Tats and Techies: Building the Next U.S. Military


Last Monday, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced a series of personnel initiatives focused on “recruiting and retaining the best and brightest” for the U.S. military. On Wednesday, Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno announced that the Army would repeal a deeply unpopular recent policy that barred recruits with many types and sizes of tattoos, a change from the previous decade-long practice where troops with lots of “ink” not only joined up but soon went to war.

What do these two seemingly unrelated news events have in common? They are both glimmers of hope that the U.S. military is, at long last, starting to adopt the more flexible personnel policies that it needs to succeed in the 21st century.

Carter and Odierno are on the cusp of a big idea. The next U.S. military – and particularly its senior leadership – must open its eyes to the fundamental change represented by young people of the Millennial generation and the characteristics that define them. Frequent job changes. Career flexibility. Intolerance for bureaucracy. Values beyond work. Adjustable work hours. Aversion to hierarchy. Tattoos. And yes, even body piercings.

The timeworn human capital policies and bureaucracy of today’s military remain nearly identical to those of the Cold War military of the 1980s, and not far distant from the Vietnam era of the 1960s and ‘70s when service members were generally treated as interchangeable parts regardless of individual interests. That 20th century personnel system, however, has little chance of delivering the lean, agile military that will be needed to prevail against the very different and adaptive adversaries that the United States is likely to face in the future. Thirteen years of recent war in Iraq and Afghanistan inspired many innovations, but new and innovative personnel policies were not among them.

Taken together, the Carter and Odierno announcements suggest that U.S. military leaders are reassessing existing policies. They both point toward a new talent management approach – acknowledging the changing goals, interests, and preferences of today’s individual service members from a new generation while simultaneously ensuring that the needs of military services are fully met. If carried out, this new direction will inevitably cause major changes to long-held cultures and traditions.

Odierno’s announcement reversed a much more restrictive tattoo policy that was finalized only a year ago and that was strongly opposed by soldiers. His reasons for the about-face are telling: “Society is changing its views of tattoos and we have to change along with it. It makes sense. Soldiers have grown up in an era when tattoos were much more acceptable and we have to change with that.” The Army recognizes it must now reverse course to catch up to a social phenomenon that its current soldiers – and future recruits – already embrace.

Carter’s message addresses the same challenge from a different angle. One of the key themes of his speech at Philadelphia’s Abington High School was the overarching importance of people over hardware in building the military of the future. He told the students in the audience that people “are the foundation of our future force. There are lots of other pieces, too, like having the best technology, the best planes, ships, and tanks. But it all starts and ends with our people. If we can’t continue to attract, inspire, and excite talented young Americans like you, then nothing else will matter.”

He reiterated this theme the next day, in a speech at Syracuse University:

…we need to change to remain attractive to people to our children and our children’s children, recognizing that all generations are different. They’re not like us. They have a different way of thinking about their careers, about choice, about what excites them about what they want to do in the way of friends and families and everything else. And we need to understand that and connect to that to continue to have the best people come in.

But the reality is that the U.S. military is and will likely largely remain a fundamentally hierarchical, bureaucratic, and conservative organization. There are some very good reasons for that; the U.S. military does not, and should not, become like Zappos and remove its entire hierarchy while driving out employees who crave structure. The U.S. military is unlikely to embrace sweeping change for the best of reasons: The chaotic nature of wars requires substantial individual and organizational discipline to fight and win them. For sizable parts of the force, that may be appropriate – for now.

But warfare itself is changing. The next major war involving U.S. military forces may well demand more skills related to executing cyber attacks on an adversary’s networks than to launching large-scale infantry assaults. The shifting nature of emerging future warfare will inevitably encompass and combine all manner of new technologies, threats, and organizational responses. Taking on those challenges with a military that still manages its people largely like the force that entered Iraq in 2003 or even Kuwait in 1991 seems profoundly shortsighted. The changing face of 21st century warfare requires new approaches and bold experimentation.

One warfighting realm in particular offers intriguing prospects for melding Carter and Odierno’s new ideas with the morphing shape of 21st century war. The emerging domain of cyber warfare clearly demands a new way of managing and utilizing talent. But more importantly for the military writ large, changing the way cyber-warriors are managed holds the potential to catalyze other ambitious innovations throughout the force. It may be the spark needed to accelerate change throughout the military in a host of other fields.

The domain of cyber warfare epitomizes the mismatch between the military’s legacy 20th century models of managing people and those needed today. For example, the traditional military model of recruiting young men and women just out of high school and sending them to rigorous basic combat training before specialty schooling may be a poor fit for the requirements for dominating cyberspace. Despite growing up as digital natives, these fresh-faced 19-year-olds just out of basic training simply do not have the skills or the experience that the United States needs to counter Russian or Chinese hackers. Experienced cyber professionals, by contrast, do have the needed skills to address this increasingly important threat – which is why Secretary Carter endorsed exploring ways to bring them into the military, even if that involved changing policies related to age restrictions and rank. This would be an enormous organizational and cultural change for the U.S. military – but its value is clear, and may hold promise for segments of the armed force well beyond the cyber domain.

Yet even waiving the military’s age and rank policies may not go far enough in addressing the pressing challenges of warfare today. Particularly in the fast-moving domain of cyberspace, the Department of Defense may need an entirely fresh approach – one that effectively breaks all the personnel rules and shreds all accepted norms of rank, seniority, and deference that currently characterize what it means to be in the military (while fully staying within the boundaries of law and ethics). This model of flat, non-hierarchical units that can leverage industry talent does not exist today, but its merits in a world where threats may soon exploit technology not yet invented seem obvious.

The new military organization chart for cyber warfare might look far more like Google, or even Zappos, than a Pentagon-designed cyber version of the 82nd Airborne Division. Twenty-two-year-old cyber privates might need to outrank 44-year-old cyber colonels. Current military ranks, haircuts, and rigid pay tables tied to years of military service all might need to disappear. Pyramidal military organizations might need to dissolve into ever-shifting groups of skilled peers who are geographically dispersed and meet online for hours every day or night. Reservists might replace nearly all active duty members owing to their daytime civilian skills. Recruiting the talent necessary to dominate this contested space will require almost all long-held military personnel policies to be reexamined, and perhaps many thrown overboard entirely.

Of potentially even more importance to DoD, a force of cyber-warriors designed around these new characteristics could serve as a test bed for far broader new talent management and organizational changes in the Department. A flexible military organization that leverages both the talents of individuals (many of whom may be part-time) and abandons traditional military ways of organizing and layering leadership and seniority would be something entirely new. It could readily become the benchmark for wholly new ways of thinking, organizing, and leading in a more agile 21st century U.S. military.

The seeds of winning the next war may be found in the speeches that Carter and Odierno gave last week. They are quietly sounding the call for change. There is an entire generation of young American men and women ready to answer that call, and tens of thousands already in uniform who will be heartened by Carter and Odierno’s distinct (and perhaps grudging) recognition that their generation is truly different. To win the fights of the 21st century, the nation’s military must inspire and motivate this generation both to serve, and to stay. To do so, it must be ready to experiment with new ideas, challenge long-held norms, and be prepared to divest those things not absolutely essential. Maintaining a military filled with people capable of out-thinking and out-fighting U.S. adversaries in the next decade may depend on many of these fresh ideas catching fire and spreading throughout the force.


Lt. General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every other Tuesday.


Photo credit: Juhan Sonin (adapted by WOTR)