war on the rocks

First Steps Towards the Force of the Future

December 1, 2015

“You’re killing me, Lieutenant.”

That’s what Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told Lt. Joseph Riley, his fellow panelist last month at the Reagan National Defense Forum. Riley, a Rhodes Scholar and the top nationally ranked ROTC cadet of 2013, had just shared that he had recently been told that he would not be promoted and was at risk of being forced out of the Army. Why? Because after being commissioned, he had spent two years studying at Oxford instead of holding the standard military jobs expected of junior officers during that period of their careers. The military personnel system saw him as lagging far behind his peers. So even though around 90 percent of his fellow lieutenants would be promoted, Riley was told that he would not be one of them and that he would face a separation board.

At that moment, the military personnel system stood as a massive barrier between the young lieutenant on the left of the stage and the Army’s most senior general on the right. Milley immediately tried to reach across that barrier, telling Riley “I’ll be your personal assignments officer — I just adopted you,” and ending their exchange with a hearty “Welcome back to the United States infantry, young man!” But this story reveals the depths of the problems within the military personnel system — that even promoting a Rhodes Scholar to a relatively junior rank requires active intervention by senior officers, up to and including the Chief of Staff of the Army.

Last month, we published an article in The Atlantic called “Can the U.S. Military Halt Its Brain Drain?” In it, we argued that the military personnel system is driving too many talented and innovative officers out of the military because it remains stuck in the industrial era, where individuals are treated as interchangeable parts. We contended that the current decades-old system is simply not up to the challenge of finding and keeping the best military talent required to fight and win the nation’s wars, or to help prevent those wars from occurring in the first place. As soon as the article was posted, we started hearing from many current and former junior officers who shared their own stories about why they had left the military or were considering doing so. The details varied, but the basic storyline was essentially the same. The inflexible personnel system would either prevent them from veering even slightly from the most standard career path, or would punish them if they managed to do so. And in order to help these officers, many of their leaders were jousting with a rigid system that was seemingly impervious to logic.

In effect, today’s system often requires senior military leaders — up to and including the service chiefs — to intervene personally in order to keep top talent within the force. That certainly has helped Lt. Riley and other junior officers fortunate enough to receive such assistance and attention from the top of the pyramid, but does nothing to solve the systemic problems that affect the entire force.

But on November 18, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced the first set of reforms to emerge from the Force of the Future initiative (and recorded a podcast on the subject with Ryan Evans, WOTR’s editor-in-chief). The Force of the Future is a wide-ranging personnel reform effort focused on recruiting and retaining top talent for the Department of Defense. Carter announced it during his first weeks in office, and it remains one of his highest priorities. The first tranche of reforms generally falls into four categories. First are what Carter called “on-ramps,” which will enable more Americans to serve in the Department of Defense (DOD) either temporarily or for a full career. These include expanding internship programs, creating a Defense Digital Service to bring technology experts into DOD on a temporary basis, and hiring a chief recruiting officer to help private sector executives serve in DOD’s senior civilian leadership.

Second are what Carter called “short-term off-ramps.” These will enable more military personnel to gain new experiences outside the military and then bring new, creative, and innovative ideas back into the force. This includes expanding fellowship programs with industry, local and state governments, and universities. DOD will also work with Congress to make the Career Intermission Program permanent, which offers military personnel a sabbatical period to learn a skill, earn a degree, or start a family.

Third, DOD will harness the power of big data to analyze trends within the force and to inform better personnel policies. The services will also create talent management platforms to better match military personnel with available positions, similar to LinkedIn and the Army’s Green Pages experiment. Collectively, these programs will allow DOD personnel managers to better “see” their populations. They will also allow local commanders to have far more say in who gets assigned to key jobs in their commands, and will better align service members with billets that fit their capabilities and desires.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, DOD will conduct exit surveys to find out who is leaving the force and why. This may seem mundane, but it may prove revolutionary. Today, the U.S. military does not gather any systematic information on who is leaving the force, let alone their reasons. Senior service leaders, personnel managers, or even those like us, who are concerned that the best talent is leaving the force, have no choice but to rely on anecdotes to sniff out trends. Data simply does not exist — and as Tim Kane recently noted, to entrenched bureaucracies, “No data means no problem.” Lt. Riley’s experience is echoed in hundreds if not thousands of individual stories across the force. But today these stories and the diverse reasons behind them are not collected or analyzed in order to determine whether these steady departures add up to a potentially dangerous talent drain. Exit surveys mean that we will soon have that data — and to the extent that they reveal any problems, DOD and the services will face far more pressure to address them.

These first initiatives are all good, though as always implementation will be key. But they are only the tip of the iceberg. In many ways, these first reforms are the “low-hanging fruit” — those that could be pushed through the byzantine wickets of service concurrence and buy-in with the least resistance. The hard ones are yet to come, but are absolutely critical to the future. Far more remains to be done.

At the end of his speech, Carter mentioned perhaps the single most important reform still left unaddressed: reforming the up-or-out promotion system, so that promotions are based on performance criteria over flexible timelines rather than rigidly determined by service entry year group. This should be accompanied by establishing an enterprise career track for officers that allows them to develop expertise in one of the many important institutional management functions (such as personnel, finance, or installation management). Officers on that track would not regularly command troops, but instead develop an unparalleled depth of experience through their careers and have viable promotion paths to the most senior positions in their functional area. Other desperately needed reforms include adopting more family friendly policies (particularly for parental leave), and expanding lateral entry programs to more specialties to allow more back-and-forth movement between uniformed and civilian jobs.

The U.S. military cannot afford for this bold initiative to simply gather dust on bookshelves in the Pentagon. Secretary Carter will have to build consensus among the secretaries and chiefs, and have them take ownership in the results. Clearly, not all of them buy into some of the bolder ideas that have yet to be publicly announced. Carter’s next big job will be to slowly win them over. To do so, he will have to convince them that adopting these reforms may be one of the biggest contributions they will make during their tenure. For the Force of the Future is about far more than matching talent with jobs inside DOD and producing a more satisfied workforce. It is fundamentally about building the right force of the right people to win the nation’s future wars. Even more than picking the right new ships, planes, or tanks, the service chiefs must see this initiative as their legacy, their gift to their successors over the coming dangerous decades. Today’s decisions are all about investing in the best people who will shape and lead that force. We simply cannot afford to get that wrong.


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. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every other Tuesday.


Photo credit: Sgt. David Marquis, 362nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment