To Better Serve Personnel and Readiness, the Pentagon Should Shutter its Personnel and Readiness Shop


It’s no secret that Congress loves defense reform. Since the current House and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairmen took the gavels in 2015, there have been no fewer than 230 amendments passed to their annual defense policy bills touting reforms. Among Department of Defense leaders, efforts to make the Pentagon run more like a business are back in style. “Efficiency” is a favorite buzzword that has endured throughout the tenure of at least the last five secretaries of defense.

Yet amidst the myriad proposals for change on the Hill and at the Pentagon, from how the military buys equipment to requiring each service to award medals for dogs, two areas that are consistently overlooked and under-reformed are people and readiness.

Regarding talent management, while policymakers agree that the Pentagon’s personnel system needs to be reimagined to meet the needs of millennials and future generations, that’s where the unity ends. Most of the blame for the Pentagon’s outmoded human resources system—and the difficulties in understanding how ready military units are for the missions they are called upon to undertake—lies with the bureaucrats tasked with producing and implementing the military’s human resources and readiness policies, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness (P&R).

It is time for Congress to consider abolishing this outmoded and ineffective office and distribute the essential workload elsewhere within the Pentagon. Doing so would not only improve the quality of life for servicemembers by rationalizing the personnel system, but would also enable the Pentagon to more easily diagnose and treat the readiness problems plaguing the force.

In a rare inversion for Washington, this solution appears far more dramatic on paper than it would be in practice. P&R has faced consistent criticism, not just for failing to devise innovative reforms for military compensation, career trajectory, and readiness metrics, but also for actively stifling such proposals. In his memoir, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates offered a particularly scathing critique of this office’s obstinacy, noting that his efforts to improve the disability system for wounded servicemembers “encountered active opposition, passive resistance, or just plain bureaucratic obduracy from P&R.”

The office’s lack of creativity and initiative is partially attributable to the lack of consistent leadership at the top. Since President Barack Obama began his first term in 2009, P&R has chewed through 11 under secretaries in a confirmed or acting capacity—an average of more than one a year. To make matters worse, seven of the 10 officeholders in the Obama administration were not confirmed by the Senate. Despite the fact that P&R is one of only five under secretariats in the Pentagon (six come February 2018 after the bifurcation of Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics), there has not been a Senate-confirmed under secretary for personnel and readiness since Jessica Wright stepped down in March 2015.

Yet the dysfunction in P&R extends far below the senior level. The office has been forced to hand over tasks to other organizations, such as the Joint Staff, that should be well within the core competencies of its mandate, including reviews of military compensation and commissaries. When former acting Under Secretary Brad Carson proposed his “Force of the Future”—a bold attempt to transform the military human resources system—he faced castigation from his own office and censure from Congress, eventually leading to his resignation.

Congress’ sharp reaction to Carson’s smart push for meaningful reforms is somewhat understandable given P&R’s history of banality. Lawmakers weren’t used to the office serving as a fount of fresh ideas. With the exception of Force of the Future, most of the major personnel policy changes in recent memory have come from outside the Pentagon, mainly from Congress and independent commissions. Examples range from “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to the original Goldwater-Nichols legislation that laid the foundation for the modern military personnel system and the recent transition to a blended military retirement system. This change to the retirement system, which P&R declined to support at the time, was recommended by the independent Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission and enacted by Congress.

Within P&R’s remit are activities that collectively consume some two-thirds of the defense budget, including compensation, housing, healthcare, education, training, and other readiness activities. Yet given its ongoing state of dysfunction—and the existence of other organizations that could manage these tasks—the Trump administration should divide up P&R’s responsibilities among the military services, the Joint Staff, the Pentagon’s Comptroller, the Deputy Chief Management Officer, and the Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation.

