Most military budget reformers focus on the technology and hardware we will need for future conflicts. Few address the military’s most important asset: its people.
Over the past year, there have been scores of articles, studies, and reports on the destructive impact of defense budget reductions and sequestration on the U.S. military, many arguing that additional resources are necessary to ensure our forces remain dominant in an increasingly dangerous and fast-changing world. Asserting we cannot afford to fall behind our enemies when it comes to advanced technologies and innovations, authors make compelling arguments that we must either repair our deployment-weary services by investing in new equipment and technology, restarting aggressive research and development projects, and acquiring significant numbers of the best “planes, ships and tanks” or we risk lagging behind. And given the growing number of violent conflicts and well-armed adversaries in the world, falling behind is not an option.
In all our budget-related discussions, however, personnel-related issues almost never appear. Isn’t it as important—or even more so—to recruit the right kind of men and women as it is to buy the right kind of equipment? And if so, why do so we spend remarkably little time discussing how to do it?
It’s not that anyone fails to recognize the overriding importance of our future personnel in the budgetary process. All too often, however, these discussions focus overwhelmingly on the need to develop or acquire new “stuff.” In general, the debates about budget nearly always acknowledge the need to balance the tradeoffs among modernization, readiness, and the force structure, with modernization and readiness considerations dominating the discussions.
Nor is there any doubt that cutting-edge equipment is necessary to battle increasingly sophisticated state adversaries who employ advanced war fighting capabilities, particularly in space and cyber. And, as if that task were not daunting enough, our future forces will also be required to project power sufficient for full-spectrum, global operations against a wide range of other threats, including terrorists and violent insurgents, well-armed international criminal gangs, and other non-state actors—some of whom have greater weapons capabilities than their state neighbors. To accomplish these goals, the U.S. military will require a great many things, such as advanced air-defense systems, planes, ships, unmanned aerial systems (UAS), and maybe even robot swarms.
But where are the detailed discussions of the personnel requirements, and the corresponding impact that attracting and maintaining these people—including changes we will have to make to our personnel management and benefit structures—will have on the Department of Defense budget? Have we over-focused on numbers of things and “capabilities” at the expense of leaving meaningful discussions of “capacity” behind? Who is going to conceive of, design, integrate, maintain, and successfully operate these technological marvels? Are we assuming that these individuals will come forth as part of the all-volunteer military and that it will cost no more to employ the workforce of the future than it does to employ today’s warfighters? Where are the budget debates that call for detailing the nature of the individuals required to fight and win these battles, and to develop and operate the more technologically advanced “stuff”? If we cannot count on the current recruitment and retention systems to ensure that our forces have the necessary skills, what are the costs associated with attracting and retaining the people we need? Is our one-size-fits-all personnel system suitable for the years ahead, or should we allow each service to approach the future of its workforce on its own?
There are many issues that need to be addressed, and—one way or another—decisions will eventually be made that affect funding. To be sure, everyone appears to agree that the force of the future will require technically oriented, innovative, and adaptable individuals, but what does that really mean for personnel policy? And how do we ensure that we have the money to accomplish these personnel goals if not through the budget process?
From a budgetary standpoint, the kind of individuals who will be necessary for our future gets far too little attention. Few seem to recognize that, despite the rapid pace of technological change, war remains in its essence a human endeavor.
Indeed, to the extent that the FY2017 budget speaks to personnel issues, as with most of the conversations about the budget it emphasizes procurement. Much of the personnel related discussions focus on the problems caused by the fact that military pay and benefits are currently the single largest expenditure in the budget. In fact, the FY2017 budget warns that “the Department cannot allow its personnel requirements to crowd out investments in the readiness and modernization portions of the budget, which are essential to providing the needed training and equipment for the weapons to carry into combat and accomplish the incredible array of missions undertaken around the globe every day.”
While the portion of the budget currently dedicated to pay and benefits is a problem of monumental proportions, it should not crowd out the need to thoughtfully examine and plan for the budgetary impact of the necessity to recruit the men and women we will need in future, and the likely changes to our current systems and corresponding funding challenges. Only a page and a half of the budget’s executive summary—out of 124 pages—are devoted to the “Force of the Future.”
