Military Power is All About People: A Return to Personnel Policy


The U.S. military is often described as the “best fighting force in the world,” and we agree. It’s superior to its possible adversaries in nearly every way. No other military has the globe-spanning responsibilities, the all-domain combat experience, or the technological edge. Yet, as the United States remains militarily engaged around a world that demands unyielding attention and unwavering commitment, its military faces a dynamic threat environment that includes new and resurgent challenges in emerging battle domains such as cyber. With tensions on the Korean peninsula, a continuing series of crises in the Middle East, a rising China, and a resurgent Russia, it would be wise to keep front and center the key source of strength in the armed forces — our people.

Policy debates have raged about Syria, Yemen, NATO, North Korea, and beyond. At the same time, defense acquisition experts publicly debated options related to new technologies and acquisition reform. But the new and growing challenges facing the country are all the more reason to also think about what additional approaches are needed to acquire the key personnel skills and capabilities needed to meet America’s growing and changing military requirements.

The new administration has called for “a larger, more capable, and more lethal joint force, driven by a new National Defense Strategy that recognizes the need for American superiority not only on land, at sea, in the air, and in space, but also in cyberspace.” To do this, the Department of Defense has become increasingly focused on three key objectives: sustaining and improving the deterrent and warfighting prowess; establishing a force with the capabilities needed to meet the challenges in the coming years; and resetting and rebalancing after decades of conflicts.

There are a number of different lines of effort that would likely go into addressing each of these three objectives. One question worth raising is whether there’s a need to examine how the Department of Defense recruits, trains, and retains talented military and civilian personnel who make up the foundation of U.S. strategic superiority.

Efforts to Modernize Personnel Policy

Informed debate and discussion regarding military personnel policy — and proposed changes thereto — to meet national security needs are nothing new. Almost since the All-Volunteer Force was adopted by the Nixon administration in 1973, it has been subject to debate and reform efforts. By 1981, the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA) established rules regarding numbers of and promotion timing for field-grade officers. While a critical reform, it left untouched the military’s core human capital management strategies. In the face of active combat in Iraq and Afghanistan during the early 2000s, a range of initiatives and programs were undertaken, some of which aimed to expand the pool of individuals qualified to serve in the active and reserves, as well as to diversify the human capital pool to include civilians and contractors in combat settings. Other policies restricted the flow of human capital, including stop loss and involuntary mobilizations. These policies were the subject of some controversy — efforts to aggressively retain or involuntarily extend service members were seen by some as unfair, while efforts to use civilians or contractors were criticized by others as dangerous and expensive.

Most recently, in an effort to modernize how the military attracts, develops, employs, and retains the best people available, then-Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter directed a comprehensive review of the Defense Department’s personnel systems and instituted a number of reforms in 2015 and 2016. He released three tranches: the first focused on innovation and talent management, the second focused on military parents, and the third focused on increased flexibility to identify, advance, and retain exceptional military and civilian personnel. While a number of key changes were initiated in 2015, many of the reforms were left unfinished. Like a number of past efforts, the changes — both those implemented and those not — were controversial and criticized for the high costs and lack of evidence to support some of the key initiatives proposed.

Re-Starting the Personnel Policy Debate

Efforts at reforming defense personnel policy have faced controversy amid an uncertain future. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t stop talking about the underlying issues. There is growing awareness that personnel policies are critical to meeting key defense and even broader national security objectives.

The president’s recently released budget proposes a 2.1 percent pay raise. This would amount to about $50 more per month for junior enlisted troops and about $115 for junior officers. At the same time, plans envision increasing the force size by 4,000 for both the Navy and Air Force, and maintaining Army and Marine Corps personnel numbers at 2017 levels. Planned growth in the reserve component includes 1,000 more personnel in the Navy Reserves, 900 in the Air National Guard, and 800 in Marine Corps Reserve. But these numbers say little about the civilians and contractors needed to support and enable military personnel and their families. Many of these civilian positions face tremendous pressure under the hiring freeze implemented immediately after President Donald Trump took office. To truly meet many of these end-strength levels and broader strategic goals, personnel policy debates need to be restarted. There are no silver bullets. Most of the policy options are imperfect and require difficult or complex trade-offs. In return, however, some might offer potential for improvements in readiness or reduction in costs.

These debates provide an opportunity for research and analysis on personnel policy reform to be brought to the fore. A wide range of research from academics, think tanks, and federally funded research and development centers (like RAND) has analyzed the benefits and trade-offs of changes to personnel management practices. These include reforms to military compensation and retirement, lengthening military careers, ending the practice of promotion based on year groups, and giving greater agency to service members and their families in the assignment process. When taken together, proponents of these changes believe that a range of research and policy options under consideration could significantly modernize a military personnel system that can be traced back directly to before World War I. Ambitious yet controversial ideas such as slowing down the unrelenting move cycle, giving greater agency to service members and their families in the assignment process, ending the practice of promotion based on year groups, or stopping the practice of up-or-out have all been left for continued debate.

Proponents of these reforms argue that administration or congressional actions would allow policy entrepreneurs in the services to experiment with new personnel systems that are more competitive with the private sector, which may be particularly important as unemployment rates continue to fall. These changes might also allow for greater flexibility, enabling the department to adapt more rapidly to changes in the threat environment (e.g., emergence of cyber, reemergence of great power competition). Critics worry many of these reforms are costly, address problems that are not substantial enough to generate concern, and did not have evidence of efficacy, or are, in other words, questionable “solutions in search of a problem.”

Based on our experience in government working on these matters, and given the real costs and potential benefits, a thoughtful approach to discussing these proposed policies might focus on a few key areas.

