate, and well-matched simply produce better work.

Choice among assignments could also open the door to valuing intellectual capital withoutnecessarily tying it to leadership.  There are many brilliant servicemembers who are strong leaders—but it is not a role every person is comfortable with or excels at.  Why should a successful intelligence officer, for instance, be forced “up or out” if currently in a role the officer excels at and enjoys?

Tech companies in particular have shown a willingness to allow top engineers to continue to be promoted without forcing them to manage other engineers.  If the military were to allow another promotion “track,” so to speak, they may end up with more focused subject matter experts who are content to contribute their expertise for twenty or more years without ever commanding a unit.  This increases the level of specialization in the military while allowing those who are passionate leaders to lead earlier and more often.

As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asked in a February 2011 speech at West Point, “How can the Army break up the institutional concrete, its bureaucratic rigidity in its assignments and promotion processes, in order to retain, challenge, and inspire its best, brightest, and most-battled tested young officers to lead the service in the future?”

It is essential that the military continues to try to find ways to mitigate the loss of talented officers.  The most important part of any military capability is the person behind it.  We must protect our human capital, and we must be willing to challenge outdated systems in order to do so.

Amy Schafer is a research intern for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. She has worked previously as a policy intern in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Schafer is a 2013 graduate of the College of William & Mary.

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