Personnel Reform Lives, but Don’t Call It ‘Force of the Future’


The military career is getting its first significant makeover since the dawn of the Cold War. For the last year or so, individual services have been working to give their members increased flexibility and freedom. Most recently, provisions in the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 (or just NDAA), sent to the president’s desk last week, take important, if non-comprehensive, steps necessary to bring the military’s personnel system into the 21st century.

The last time Congress made major changes to the system for managing officers’ careers — the rules laying out when, how, by what criteria, and how many promotions could be made — was at the start of the Cold War with the passage of the Officer Personnel Act of 1947 (OPA). Despite the shift to an all-volunteer force in 1973, and some modest reforms that accompanied it, the only other major effort to update defense personnel policy — the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act of 1980 (DOPMA) — was, according to RAND, “an evolutionary piece of legislation that was firmly rooted in the experience of World War II.” Its major achievement was extending many of the provisions already found in OPA to all the services, creating a uniform set of rules that governed promotion and separation for the entire military.

The new uniform regulations for officers created by DOPMA have come to be known as the “up-or-out” promotion system. Under this regime, all active-duty officers — regardless of specialty — are required to check a uniform list of boxes to be promoted. Those who fail to be promoted are removed from the service, regardless of their ability to execute the functions of their billet. DOPMA also places limits on the number of officers who can serve in particular grades, keeping the number of mid- and high-level officers proportionally low.

This system was generally viewed as appropriate for the way the military expected to fight in the Cold War: the officer corps commanding conscripted and largely untrained troops in a large-scale ground conflict. For that strategic environment, leadership was the sole and highest military quality. Officers that exhibited it were groomed for higher grades, those that did not were forced out.

Yet, almost since its passage, DOPMA has inspired proposed changes, with Congress even temporarily suspending some portions of it during the 1990s drawdown. But almost all reform efforts have failed to materialize. Most recently, former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s “Force of the Future” initiative died on the vine. Although hurdles both political and personal have contributed to the failures of these past efforts, the major factor has been the lack of close linkage between the personnel system and the strategic needs of the department. This failure can be attributed both to strategic planners, who rarely consider personnel, as well as to those drawing up schemes for personnel reform, who rarely connect their proposals to strategic outcomes. After all, no major strategic document since the 1993 Bottom Up Review has considered how managing talent impacts the force’s ability to carry out its mission. The result has been that, as with the Force of the Future, critics saw personnel reform as “solutions in search of a problem.”

That has now changed. For the first time, the 2018 National Defense Strategy discussed the relationship of personnel to strategy not just in terms of end-strength, but also “workforce talent.” Responding to challenges they encountered in the field and in the barracks, the individual services began making what changes they could within the confines of existing personnel regulations. And Congress noticed. The momentum is building behind fundamental and far-reaching defense personnel reform to better face the twin challenges of society and strategy.

Confronted with the difficulty of filling higher recruiting quotas defense leaders must figure out how to attract Americans who are increasingly unfamiliar with the military and whose professional expectations might differ significantly from those of the standard military career. And in the face of dwindling retention in key fields, like pilots, drill sergeants, and recruiters, the military should be able to offer a compelling reason to stay for talented service members exhausted by more than a decade of war, considering more lucrative careers in the private sector, or concerned that service imposes too high a cost on their families.

The challenge, however, is not simply one of quantity. The quality of service members, their skills and talents, also has to keep pace with the strategic environment. With the return of great power competition, the who of U.S. military strategy might look a lot like the 20th century (Russia and China), but the how is dramatically different. As the latest National Defense Strategy makes clear, despite the “re-emergence of long-term, strategic competition between nations,” the United States must deal with both an “ever more lethal and disruptive battlefield, combined across domains, and conducted at increasing speed and reach” and “competition short of open warfare … (e.g., information warfare, ambiguous or denied proxy operations, and subversion).” The result is a security environment characterized by “rapid technological advancements and the changing character of war.”

As the Defense Department reevaluates the skills required to remain, as Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis puts it, “lethal” on this 21st century battlefield, the services are reconsidering the nature and composition of military units across the board, right down to the most foundational — the traditional Marine rifle squad. Even the Marine rifleman is going to require higher-level skills, including operating drones and interpreting intelligence real-time, in order to maintain battlefield awareness for example. With this recognition comes the challenge of recruiting, managing, promoting, and retaining service members with the necessary talents to confront the strategic threats facing the United States today.

