1

The U.S. Military's Next Big Reform Challenge is Here

January 5, 2015 Topic: Security Region: United States Blog Brand: The Buzz

The U.S. Military's Next Big Reform Challenge is Here

"The Defense Department will have no choice but to update its Cold War-era personnel regulations. The only question is: how many good men and women will choose to leave the services first?" 

The Chief of Naval Personnel, Vice Admiral William Moran, visited the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) last month to discuss his vision for reforming the current manpower system. Since assuming his position in 2013, VADM Moran has been pushing hard to implement programs that will better align the Navy’s manpower policies with the expectations and aspirations of its younger sailors—especially millennials, those individuals born between 1980 and the mid-2000s.

VADM Moran’s efforts come at a time when there is a growing awareness across the military that the services need to think hard about how to build more flexibility into the careers of service members than exists today. Manpower reform has become a high profile topic for defense commentators, prompting opinion pieces published by this and other military blogs, an essay contest sponsored by Tom Ricks, and a book by entrepreneur and Air Force veteran Tim Kane.

The reformers’ central argument—one that VADM Moran made during his talk—is that the management system created in 1947 to serve a draft military is falling behind the demands of the 21st century all-volunteer force. Critics cite problems throughout the services, including: lockstep promotions based almost entirely on a person’s time in service; an outdated method of matching personnel with assignments that does not sufficiently take into account individual preferences, special skills, or unique experiences; and narrowly defined career trajectories. Taken together, these issues are manifested in a manpower system that is inefficient, inflexible, and may be struggling to retain the best and brightest service members.

Some of the current shortcomings were highlighted in two recent studies conducted by Commander Guy M. Snodgrass, an F/A-18 pilot and former TOP GUN instructor who has become one of the most influential manpower reform advocates currently serving. In “Keep a Weather Eye on the Horizon,” CDR Snodgrass showed how a number of factors, including the Navy’s antiquated personnel system, are combining to push out some of its best mid-level officers–along with their decades of wartime experience. A follow-on survey of over 5,000 officers and sailors echoed CDR Snodgrass’s earlier findings and included a recommendation that “greater career path diversity will provide opportunities for talented sailors to accept challenging or desirable positions, increasing overall career satisfaction.”

VADM Moran described two efforts he is supporting that aim to increase the career flexibility of Navy personnel. The first is a pilot sabbatical program created in 2009 that allows sailors and officers to take a break from active duty for up to three years while retaining their health benefits and competitiveness for promotion. The other services have since followed suit, with the Marines launching their own version of the program in 2013 and the Army and Air Force last summer.

VADM Moran’s second initiative is a proposed system of “on ramps” and “off ramps” that would allow sailors to transition between active duty and the reserves throughout the course of their careers. So far the program is just an idea, but VADM Moran hopes to be able to generate sufficient legislative momentum to turn it into a reality sometime in the next few years.

Both the sabbatical and the reserve transition programs are aimed at assisting with the retention of service members between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five, a period that VADM Moran described as representing a “sweet spot” when personnel are looking to start families, get additional education, or simply experiment with other jobs outside of the military.

Unfortunately, the military services face a number of obstacles to implementing manpower system reforms. Chief among these is the lack of control the Pentagon has over many aspects of its own personnel policies The sabbatical program described above, for example, could not legally be created by the military without Congressional authorization. If legislators do not grant the military permission to extend the program past 2015, the services will be forced to shutter it prematurely. VADM Moran cited other statutory guidelines, such as the 1980 Defense Officer Personnel Manpower Act (DOPMA), as further limiting his freedom of action and slowing the personnel reform process.

There is also the question of just how much stamina the services have to expend on manpower reforms while contending with a host of other difficult challenges, both at home and abroad. In the midst of combat operations against ISIS, the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, a reduction in the Pentagon budget, and sequestration, it is fair to ask whether military leaders have the time or energy to take on another potentially divisive issue—especially without some sort of galvanizing event to precipitate their action.

If VADM Moran is successful at shepherding his long-term reforms through the bureaucratic minefields that lie ahead, his policies will be studied by the other services and many of them will surely be copied and adopted. If he fails, the lights will stay on in the Pentagon and the military will continue to train, deploy, and fight wars. But it will do so with a manpower system that is drifting away from the expectations of the service members whose lives it governs. Eventually, the Defense Department will have no choice but to update its Cold War-era personnel regulations. The only question is: how many good men and women will choose to leave the services first?

Jesse Sloman is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council. He served on active duty in the Marine Corps from 2009 to 2013.  This piece appears courtesy of the CFR blog Defense in Depth.

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr.