The United States is notoriously bad at predicting future conflicts and changes in the international order. From the bestselling The Coming War With Japan in the early 1990s to our failure to foresee the fall of the Soviet Union, even the near future has often remained elusive to scholars and practitioners. We have always gone to war with the force we had — which has inevitably been geared toward a different kind of war than the one we ended up fighting. Perhaps in the next few decades, we will see war with China and continued conflict in the Middle East — but if the past in any indication, your guess is as good as mine.
Given the lack of predictability of conflict, the human capital in the U.S. military is of paramount importance. Rarely if ever do we have time to shift the composition or technology of our forces, but the personnel we invest in can pivot strategically and adjust as needed. Retaining “the best and the brightest” is of the utmost importance for a simple reason: More so than any other factor, personnel make the U.S. military the best fighting force in the world.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Undersecretary Brad Carson’s “Force of the Future” initiative has renewed interest in a long-bemoaned problem plaguing the all-volunteer force: its outdated personnel system. While recently proposed legislative changes are aimed at modernizing the military compensation and retirement system, the most important reforms are those that truly focus on capturing the “best and the brightest” by combining best practices in retention with reform of the billet selection system to ensure that the best people not only remain in the military, but are also placed in the right jobs. The proposed “Force of the Future” initiative is estimated to cost more than $1 billion a year to implement. In a time of fiscal austerity and drawdown, it is critical that these resources are spent in a way that yields true returns on investment.
The value of innovative and flexible thinkers in future conflicts is woefully absent from current personnel considerations. Rather, young service members must “check the box” until they reach O-6, whereupon those talented or lucky enough to be promoted to general officer are asked to strategize and innovate on a moment’s notice. Not only is strategy and innovation not a skillset that we should be confining to the upper echelons of our military, but the current method nearly guarantees that those who are innovative by nature will struggle to make it to the highest levels of military leadership.
The first step to effectively valuing our human capital is focusing holistically on retention. New proposals for personnel reform acknowledge the changing nature of society at large. There are pushes toward the more sustainable work–life balance and career flexibility of the private sector, since even those committed to public service may balk at the toll the current military lifestyle can take on a family. If the military can shift cultural norms to be more conducive to a two-career family and to lessen the stresses of constantly moving, it will enable the retention of younger generations past their initial commitments.
Second, if personnel are slotted into jobs in which they excel, it would make more sense to have longer tours. Adding this career stability not only aids in retention, but also lessens stresses that may lead to sub-optimal performance. With per-troop costs on the rise, it makes far more sense to allocate resources in ways that are productive and respond to current weaknesses in the personnel system, while also creating cost savings from fewer military-financed permanent changes of station. However, this type of stability-focused change will be most effective if implemented with a reform of the billet system and with a willingness to remove poor performers from key posts.
A personnel system that creates a higher level of stability by extending tours will make the military a more feasible option for mid-career personnel, as well. Providing easy “on and off ramps” in places with highly-skilled workers such as Silicon Valley and offering two- to three-year tours to accomplished experts will diversify thinking in the military and open the door to new levels of expertise.
As technology evolves at a breathtaking pace, maintaining a technically adept force requires the recruiting and retention of personnel who fall outside of the military’s normal profile. To maintain the military’s competitive edge will likely require a degree of flexibility that is currently untenable under our Soviet-style personnel system. Again, people are our greatest platform — investing in those who will create or adapt to changing technology makes far more sense than pushing them out of the military for not fitting the current mold.
With the human costs of war so heartbreakingly high, there is a moral imperative to recruit and retain the best people and place them in jobs in which their skillsets are best used. It does a disservice to our service members and their families to treat people as though they are interchangeable. There are many compelling proposals as to what this new system should look like, be it “on and off ramps” to the private sector or more meritocratic features. Improvements to the personnel system may require a hefty price tag, but the cost of not making these changes will be far higher. Without a significant and long-overdue investment in our military’s human capital, the United States will struggle to maintain military superiority. We may not be able to foresee where our military will be required next, but an investment in the “force of the future” will ensure we remain the world’s premier fighting force.
Amy Schafer is the Research Assistant for the Military, Veterans, and Society program at the Center for a New American Security.