The Way Ahead for the Next Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness

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Some of the most powerful national security positions in Washington are ones you’ve never heard of. The under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness is one of those positions. The appointee in the position sets personnel policy for the Department of Defense, standardizing practices across the military services affecting the recruitment, retention, and management of the nation’s uniformed human capital. The decisions the under secretary makes today will have implications for uniformed military leadership 30 to 40 years in the future.

In April, the Biden administration nominated former California congressman and Navy veteran Gil Cisneros as the country’s next under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness. If confirmed, Cisneros will fill a pivotal position in the Department of Defense. In order to capitalize on this moment, the under secretary should take a proactive approach to leading the Defense Department and inspire service-level leadership to consider how to build, maintain, and utilize the force to protect the nation against a range of adversaries.



The defense community tends to overlook the importance of military personnel management as an area of strategic investment. Instead, it focuses on current operations, logistics and sustainment, and the development, acquisition, and fielding of high-end platforms. While these elements are crucial for the execution of U.S. national security strategy, the successful implementation of each element hinges on the services being fully manned with the kinds of high-quality officers and enlisted personnel necessary for managing complex systems and processes. High-end platforms tend to garner a lot more attention due to the magnitude of their cost. However, the Defense Department spends roughly one-quarter of its total budget on military personnel — more than what it spends on the procurement of weapons systems or their research and development.

In addition, there are few things in the Pentagon more consequential than military personnel policy. The military personnel system is a closed promotion system, meaning that the future leadership of the services (both flag and general officers and senior non-commissioned officers) is selected from within the service. Unlike corporations or federal departments, which can recruit talent laterally at the most senior levels, military leadership is selected from a limited pool of candidates who are filtered through a promotion process that culls that pool at regular intervals. As a result of this closed system, officers commissioned this year will provide the talent pool from which the future joint chiefs of staff will be selected in the year 2058.

Given the strategic and long-term importance of building and sustaining the uniformed talent pipeline needed to win the wars of the future, the next under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness should lead the way with regard to how the Department of Defense, the military departments, and the services might best recruit and retain servicemembers and manage their careers. To facilitate this, the next under secretary should seize on opportunities provided by current statute and policy to access, retain, and manage military talent and update policy where necessary. He should also confront a series of personnel-related issues affecting military recruitment and retention, like sexual assault, extremism, and racism in the ranks.

The Role of the Under Secretary

The under secretary operates in an intricate system of military personnel stakeholders, including the secretary of defense, the service secretaries, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the personnel subcommittees of the congressional armed services committees in the creation and implementation of military personnel policy. The under secretary’s key responsibility is to “establish, to the extent practicable, uniform standards” across the Defense Department with respect to personnel requirements, training, National Guard and reserve component management, and operations tempos. While the under secretary represents the authority and responsibility of the secretary of defense regarding personnel matters across the Defense Department, the U.S. Code and annual congressional authorizations give significant authority and responsibility to the service secretaries in matters of personnel management. The service secretaries, in turn, delegate authority and responsibility for personnel management to the military departments’ offices of manpower and reserve affairs, which are run by Senate-confirmed civilian assistant secretaries. Military personnel policy is further executed by uniformed service leadership (e.g., the N-1 (Navy), G-1 (Army), AF-A1 (Air Force), and the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps).

The flexibility provided to the individual military departments and services enables each service to experiment with and tailor its use of personnel management flexibilities provided in law to meet service manpower requirements. However, attempts to reform military personnel management practices at the service level traditionally have been slow and evolutionary. The under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness has the authority to regularly convene service personnel leadership, set specific reporting requirements across the military departments and services, and update policy and guidance that is applicable across the services.

