Ashton Carter: The Pentagon Must Think Outside of Its Five-Sided Box

Ashton Carter: The Pentagon Must Think Outside of Its Five-Sided Box

"The U.S. military's excellence is not a birthright. It must be earned again and again in this changing and fiercely competitive world."

This is one of several innovation-minded advisory boards that report to the defense secretary, each with a distinctive mission, membership, and expertise. The Defense Science Board is an assembly of scientists and technologists with deep knowledge of weapons systems and defense research and development. The Defense Policy Board consists of members with exceptional foreign and defense policymaking experience. The Defense Business Board is comprised of experts who understand and advise the Pentagon on its vast business enterprise. The Defense Innovation Board members, however, were chosen largely for their record of innovation outside our department, and their ability to suggest new approaches that worked in their leadership experience and might be applicable to us.

Despite their busy lives, the members of the Innovation Board, including its chair Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google parent company Alphabet, have embraced their role in helping shape America’s military future. They are doing their homework, as well, having already spent time with airmen in Nevada, sailors aboard ships, soldiers and special operators on the East Coast, and troops deployed to the Middle East. At the outset, I gave them the very specific task of identifying innovative private-sector practices that might be of use to us in the Defense Department, in the same way we implemented Hack the Pentagon, the first federal government bug bounty.

Not everything in the private sector will make sense for us, of course. The military is not a company; it is dedicated to the profession of arms. While the Defense Department will not always be able to operate the way the corporate world does, we can still look in the mirror and around the country for new ideas, lessons, and ways to operate more effectively.

The DIB’s early efforts have already borne fruit, yielding several preliminary recommendations in its first public meeting in October 2016. The Pentagon will increase focus on recruiting talented military and civilian computer scientists and software engineers through targeted initiatives, with the goal of making computer science a core competency of the Defense Department. We will invest more broadly in machine learning, using targeted challenges and prize competitions through a ‘virtual center of excellence’ that will engage with researchers inside and outside the department.

And we will also create a Defense Department Chief Innovation Officer, who will act as a senior advisor to the defense secretary and serve as a spearhead for innovation activities. Many different organizations have recently embraced the position of chief innovation officer, and also started to regularly run these kind of innovation tournaments and competitions – including tech companies like IBM, Intel, and Google – and it is time the Defense Department did as well, to help incentivize our people to come up with innovative ideas and approaches, and be recognized for them.

I am confident the logic and value of these efforts will be self-evident to future Pentagon leadership, but they also have the momentum and institutional foundation to keep going and thrive under their own steam. They must be able to continue leading the way in disrupting, challenging, and inspiring the entire Defense Department to change for the better.

Innovation in People and Talent Management:

The bedrock upon which the Defense Department is built is its military personnel. This fact has not changed in more than two centuries, and will be the same two centuries from now. Our service members are our most enduring advantage. What differs from generation to generation are the upbringings, demographics, and career motivations of the people from which we recruit and select our all-volunteer force. And while we can acquire the best technology, and employ the soundest operational and organizational concepts, we are nothing without our people. Therefore, perhaps the most critical area of all for the Pentagon to innovate for the future is in the area of military and civilian talent management.

As our country and young citizens change, so must our methods for attracting and retaining the smartest, hardest working, and most talented among them. For example, to reach today’s Instagram generation, the Defense Department is taking steps like employing social media tools to match personnel with the most rewarding jobs and units, much like LinkedIn does for the private sector. This initiative is just one example of the steps the Defense Department has taken over the last two years to build what I call the Force of the Future. In total, these initiatives span the career of a uniformed service member, from recruiting men and women to join, to caring for, retaining, and developing them, and then to helping successfully transition those who want to move on.

To attract new talent, the Pentagon is expanding our recruiting pool, focusing purely on a person’s willingness and ability to serve our country and contribute to our mission, and giving everyone full and equal opportunity to do so.  In the 21st century, and in an all-volunteer force, that requires us to be able to draw talent from the broadest possible pool of qualified Americans. 

So that we always reach out to the most talented young men and women America has to offer, the Defense Department is telling our story in more places, more ways, and to a broader range of audiences across the country. To accomplish this, we are working to expand geographic, demographic, and generational access in military recruiting by changing how we highlight our mission. This will be done through expanded advertising and other more targeted – and creative – efforts.

The Pentagon is also reinvigorating our Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2016 and furnishes 40 percent of our officers. The intent is to ensure our ability to continue to attract high-quality cadets and midshipmen to join the ROTC ranks on university campuses across the country, make being a ROTC instructor more attractive for our best military officers, and better assess and recognize high-performing ROTC detachments to ensure continued effectiveness.

The imperative to expand our talent base also drove my decision in December 2015 to open up all combat positions to women without exception. We cannot afford to cut ourselves off from half of the country’s talents and skills, rather we have to take full advantage of every individual who can meet our high standards. That is mission critical. Any woman who qualifies can now contribute to our mission in ways they could not before. They can drive tanks, they can fire mortars, they can lead infantry soldiers into combat. There are no longer positions open only to men: women can serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force parajumpers. Even more important, our military will be better able to harness the skills and perspectives that our talented women have to offer.

The same rationale of opening all positions to all Americans who can meet our high standards also led me to lift also led me to lift the Defense Department’s ban on transgender service members. We do not want barriers unrelated to a person’s qualification to serve preventing us from recruiting or retaining the soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine who can best accomplish the mission and, along the way, innovate in the execution of their duties.

It is not enough that we recruit the best. We also have to work to keep the best in this competitive job market. To retain and develop our existing men and women in uniform, the Defense Department is developing additional opportunities and more flexibility, ranging from how we promote our officers, to building and expanding “on-ramps” and “off-ramps” to allow technical talent to flow a bit more freely in and out of the military. These initiatives will help us to keep people at key decision points in their career, when they have shown their worth and we have made substantial investments in them. As a result of these reforms, some of the Department’s many innovative military personnel and civilians will now be able to widen their horizons with tours in industry, higher education, or elsewhere in our country’s larger innovative ecosystem.

The Defense Department is also making some common-sense improvements to military talent management. I have given the armed services and Joint Chiefs more flexibility in how they administer the long-standing “up-or-out” system of promotion, proposing changes to the law where that is needed. While this system has been very successful, the additional flexibility we will provide the services will continue to ensure that promotion on the way to senior leadership better rewards and encourages a wider range of experience, perspective, and training.

Because retention is so important and given the department’s obligations to our men and women in uniform, building the Force of the Future requires us to take care of today’s force. Because the military is largely a married force, and surveys show that family considerations are key factors in retention. The Defense Department is addressing these concerns to retain our talent, while recognizing that serving in uniform will never be the same as working for a private company. For example, the Defense Department expanded maternity leave and extended hours for on-base child care centers, and we are seeking congressional authorization to expand paternity leave.  These common sense steps to take care of our people also increase the possibility they will continue serving.