While significant emphasis is put on the technical skills required to fight in new domains like cyberspace or space, more human-centric skills will also be critical, from the linguistic, cultural, and inter-personal skills that are required to successfully integrate with and train partner forces to cognitive and decision-making abilities that are going to be required of ever lower-level troops as battles are fought at digital speeds.

In recent months every branch of the military has attempted to update their personnel systems to account for these challenges. Both the Army and the Air Force have broadened the pool of officers who are eligible for promotion, as well as taken steps to revitalize training syllabi which haven’t been updated in nearly 30 years. The Navy and Air Force moved their personnel systems to the cloud and the Army just revamped its pay systems to better track soldiers’ skillsets and career interests.

Additionally, the permanent change of station (PCS) process, by which most officers are required to move after a specified interval, has also received some reform. Critics have long argued that PCSing puts intense stress on both service members and their families. The Army is changing its policies to allow unit members to stay together for longer periods of time. The Navy and the Air Force are allowing service members to negotiate longer-term deals, and the Marine Corps has proposed reducing unaccompanied tours for married marines by as much as a quarter.

The Air Force and the Navy have also implemented further financial incentives to encourage longer enlistments. The Air Force is instituting an expansion of their Voluntary Retired Return to Active Duty Program which will allow up to 1,000 recently-retired Air Force pilots, combat systems officers, and air battle managers to return to active duty. This comes on the heels of the dramatic shortage of pilots, the increasing need for specialized officers, and the stresses of traditional military structure, problems which were exacerbated by the abrupt implementation of, and then partial relief from, the Budget Control Act of 2011.

These reforms are steps in the right direction, but they cannot alter the rigid statutory structures in place on their own. For example, while the Defense Department has extremely wide discretion to manage its enlisted personnel, the management of officer personnel must be formulated within fairly strict statutory guidelines. To that end, the new NDAA authorizes one of the most significant changes to the military’s personnel system since before the fall of the Berlin Wall and in so doing provides much needed flexibility to the personnel management system. That is, assuming the department and the services take advantage of the new authorities granted to them by Congress, as the reforms authorized by the NDAA are largely suggestive, not prescriptive. These reforms would be the first step in transforming the “one-size-fits-all” military career created by the up-or-out system into one that is more flexible and adaptable to the threats facing the United States.

As the way the military expects to fight in the 21st century is evolving, the qualities needed in the officer corps are also changing, calling into question the relevance of up-or-out to today’s strategic needs. “Cultivating a lethal, agile force requires more than just new technologies and posture changes,” the National Defense Strategy recognized, “the creativity and talent of the American warfighter is our greatest enduring strength.”

Creating a force agile enough to win on future battlefields requires not just the ability to lead, but a flexible, technically skilled officer corps consisting of highly-trained officers from a diverse range of fields. Sustaining such an officer corps will require more flexible career paths, ones that reward technical skills, not just leadership, and ones that allow officers to remain, if their preferences and performance merit it, in a technical field rather than advancing to a command post. The current up-or-out system lacks that flexibility. As the Senate Armed Services Committee, which proposed many of the personnel reforms included in the NDAA, puts it in its report, “when the personnel system becomes out of alignment with the strategy, the system must be revised. This is precisely the situation facing the current officer personnel management system.”

Revising the system is exactly what the NDAA does. First, it modifies existing regulations to allow for truly merit-based officer promotions, rather than promotions based solely on time-in-grade. It also repeals a requirement for joining the military which states that service members must be able to complete 20 years of service by age 62 in order to serve as a commissioned officer. Furthermore, allowances are included for career credit to be assigned for special experiences outside of typical military service. This is intended to allow highly-qualified civilians to enlist as mid-level officers later in life, so that the military can take advantage of the talents of a larger subset of Americans.

Most significantly perhaps, the NDAA introduces flexibility into the traditional officer career, specifically when and how officers are promoted. It allows for alternative promotion authority, meaning that officers will now have up to five opportunities to compete for promotions. Furthermore, the number of times officers have applied for promotion will not be considered in the promotion process, allowing officers to be evaluated solely on merit, rather than on time-in-grade. This is in contrast to the current system which only allows very limited numbers of opportunities to be promoted and penalizes those officers applying before or after they are in the promotion “zone” — meaning they have completed the requisite number of years to be promoted to the next grade up. As the Senate Armed Services Committee report puts it, promotions should be based on depth of experience, not just breadth of experience. Relatedly, the bill also creates allowances for temporary “spot” promotions, meaning that service secretaries will now be able to promote officers early to fill gaps in critical positions. This will allow the military to effectively shape the officer corps in response to rapid changes in the threat environment. Taken together, these two changes de-emphasize time as a criterion for promotion and instead highlight officer skills and actual officer requirements.