Even within those few Future Force paragraphs provided in the budget, the second tranche of initiatives is not related to a future force, but is designed almost exclusively to improve the quality of life of current military parents. Three short bullet points cite yet additional initiatives to change personnel management systems, but with little discussion about what the changes should address or accomplish. Similarly, only the first 12 proposals out of 29 of the Force of the Future document are designed to address recruitment, retention, and general permeability to new people and ideas. While in it the Department has foreshadowed additional initiatives oriented toward attracting and retaining top talent, it is unclear whether it has ascertained what needs to be done—and how much funding is needed—to accomplish those goals. In sum, although one does not expect lengthy discussions of the nature of tomorrow’s forces a budget document, it and the Force of the Future papers contain far too little explanation for proposals that provide the framework for complicated and costly personnel propositions. Without a compelling case as to why they are necessary, they are unlikely to gain support.
Worth noting is the Army’s “Operating Concept” budgetary discussion, which provides the most detailed argument about how different tomorrow’s workforce will have to be. It calls for leaders who are “technically and tactically full-spectrum proficient,” innovative, and “committed to life-long learning within the framework of Army readiness—manning, training, equipping and leadership.” The Navy, however, is not on board. The Department of the Navy’s budgetary overview focuses on “stuff”: It will prioritize investments in “efforts to recapitalize the forces and maintain an effective, safe, and secure nuclear deterrent, including weapons and systems to enhance reliability and survivability of the nuclear strike capability and C2 networks.” As for future personnel, it mentions only that civilianpersonnel levels “will slightly increase, strongly supporting the force as engineers, scientists, medical professionals and skilled laborers.”
Even the Office of the Secretary is unclear. In the Defense Budget for FY2017, the portions dealing with the Future of the Force do not speak to whether the Secretary’s proposed changes to facilitate a better-prepared workforce are included in, or are in parallel to, service-centric activities. In any event, the combined budgetary treatment of personnel challenges related to the qualities our future workforce must have, as well as the systems required to obtain and maintain this workforce, aren’t much more than a few items in a lengthy list of “things” to repair, buy, or invest in.
So Who’s in Charge?
The Administration, the Department of Defense, and Congress all play a significant role in debating the budget and resources necessary for our military’s future conflicts, including issues with direct impact on personnel. In general, Congressional action in the personnel realm thus far appears to be more focused on numbers as they relate to two overriding concerns: the need to contain costs, particularly personnel costs, in order to free up more defense funding for operations and the Department’s discretionary budget; and the need to modernize military compensation and benefits, including retirement.
This past year, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act, adopting changes to our military retirement system for the first time in decades. More recently, some members have even called for revisions to Goldwater-Nichols and suggested future legislative reforms. But none of these changes appears to reflect any recognition of the significant adjustments needed to attract people with the necessary talents and skills to our future, modern workforce. Nor do the changes appear to be part of a broader strategy to rank the recruitment of the service men and women of the future as a reason for reform on par with cost-cutting, right-sizing, and procuring needed equipment.
Washington’s think tanks and the budget advisory communities don’t do much better.1 Those that address personnel issues as they relate to the budget spend most of their time debating the appropriate number of personnel and the right-sizing of the services.2 Too little attention is dedicated to considering the nature of the force required to accomplish the growing—not to mention increasingly complex and technological—demands on our uniformed and civilian military. A thoughtful few suggest restructuring our military to make it more agile and better suited to these emerging, technologically advanced threats. But only a handful examine what is the most important factor in the success of our future deterrence abilities, as well as our capacity to defeat future threats—the skills needed in our civilian and uniformed military personnel.
It is not surprising that outside budget experts and pundits are guilty of giving this vital issue short shrift. In a public dispute about the budget among Pentagon players, Secretary Ash Carter and the leaders of the military branches openly disagreed about how best to prepare for long-term security threats. According to the Secretary’s staff, most of the arguments were about the services’ preoccupation with “capacity” versus “capability.” According to the staff, the leaders of the branches were much more interested in increasing their numbers of troops and amounts of equipment than ensuring they had the right kinds of troops and equipment to achieve their missions. The Secretary’s staff singled out the Navy for making the “quantity [of ships] a higher priority than lethality. . . . [T]he Navy’s strategic future requires focusing more on posture, not only on presence, and more on new capabilities, not only ship numbers.” So far, the ongoing debate between the branches appears to have ignored the budgetary impact of the Secretary’s “Force of the Future” on proposed efforts to identify, recruit, and retain a future workforce with the necessary skills and talents.