Just as the combatant command structure was simplified—albeit not reduced—by the elimination of the redundant Joint Forces Command, so too could the dissolution of P&R streamline the Pentagon’s civilian organization and plausibly freeze or reverse the planned expansion of its 791,000 strong civilian workforce without impacting productivity. This is doubly true because not all tasks currently undertaken by P&R need to be transferred. Much of the secretariat’s work involves supervising extraneous training deemed unnecessary by the secretary of defense or serving as a compliance overseer for the military services using whatever readiness data, complete or not, they voluntarily supply.

Nevertheless, the secretariat does perform some critical work. These essential tasks performed by P&R would need to be transferred to other organizations within the Department of Defense:

Providing Promotion Guidance for Flag Officers. The Secretary of Defense recommends officers to serve in senior flag and general officer billets, such as unified combatant commands. A subject matter expert must be on hand to advise the secretary when adjudicating between candidates, especially in regards to critical prerequisites for these positions such as time-in-grade requirements. Furthermore, when a senior officer is guilty of misconduct, the secretary must determine the grade in which that officer reties. A seasoned hand is needed to appraise the secretary of the political sensitivities and bureaucratic nuances surrounding these invariably contentious decisions. This function could be handled by a dedicated senior advisor on the secretary’s staff.

Establishing Standards, Compensation, and Other Policies for Military and Civilian Personnel. Currently, P&R is notionally responsible for establishing department-wide policies for military and civilian personnel. In reality, each of the military services establish and manage many of these policies on their own. While some coordination is necessary, these responsibilities can be delegated to the services with coordination and oversight conducted by the deputy chief management officer in charge of coordinating the business operations of the Pentagon to better support forces in the field.

Recruiting, Marketing, and Analytics. P&R supervises defense-wide marketing activities, mostly visibly by conducting polling research of young people to determine their propensity to serve. In addition to collecting data vital for recruiters to attract the next generation of service members, P&R manages the Defense Manpower Data Center that tracks vital information regarding serving military personnel. All of these functions can be moved under the deputy chief management officer.

Supervising Military Healthcare. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others advocating for a more uniform military healthcare system are on the right track; to that end, a defense-wide manager for healthcare issues should be maintained. If P&R disappears, the Defense Health Agency and TriCare would need to find new homes elsewhere in the sprawling front offices of the Office of the Secretary of Defense to keep the various services’ surgeons general in check.

Assessing Military Readiness. Beyond manpower concerns, the abolition of P&R would give Congress an opportunity to require the Pentagon to strengthen its readiness reporting system. With aviation fleets regularly grounded, engines falling off aircraft mid-flight, and two fatal ship accidents in the Pacific in the past three months, the current oversight arrangements are clearly ineffective.

Despite its mandate, the P&R under secretariat contributes little to prognosticating readiness. The central product in this domain is a quarterly readiness report to Congress, though it is unhelpful. By aggregating the readiness reports provided by the services with few alterations, P&R injects little value or oversight into these vital issues. As a result, the definitions of readiness are vague and not standardized across the Pentagon. P&R’s reductive methodologies result in sensational—and largely baseless—claims that only a sliver of forces could fight tonight based on factors as trivial as a lack of high-visibility reflector belts.

Readiness shortfalls are certainly real, but it is hard to diagnose the true problems perpetuating risks to the force when P&R does not measure readiness in the same units and formations which the military actually deploys. Finally, the current readiness metrics do not tell policymakers what is possible given the areas in which forces are adequately prepared; only what cannot be accomplished.

Let us humbly suggest to Congress what can be done. To improve the military’s personnel policies and readiness reporting, eliminate the under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness and move its most critical functions elsewhere. Not only would this streamline the Pentagon and improve morale by better serving the force’s need for healthcare and new talent, it would also be a powerful signal about Congress’ willingness to take bold, disruptive measures to promote innovative thinking and to address declining readiness. This reform would, at long last, give the military services the flexibility and authority needed to transform the Pentagon’s soviet-style personnel management system into one better suited for the 21st century.


Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow for national security at the American Enterprise Institute. Todd Harrison is the director of the Aerospace Security Project and the director of Defense Budget Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Image: U.S. Army Reserve/Krista Rayford