The bill also includes several provisions aimed at supporting military families, which is another crucial readiness issue. Many of the personnel policies the military still relies on were designed for the immediate post-war period, when service members were largely young, unmarried, and male. But today’s military is a different picture altogether: the average age of service members has increased significantly, a majority of service members are married, and the number of women in the forces has increased by orders of magnitude. As a result, the number of service members with families has increased precipitously, and the pressure resulting from a lack of spousal employment and adequate child-care can lead service members to exit the military and not recommend it to the next generation.

The NDAA provides for greater career resources for military spouses and the establishment of more effective military child-care facilities. The legislation further instructs the Department of Defense itself to conduct a study on the effects of frequent change-of-stations on military spouses, their families, and service members’ subsequent mission readiness. In fact, the NDAA establishes resources for families even beyond employment and child care, including provisions for the prevention and handling of domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse and neglect.

By creating more merit-based promotion pathways, creating pathways for civilians to enter the service at higher levels, and providing much-needed support to military families, this bill seeks to create the force envisioned by the 2018 National Defense Strategy, one which is “lethal, resilient, and rapidly adapting.”

Still, several personnel issues will almost certainly remain, and there are underlying structural elements of DOPMA which remain in effect which hinder the effectiveness of the military.

First among these remaining reforms is the DOPMA officer-strength grade table, which determines the number of officers the services can appoint to, or keep in, particular grades. As the Senate Armed Services Committee notes in its NDAA report, the grade table is “no longer linked to strategy or actual officer requirements.” If these were repealed, or at least more regularly updated to reflect the services’ real needs (the Air Force’s has not changed since 1996), the services would spend more time focused on their officer requirements rather than adhering to an arbitrary statutory grade table. To be fully effective, doing away with or making changes to the grade table would likely also require creating technical career tracks, either through new competitive categories more tailored to discreet officer career fields or through an expanded warrant officer program.  Changes to compensation such as switching military pay from a “time-in-service” to a “time-in-grade” model will also make technical tracks more appealing to officers. And other types of performance review would be necessary to identify low-performers once officers have the option for stand for promotion boards less frequently. Transformations of the grade table, in tandem with these other reforms, could positively transform the services; shifting them towards a “perform-to-stay” mindset (rather than retaining the largely singular focus on promotion at all).

Recruitment is another critical issue that is not addressed in this year’s NDAA. With enlistments declining it is necessary to take a second look at the ways in which the military does — or does not — interact with the American populace at large. The largest issue facing military recruiters is a matter of both quantity and quality; while numbers are down across the board, the military has a distinct lack of highly-talented experts when compared with the private sector. To remedy this problem, several steps could be taken: the Selective Service could be reformed to include all young American adults, including women, and also to require all Selective Service registrants to take the military aptitude test, the ROTC program could be expanded to include postgraduate and community college students, and the recruitment process could be sped up and digitized to better target highly-qualified talent form the available candidate pool. In particular, the expansion of the military aptitude test (the ASVAB) would provide the military with more accurate information about the talent pool available to them in years to come, allowing recruiters to tailor and pinpoint their efforts.

Just years after the failure of the “Force of the Future” initiative, personnel reform is alive and well. The NDAA could seriously rejuvenate the officer corps and provide support to services struggling to modernize their personnel systems within the DOPMA framework. The changes laid out in the bill represent the most substantive steps towards a modern military personnel structure taken in the last 30 years, and hopefully will build momentum to further improvements down the road.


Blaise Misztal is the director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Security Program. He led BPC’s Task Force on Defense Personnel and its 2017 report on “Building a F.A.S.T. Force: A Flexible Personnel System for a Modern Military.” Jack T. Rametta is a project associate with the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Economic Policy and National Security Projects. He holds a B.A. in Political Science and Economics with a focus in public policy from the George Washington University and has written extensively on defense personnel and budget issues.  Mary Farrell is an intern with the National Security Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center. She holds a dual B.A. in Global Studies and Modern Languages, Linguistics, and Intercultural Communication from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Image: U.S. Navy