As noted above in passing, this is not to say that the Secretary and the services are failing to prepare our forces for the future outside of the current budget debate. On separate occasions, each has acknowledged the critical need for good people. However, most of that discussion focuses on the need to overcome the challenges inherent in the recruiting process: An increasingly small percentage of individuals meet the physical and other eligibility standards, and the Department has a limited ability to compete with the commercial world for the best and the brightest of these. Indeed, according to the Department of Defense, only one half of one percent of officers entering the military last year hailed from the top twenty U.S. colleges and universities—half the number who did so twenty years ago. Everyone agrees that recruiting the force of the future is a serious and growing problem, but few have succeeded in looking at the problem creatively.
For the future force we need, we must move from thinking in terms of “recruits” to thinking in terms of talent acquisition.3 Since 1973, the U.S. military has operated on a completely volunteer basis. The supply of eligible recruits has hit highs and lows over the years, but has never fallen so low as in recent times—and never before stayed low during a time when the nation has faced so many threats. After September 11 there was a spike in volunteers ready to serve, and from 2009 until recently this recruitment boom continued, at least in part due to historically high unemployment, particularly for recent high school and college graduates. But those days may be over, and we cannot count on them for the manpower we will need in future. As Major General Allen Batschelet, Commanding General of U.S. Recruiting Command, noted during a recruiting forum, “We have always recruited under a demand-focused model, assuming adequate supply would be available.”4 But leaders increasingly recognize that the talent currently available will not meet our future personnel demands.
There are several reasons for this deficiency. First, as noted above, recent studies show a significant decline in the number of Americans eligible to serve. While budget cuts likely mean an overall reduction in the number of troops, the armed forces still require a steady in-flow of new personnel to fill the vacancies left by those retiring or leaving for the private sector. The Department of Defense recently estimated that of the population of potential new recruits aged 17-24, only 13 percent would qualify for recruitment, be available (that is, not in college), and be allowed to enlist without a waiver.5 This means that in order simply to meet the quota for new soldiers in the future, the military will likely be pressured to lower its basic standards to include some of the mentally/physically unfit and possibly those with a criminal record. How many of those individuals are likely to have the skills necessary, or be able to assume the roles required, for our technically advanced Department of tomorrow?
Not only is there a decline in the quantity of acceptable applicants, there is serious deficit of “quality” individuals to fill the more demanding roles. What is certainly good news for the public at large—a drop in the unemployment rate, a rise in college enrollment, and the defense spending cuts—will likely prove to be bad news for the quantity and quality of those volunteering for the military. Studies also have indicated that the competition for innovative, skilled, and technologically savvy young people is fierce—even within the lucrative parts of the private sector. While all the branches agree that future soldiers need to be “more agile, austere, intelligent, and capable of working among themselves, with allies, and with partners,” only a limited number of young people with these qualities are likely to be interested in civil or military service. And since defense budget cuts mean pressure to reduce military pay, benefits, and opportunities for professional growth, these potential recruits have every incentive to sign up for a career in the private sector. Not only can such a state of affairs have a significant impact on tomorrow’s military leadership pool, it could jeopardize our national security in ways we haven’t fully discussed. For example, if we cannot obtain the number of skilled individuals we need through volunteerism, are we willing to reach into the commercial sector for a significant number of our future talent? How much will that cost?
These important personnel challenges do not occur within a vacuum. The current gap between the number and quality of recruits available and the number of skilled individuals needed to secure and defend our country is very likely to widen even more if our economy continues to restore itself. At the same time, our enemies will likely become more adept at acquiring and utilizing technology and advanced weaponry. At a minimum, we can count on certain threats to continue: the military misadventures of China and Russia, cyber-attacks from state actors and activist hackers, and nuclear and other proliferation from Iran and North Korea. Does it make sense to focus our discussion of resources solely on the military’s need to develop new technologies, while ignoring its need to invest in new, innovative warriors?
Recruitment and Retention: Only Part of the Problem
Although Secretary of Defense Ash Carter comes closer than most to getting it right in his “Future of the Force” proposals, even he misses the mark. In his inaugural speech on his priorities as Secretary in March 2015, Carter explained that our ability to defend the United States requires a future force of talented, technologically savvy, and adaptive leaders just as much as it requires advanced machines and technologies. We need to be more flexible, better prepared, and dedicated to out-thinking our adversaries, he argues. It’s not enough to have “the best technology, the best planes, ships, and tanks . . . . it all starts and ends with our people. If we can’t continue to attract, inspire, and excite talented young Americans . . . then nothing else will matter.”6 All the right noises, yet the Secretary focuses much of his current efforts on retention and recruitment incentives without providing a compelling case regarding what problems his proposed reforms are designed to address. Despite early promises of “revolutionary change” to ensure the competitive edge of our workforce, he falls woefully short of making the issues clear and demonstrating that the Department has thought carefully about what kinds of people it needs for the 21st-century security forces and the costs of securing them.
For example, so far, the Department’s reports have avoided articulating clearly where the skills of our current workforce will fall short in future conflicts and failed to show how the Department will employ recruits with the required skills to support the strategic capabilities we need. Without such details, advocates for needed strategic reforms have little to work with. If we cannot get the services and Congress to agree that our future force needs to be different, and our current personnel systems must be changed, reform efforts are unlikely to receive the funding to accomplish these goals. Without a stronger case, the Secretary will find it difficult to argue that his proposals are worth the cost and effort.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that neither the services nor Congress have demanded the strategic reform of our military’s antiquated personnel management and promotion systems. Most of our military’s personnel systems date back to the World War II era, though significant changes were undertaken in the 1980s under the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA). But those reforms left the underlying principles of the promotion system intact, and the personnel framework put in place over sixty years ago remains essentially unchanged.
There are at least three fundamental problems with this state of affairs for our current workforce—and, again, a surprising lack of lack of discussion about them. First, anecdotal evidence shows that the current military personnel system does not keep track of specialized skills in the existing workforce—even when the services agree that the skill is important to today’s war-fighting! In the Department of the Army, for example, the current personnel management system does not provide commanders and assignment personnel with a sufficient level of detail about an individual’s skills, talents, and experiences to identify where he or she might prove most useful. Cases abound in which serving military personnel with rare and difficult-to-obtain skills needed in our forces—like fluency in Chinese—found few opportunities to apply them (possibly, in part, because the system does not include such skills as part of the individual’s identifying attributes). Indeed, the system does not provide assignment personnel or units in the field with data on a given soldier’s regionally relevant experience, education, and training.7
Inexplicably, the invaluable experience gained by our troops through on-the-ground deployments—in which they learn language skills and cultural sensitivity, along with how to build partnerships with locals and cooperate with other government agencies—is mostly lost to personnel system and the assignment and promotion process. This challenge is not lost on our current military leadership. For example, the Army recently invented a creative work-around that allows commanders to post “vacancies” that list the attributes most useful for a particular assignment, thus permitting greater customization than the system does by itself. Still, there is no systematic way to make the personnel system more responsive to the skill requirements we have even today.
Second, the current systems are not flexible enough to retain individuals with leadership and other experience of use to the current—and future—military. Many who have found the rigid boundaries of the rank and promotion system impossibly restrictive are often forced to leave—sometimes despite their desire to continue serving and needed skills. The “up or out” policy requiring both officers and enlisted troops to leave military service if they fail to get promoted within a certain time results in the loss of personnel who specialize in areas in which it may be difficult to find replacements or in which expertise improves with experience. For example, cyber analysts, lawyers, intelligence officers, and doctors all become more valuable after accumulating years of service. Some argue that this policy is necessary for maintaining a force of young and agile infantrymen, who reach their peak performance in their late 20s and who must be constantly replaced as they age out. But other see that “it is a rule that ‘makes no sense’ and should be changed to accommodate longer service for a variety of careers”8 (as one defense expert told Starts and Stripes)—particularly because changing the rule would help the Department utilize still-valuable workers while also assuaging the recruitment deficit.
And third, the promotion system discourages those who wish to stay but also desire additional education, or acquisition of desired skills, often requiring them to forego further outside training or advanced degrees in order to remain eligible for promotion and survive “up and out.” Rather than pay for so-called outside experts with limited military experience, doesn’t it make more sense to keep our best and brightest and encourage them to acquire needed skills and experiences?
Not to put too fine a point on it, but to date, the Department has commissioned hundreds of analyses on why plane engines fail, boat paint prematurely peels, and projects overrun original cost estimates, yet it has produced no comprehensive studies on why many of our most valuable, experienced servicemen and women today leave prior to retirement—and what can be done about it. If we cannot identify, utilize, and keep people with the skills and talents we need in our currentworkforce, what chance do we have to attract and retain the best and the brightest for the future? And how much more expensive will it be to start over again with even the most promising new recruits while we allow seasoned veterans to walk out the door? From a resource and budget standpoint, this makes no sense.
And as for future personnel, incredibly, the legacy personnel and promotion systems have not been updated to reflect the increasing need for new skills.9Though nearly every combat, logistical, and administrative capability is now digitized and reliant on global networks, millions of lines of computer codes, and a staff of highly trained information technology experts to keep them running and secure, our personnel system does not record or recognize many of skills already agreed as needed for tomorrow’s warriors. In the cyber security field alone, no specific occupational series identifies military-wide (or federal-wide) positions or the requirements for filling them.10 For example, as of 2014 the GAO listed over a dozen occupational series commonly used to label such workers, and those did not include any in the uniformed military. If our military cannot identify the skills we need, list the qualifications necessary for a recognizable position, and articulate an attractive and rewarding career path, how are we going to be successful at recruiting? How can we identify the funds and reforms required to keep the people we need?
Thus far, it’s fair to conclude that the Department of Defense has not yet performed the hard work of identifying in detail the new talents and skills necessary to effectively deter and defeat the enemies of the future. Is this an activity best performed by each branch or as part of our centralized personnel system? Once we have identified the qualities of such individuals—assuming we all recognize that the skills and talents we are looking for may not fit squarely into career series and hiring authorities developed decades ago—how do we even begin to obtain them without positions descriptions, career paths, and promotion opportunities to offer? Finally, how much money are we going to need to accomplish all of this? Frankly, we have no idea.
In sum, this year’s lively budget discussions among the Pentagon’s players, Congress, and the Washington community about the future of U.S. war fighting are, as usual, focused on the “what” at the expense of the “who.” The dialogue is overwhelmingly about “stuff” and not about the people we need, or the resources we will have to expend to attract and keep them. The Department’s proposed Future of the Force efforts fall short, and even though Congress has shown interest in addressing the rising costs of our workforce or possibly revising “up and out” policies, no one has yet tackled the most important questions of all: What are the skills, talents and core competencies we will need in those who fight the wars of the future?; how can our current system cultivate them?; is our current department-wide system the right one for acquiring and retaining people with specialized skills?; what are the impediments to fixing this deficit in talent?”; and how much will it all cost (particularly in an era of fiscal constraints and “unsustainable” personnel expenditures)?11 The Pentagon must make the hard decisions about the nature of the men and women our armed forces will require and articulate what type of skills, experience, and qualifications these troops should have in order to make the appropriate changes to the personnel system. It must justify these initiatives both in terms of budget and opportunity cost. The technologically advanced weapons systems of the future are not going to operate, maintain, and sustain themselves. Humans are central to the successful conduct of war, and we had better start discussing how to invest in and reward skilled people—who are far more valuable than our “stuff.”
1For examples of papers that never raise the issues of identifying, recruiting, retaining and training the kind of people we need as a budgetary issue, see: Justin T. Johnson, “Congress Should Enact a Strong Defense Budget in FY 2017,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief (February 2016); Timothy M. Bonds, Michael Johnson, and Paul S. Steinberg, “Limiting Regret: Building the Army We Will Need,” RAND (March 2016).
2For example, see “To Build America’s Military,” American Enterprise Institute (October 2015), which fails to mention the skills and talents of the future force while discussing the problems of a “hollow force,” but gestures at them later by recommending military compensation reform that will ensure “the very best among us…answer the call.”
3See “Forum studies bleak recruiting future of the all-volunteer Army,” U.S. Army Command Public Affairs, October 20, 2014; and “Army leaders share thoughts on future of the Army,” USAREC Public Affairs, February 17, 2016.
4“Forum studies bleak recruiting future of the all-volunteer Army.”
5“Population Representation in the Military Services Report,” Center for Naval Analyses, 2014.
6Remarks by Secretary Carter on the Force of the Future, delivered at Abington Senior High School, Abington, Pennsylvania, March 30, 2015.
7“Preliminary Assessment of RAF,” RAND (2015).
8Bernard Rostker, quoted in Travis Tritten, “Senate Pushes Overhaul of Military Promotion System,” Stars and Stripes, December 2, 2015.
9“Senate Pushes Overhaul of Military Promotion System.”
10David J. Kay, Terry J. Pudas, and Brett Young, “Preparing the Pipeline: The U.S. Cyber Workforce for the Future,” Defense Horizons, (National Defense University), August 2012.
11Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, quoted in “The Force of the Future,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, November 19, 2015.
Mary Beth Long is a former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (2007–09) and Chair of NATO’s High Level Group on nuclear policy (2007–09). She is currently a co-chair of the John Hay Initiative Middle East Group and a member of its Intelligence Committee, as well as a senior subject matter expert to the Commander NATO. She has advised several presidential candidates on foreign policy and spent over a decade in CIA as an operations officer. She founded Metis Solutions, LLC, a government contracting firm, where she is assisted by Mallory Elizondo, who contributed to this article.