Realistic Long-Term Budgeting and Resourcing

Promises to grow the force sound strong on defense, but the related costs and expenditures are enormous and cannot quickly be undone. The fully burdened cost of a service member is still difficult to accurately estimate due to the myriad of accounts against which these costs are charged. Far beyond compensation and benefits are the costs of manning, training, equipping, preparing for retirement, and of course, the eventual cost to the taxpayer via the Veterans Administration, though that agency is not within the defense budget. The growth and drawdown of each of the services has an enormous cost to the taxpayer. With this in mind, proponents have proposed that policymakers carefully evaluate requirements and capabilities using a total force to develop better long-term estimates of overall force size. They argue that this might better allow for consideration of the tradeoffs between recruitment of new personnel and retention of existing service members in regenerating the force, as well as ensuring that appropriate levels of associated equipment and training are also included. A longer planning horizon and evidence-based review of these requirements and trade-offs might result in a more capable and effective force — mitigating some of the readiness shortfalls generated by emphasis on fiscal austerity within the overburdened force.

Appropriate Force Levels

The force reductions precipitated by the Budget Control Act have bled talented individuals from the ranks solely due to fiscal constraints — not mission requirements — with tangible consequences for operational capabilities. Moreover, during the past 15 years of war, the United States relied heavily on the military, and discussions of growth and sizing should reflect the new reality of an operational rather than strategic reserve. Proponents argue that the force is past due for an evaluation of the best force structure and mix to meet various contingencies, including active, reserve, Guard, and civilian capabilities. Add to this a changing defense strategy combined with new and diversified threats and it seems like a different force mixture, and increased permeability between different components, might well be critical for readiness under the full range of scenarios and contingencies. This could be aided by re-energizing the discussion of how to build greater fluidity within and between components, which has been discussed for several decades but not fully implemented. Such changes could help enhance strategic flexibility and readiness.

Modern Military Careers

The current approach to military service is built on the assumption of a single, continuous military career track. This structure is not consistent with contemporary labor and workforce trends and does not provide the career options troops increasingly seek. Moreover, it does not allow service members to gain private-sector experience in priority skill areas such as cybersecurity, nor does it allow breaks in service to balance work and life demands. By making the assignment process more understandable and transparent, reducing the barriers between the active, Guard, and reserve forces, and providing new pathways into and out of civilian life, proponents believe the department could make potential recruits more willing to join and continue serving and help retain the skills and talents of capable service members. Critics point out that a number of these changes undercut military planners’ ability to constantly be generating a force that is prepared to fight a war at any given point— no small feat. And given that such changes would confront some of the key benefits of the current promotion and career management approaches, these tradeoffs might most fruitfully be explored in the specific context of emerging requirements and priority career areas.

Meaningful Health Care Reform 

The military health system, unlike most private health care systems, has three distinct missions: the health readiness of U.S. forces, care for critically wounded service members, and health care at home for service members and their families. It delivers care through a network of military hospitals and clinics, supplemented by health care purchased from thousands of private doctors and other providers. In recent years, however, the system costs have risen sharply and service members are increasingly dissatisfied with the care. The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act included a number of important reforms aimed at restructuring and reorganizing the military’s medical system. These changes could be coupled with a more accessible and integrated military health system in which military hospitals and the TRICARE provider network operate more in unison. At the same time, given rising costs, understanding the key drivers of those health care costs and efforts to control costs seems a worthwhile candidate for integration into the broader review. Building on the success of Veterans Administration programs, the military health system might also explore lower-cost, modern elements of medical care, such as telemedicine and online services, to increase accessibility and reduce barriers to care.


Renewed efforts to make transition out of service a success for service members and their families could be one of the best investments in the future of the military and its future recruiting. Veterans and military families are key sources of future recruits and play a large role as “influencers” of the next generation of service members. Furthermore, ensuring a smooth transition is an effective way to ensure the nation continues to benefit from the investments made in so many talented men and women. As part of a modernized human capital management strategy, the Department of Defense has an opportunity to do more. This should include efforts that help potential recruits and service members achieve a better understanding of the long-term benefits of military service ( e.g., employment, earnings, and educational opportunities ) Moreover, recent changes and the wide range of activities conducted by the Department of Defense to support those transitioning into civil society have not been fully evaluated to prioritize the most efficient and effective programs.

Defense Civilians

Defense civilians are critical teammates who work side-by-side with the armed forces to ensure the nation’s defense. Maintaining robust talent in the civil service requires further appreciation of their contributions, support for their deployments, and continued opportunities to grow professionally. With more flexibility between civilian and military roles in the Department of Defense, there are opportunities to truly leverage the best person for each individual role, and to broaden both civilian and military portfolios and experience through new joint billets.

Ensuring the long-term strength of U.S. armed forces is critical to our national security. Policymakers should continue to discuss and debate these challenging but vitally important issues. True investment in personnel is a long-term legacy and an investment worthy of attention and policy debate to ensure the United States continues to recruit and retain the most effective fighting force in the world.


Radha Iyengar is a senior economist at the nonpartisan, nonprofit RAND Corporation. She previously served as Director of Personnel, Readiness, and Partnerships at the White House National Security Council from 2013-14 as well as other senior staff roles at the Department of Defense and Department of Energy.

 Brad Carson is a senior advisor at Boston Consulting Group. He previously served as Acting Undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness from 2015-2016 and Undersecretary of the Army from 2014-2015.

Amy Schafer is a Research Associate for the Military, Veterans, & Society Program at the Center for a New American Security.

 John D. Winkler is a senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation and director of the Forces and Resources Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division. He previously served as a deputy assistant secretary and principal deputy assistant secretary of defense in OSD/reserve affairs from 2001 to 2009.

Image: Sgt. 1st Class Michel Sauret/U.S. Army