Chinese sailors sit before the start of a concert featuring Chinese and foreign military bands in Qingdao, Monday, April 22, 2019.

Chinese sailors sit before the start of a concert featuring Chinese and foreign military bands in Qingdao, Monday, April 22, 2019. AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

Great Power Rivalry Is Also a War For Talent

China’s military is working harder to find and keep good people. The U.S. must step up its own efforts.

China’s technological prowess suggests that United States cannot indefinitely assume a military advantage based on weapons and equipment. Yet Pentagon leaders tempted to find comfort in the superiority of the American servicemember — “people are our greatest asset,” as they are wont to say — should note that the People’s Liberation Army is prioritizing efforts to catch up in its ability to find, attract, and retain talented people. If the U.S. military is to keep this edge, it needs to improve its own efforts, and quickly.

Traditionally, human capital has been a relative weakness for the PLA, which has been more generally known for its quantity, not the quality, of its personnel. However, ongoing reforms have shrunk and reshaped that a force that once relied heavily on conscription, including the demobilization of several hundred thousand personnel. Increasingly, the PLA is trying to recruit more educated and “high-quality” officers and enlisted personnel. In the process, the Chinese military has also changed its system for recruiting civilian personnel, including to concentrate on those with technical proficiency. China is also explorating of new options to apply a national strategy of military-civil fusion to talent development.

Meanwhile, demographic trends in American society are making it harder for military recruiters to find adequate talent. By some estimates as many as 71 percent of young people in the U.S. are ineligible for military service, due to factors that include health and fitness or lack of education. Of the recruitable population, even fewer are inclined to serve, with women significantly less likely to see the military as an option

Talent is and will remain at the core of America’s competitive advantage over China. The U.S. military must continue to reevaluate and explore options to reform current approaches to recruiting and retaining diverse talent to prioritize critical skill-sets and proficiencies. 

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Related: The Dismal Career Opportunities for Military Spouses Are a Readiness Issue

These challenges will become even more acute. The 2007 and 2008 surge showed that lowering standards to meet end-strength goals puts long-term constraints on the force. The U.S. military should not compromise on standards, but rather look to expand and increase whom it is recruiting. The needs of the future force will be as much cognitive as physical. As the U.S. military embraces new high-tech capabilities and anticipates the challenges of future warfare, the skills and expertise required for future war-fighters will change as well.  

Although the DoD has made some adjustments to personnel processes, military personnel systems across the services must continue to be reformed, and more comprehensively so, to be smarter strategically for these future challenges. Ash Carter’s promising Force of the Future initiative aimed to better recruit top talent into DoD, including initial changes to the up-or-out promotion system and broader ability for lateral entry, but were limited in implementation and ran aground due to internal pushback. 

In particular, the U.S. military must recognize talent as a vital asset that becomes all the more critical at a time when technology is transforming the character of conflict. To attract and retain the best talent, the U.S. military should continue to look for ways to lower the barrier and mitigate common obstacles to entry into service. To do so, the military should continue explore new ways to improve recruitment and retention, including streamlining talent management internally, allowing for lateral entry at higher levels and in more job categories, and reviewing disqualifying medical conditions. The Army’s steps to expand into new localities and populations including major urban centers are promising. 

However, new directions in recruiting must involve thinking beyond just meeting the mission and ‘putting bodies into boots’ and instead start thinking more critically about different career trajectories. For instance, the services should consider offering more warrant officer tracks or bringing back the specialist rank system, which would allow greater specialization in critical fields and would improve the noncommissioned officer corps by ensuring only those with demonstrated leadership potential were put in positions of responsibility. The military also needs to make enlisting more attractive to individuals with higher levels of education, including facilitating the process of commissioning as an officer for those with prior enlisted experience. The services may also look for new options to identify and reward critical skill-sets among those currently servicing, perhaps building upon the model of the Computer Language Initiative that the Air Force has launched, which identifies and incentivizes proficiency with computer languages in a manner similar to the military’s current approach to human languages.