Shifting Requirements

Personnel requirements across the services are changing to meet new threats. Strategic competition is expanding beyond traditional conceptions of warfare and includes evolving domains such as cyber warfare, electromagnetic warfare, and information operations. To meet rising challenges, the Defense Department and the services are updating their operating concepts, including the Army’s development of multi-domain operations, the Marine Corps’ design for expeditionary advanced base operations, and the Defense Department’s joint all-domain command and control. As the services update their operating concepts, they are further defining the knowledge, skills, and behaviors that future servicemembers will need to possess, ranging from specific technical expertise in areas such as cyber and urban warfare to broader characteristics such as mental toughness, physical fitness, and the ability to thrive in ambiguity.

Fortunately, flexibilities provided in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act allow the services new ways to access, retain, and manage officers in order to meet evolving service and department requirements. The services now have the ability to laterally access more senior talent. Congress increased the allowable age limit for commissioning from 42 to 62 and increased the maximum pay grade for lateral commissions from junior field grades (majors and Navy lieutenant commanders) to senior field grades (colonels and Navy captains), making military service a viable option for seasoned professionals. Congress further expanded authorities that may allow the services to retain highly competitive officers by rewarding performance through temporary promotions, in which a qualified officer is temporarily promoted into a position of greater rank and authority to meet a service requirement, and a merit-based promotion sequence list, in which particularly competitive officers are promoted ahead of their peers, who are then promoted in sequence by the date of their last promotion.

While the flexibilities introduced by Congress provide the services with potentially powerful tools intended to help them meet operational requirements, these flexibilities are permissive rather than prescriptive in nature. As such, the service secretaries have a wide degree of latitude in deciding whether and when to use these flexibilities. If the services are unable to meet requirements with the force they have at hand, the under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness can incentivize the service secretaries to use the available flexibilities through a number of avenues. The under secretary can set reporting requirements for the services detailing critical skillset shortfalls. In cases where available authorities would help the services meet these shortfalls, the under secretary can convene and educate service personnel leadership and provide examples of successful outcomes that can result from the use of these flexibilities across the services.

Increasing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion          

The Defense Department and the services have also undertaken a number of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives intended to ensure that servicemembers — and their leadership — represent the entirety of the nation’s talent pool. The Defense Department is currently exploring how systemic issues, such as unequal application of the military justice system, underrepresentation in highly regarded career fields, unequal access to key developmental and training opportunities, and access to influential mentors and evaluators may impact the retention of otherwise competitive and highly trained servicemembers.

In June 2020, then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper established the Department of Defense Board on Diversity and Inclusion, which was tasked with providing recommendations “to improve racial and ethnic diversity and inclusion in the U.S. military.” The initiative currently has the attention of the secretary of defense and the focused efforts of the senior adviser to the secretary of defense for human capital, diversity, equity, and inclusion. However, ultimately, the under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness will be responsible for ensuring that the Defense Department and the services implement the policies and practices necessary to make meaningful change. The under secretary will be responsible for ensuring that each of the services update recruiting content to ensure representation of all servicemembers; develop and publish a data-driven accession and retention strategy; evaluate demographic trends in performance evaluations; identify and address barriers to diverse pools of qualified candidates for nominative positions (such as aides-de-camp and military assistant positions); and increase transparency in promotion selection opportunities. The under secretary will have the authority to establish new policies in the form of Defense Department instructions and directives. This will help establish uniform standards across the services regarding data reporting requirements and holding the services accountable for the requirements laid forth by the Defense Department Board on Equity and Inclusion.

The incoming under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness is positioned to play a pivotal role in military recruitment, retention, and talent management, which will affect the quality of the U.S. military for decades to come. While the outlined responsibilities of this position may seem daunting, the under secretary can leverage intricately connected personnel in the Defense Department, the services, and Congress who share the vision of recruiting and retaining the most effective military in the world. The next under secretary should seize the opportunity to shape a military that represents the best the nation has to offer.



Katherine Kuzminski (formerly Kidder) is a senior fellow and the director of the Military, Veterans, and Society program at the Center for a New American Security.

Nathalie Grogan is the research assistant in the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security.

Image: U.S. Navy (Photo by Mass Communication Spc. 3rd Class Quinton A. Lee)

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