Blue-Haired Soldiers? Just Say No


A generation of easy victories over weak opponents has encouraged the notion that future wars require a new type of warrior. Along these lines, Jacquelyn Schneider recently proposed that the military recruit nontraditional servicemembers in order to get highly specialized skills, like fluency in cyber-operations, that are increasingly important in modern warfare. The article celebrated the possibility of having servicemembers with “blue hair, man buns, and red highlights.” These technicians would be paid more than other servicemembers because of their specialized skills. They would fight with keyboards, mostly out of offices in the United States, and not be required to attend military training or acquire military skills (like firing a weapon). Schneider is not alone in proposing such a restructuring of the military personnel system. Former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s “Force of the Future” had elements of this approach, for instance. However, such a restructuring of the military personnel system is unnecessary, unfair, and dangerous.

It is unnecessary because people with the kinds of specialized skills demanded by the future of warfare do not need to be in uniform. Rather than contort the military personnel system to accommodate the preferences of civilians who don’t want to be in the traditional military, people with specialized skills should serve as government civilians or contractors. This gets at a fundamental question about who needs to be military, and that’s a discussion we need to have, as Schneider rightly points out. Military personnel are scarce. They must be willing to deploy into danger and, as a result, be physically fit, medically near perfect, highly trained, and mostly young. Military personnel are also expensive. As my colleague Todd Harrison has shown, they are much more expensive than civilians when all of the benefits are added in. Even contractors are often less expensive. Therefore, only positions that really need to be military should be military, and the others should be civilian or contractor.

Civilian and contractor personnel systems are also much more flexible because they can recruit for specific billets and not require the general qualifications — for example, being sent anywhere in the world — that the military requires. Civilians and contractors can be paid higher salaries without disturbing the rank and file military and can stay in the same job for years without being forced up-or-out, as the military personnel system requires. They can be old and in poor health. For example, a 50-year-old with diabetes is a perfectly fine cyber warrior at Ft. Meade but totally inappropriate for deployment forward. Contractors are particularly easy to add and drop, thus allowing organizations to respond quickly to changing circumstances.

Won’t some of these highly specialized people need to go forward? Yes, but not many. The services are working hard to minimize the number of people forward because it is expensive and imposes hardships on families. Instead, leveraging the network, many highly specialized jobs are now done remotely — a concept called “reachback”. The Navy has greatly reduced the size of its ship crews, putting as many activities as it can ashore. If it puts more sailors aboard ship, these will be additional watchstanders to relieve an overstretched crew. The few highly specialized personnel who do need to go forward or aboard a ship can be traditional military personnel from the small group of high-tech specialists that the military is able to recruit and train. Or they could be government civilians or contractors, who are increasingly taking on those kinds of roles, even overseas.

Having two sets of standards is unfair because it would produce two militaries. One military would be fit, disciplined, trained in military skills, and deployed into danger. The other military would be free spirits, out of shape (but “healthy”), without military skills, and highly paid. Both would get the same benefits. Not only would it be unfair, it would likely be unworkable. How would you recruit anyone for that first military when they work next to people in that other military?

Finally, relaxing training and discipline standards is dangerous because it would make the soft rear areas of a deployed military force — the headquarters clusters, logistics hubs, transportation links, and port facilities — even softer. In her article, Schneider makes the broad argument that all support troops could be recruited to these reduced training, discipline, and grooming standards because they do specialized tasks and don’t actually face the enemy. This mistakes a moment in time for a change in the character of war. The United States has become spoiled because for the last generation it has been fighting weak regional adversaries that cannot effectively attack rear areas. That is changing with the rise of Russia and China, which can challenge the United States in all warfighting domains. Experiences in World War II and Korea remind us that rear areas are not always safe, and sometimes rear area personnel must defend themselves against attacks by regular and irregular forces. Witness the Battle of the Bulge, Guadalcanal, Chosin reservoir. Filling these rear areas with untrained and unready personnel invites collapse.

We should remember the story of the 507th Maintenance Company (Pvt. Jessica Lynch’s unit). During the initial stages of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, elements of the company took a wrong turn and ended up in enemy territory. Its members were unfamiliar with even the most basic combat skills and could not defend themselves. They were all killed or captured. And these were soldiers who had at least the rudiments of military skills training. What would happen to a unit with none? Presumably, they would surrender en masse. Alternatively, lacking the ability to protect themselves, they would need to be escorted around the battlefield. This would expand the controversial personnel security industry, like the former Blackwater Corporation, which stepped in to provide security when overstretched military forces could not.

The U.S. military needs all manner of specialized skills. But let’s acquire those skills in a sensible manner that doesn’t undermine the warfighting effectiveness that the military exists for.


Mark Cancian (Colonel, U.S. Marine Corps, ret.) is a senior adviser with the CSIS International Security Program. Colonel Cancian spent over three decades in the U.S. Marine Corps, active and reserve, serving as an infantry, artillery, and civil affairs officer and on overseas tours in Vietnam, Desert Storm, and Iraq (twice). He has written extensively on national security topics and is currently leading a research project on avoiding surprise in a future great power conflict.

Image: U.S. Air Force/Ray McCoy