At a time when the civil-military divide seems to be deepening, appealing to those who may not have previously considered service will remain a core challenge for the services. However, recent decisions that appear to reflect political more than operational considerations exclude or discourage some Americans from serving in the military, even threatening to discharge transgender service-members in ways that could undermine morale and readiness. Such decisions also could negatively influence the propensity to serve among younger populations who tend to be more supportive of the rights and equality of the transgender community, perhaps increasing the difficulty of recruitment.

Meanwhile, only a small proportion of Americans, less than 1 percent, are sharing the burden and honor of military service. Typically, personal relationships, proximity to the military, and perception of service all inform propensity to serve, leading to the creation of a so-called ‘warrior caste.’ These generations of service members not only bear the costs of today’s conflicts, relative to the many Americans who can overlook those costs, but appear to be increasingly isolated from the rest of society in some cases, raising concerns about the insularity of the military. Consequently, recruiting commands must broaden their scope to appeal to young people with little to no interaction with the military, specifically under-targeted and underrepresented groups. To do so, the services must communicate more effectively. In particular, the military could significantly improve its outreach and engagement with young women to increase end strength. 

To be prepared for any scenario, the U.S. military must use the best talent available, which requires fully embracing diversity of all kinds as a source of strength. Going forward, some of the concerns that will also merit greater examination include: current practices to recruit women, recruiting foreign nationals with critical skills, and reevaluating the medical waiver process. 

The fuller inclusion of women in the military can, and already has, increased lethality. However, the services remain male-dominated despite opening all jobs to women effective in 2015. Women account for a slight majority of the population yet on average only 18 percent of the military. There is no reason the military cannot aim for equal representation and increase the share of female service in the military. The demands of future warfare will require technical proficiency just as much as physical capacities, across a growing number of specialties. Women are equally capable of meeting those standards and may possess distinct advantages for certain missions.

Currently, many young women do not see themselves having a future in the military, a perception the services could do much more to address. The inability of the services to recruit women, let alone retain women, is in part attitudinal and part lack of adequate support services, including healthcare, childcare, and support to dual-professional couples to enable options for long-term service. 

As the U.S. military looks to compete with a rival that far exceeds us in population, our capacity to welcome immigrants worldwide is a critical advantage for our national and military competitiveness. Indeed, immigrants have a long history of service and distinguished contributions to the U.S. military. The Military Accessions Vital to National Interests (MAVNI) program allowed for recruiting immigrants with specific critical skills including technical, linguistic, and cultural proficiencies. From 2008 to 2017, the program recruited 10,400 individuals. However, the Trump Administration put an injunction on the program, and its future remains uncertain, often placing its recruits, some of whom have faced deportation, in grave danger in the meantime. The MAVNI program should be revitalized and expanded where necessary in light of today’s challenges, while protecting and welcoming current recruits to the program.

The services must also take care not to drive away high-quality recruits based on aspects of the requirements that can appear highly arbitrary and idiosyncratic in their effects. For instance, the medical waiver process for joining the military can often operate as blanket rejection, rather than holistic examination of applicants. Many young people have minor health problems or have sought mental health treatment that can be disqualifying for military service, but unlikely in actuality to impact their ability to serve. Ironically, in some cases, a history of past treatment, such as LASIK, requires a medical waiver for service, but is actually offered by many of the services through insurance. The DoD should reevaluate medical standards for joining the military across different services and occupational specialties, with an eye towards maintaining the necessary standards, while reexamining the legitimacy of current practices.

Today, the United States is failing to fully leverage the skills and talents of Americans in military service, while the Chinese military is taking new strides to increase the quality of its forces. The future trajectory of U.S.-China military rivalry could be deeply influenced by how these militaries respond respectively to these challenges of talent, which become all the more urgent against the backdrop of today’s competition in emerging technologies. 

At the same time, the future of American power equally depends upon policy responses to underlying challenges confronting our society. That is, the human capital available to the U.S. military cannot be separated from the challenge of improving the health and well-being of Americans. The quality of our healthcare and educational opportunities are not only vital to our economic competitiveness but also integral as the foundation of a future force that can remain truly exceptional. In this regard, the challenge of competition with China must start at home.