The Military Needs Modern Ways to Attract and Manage Talent

The Wall Street Journal, May 2, 2017

By Leon E. Panetta and Jim Talent

Aboard the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier in early March, President Trump vowed that the United States “will have the finest equipment in the world — planes, ships and everything else.” But what good will this equipment do if the military lacks the personnel to use it?

People are the vital ingredient to America’s military edge, but increasingly they are in short supply. “The Air Force has a shortfall of almost 1,500 pilots,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford testified before a House committee in March. Similarly, the Army is offering bonuses to convince soldiers to extend their enlistments, the Marines cannot produce enough snipers, the Navy is straining to keep officers who operate its ships’ nuclear reactors, and all branches have struggled to build new cyber units.

These examples portend larger difficulties ahead. Even with the U.S. being threatened by enemies near and far who are evolving strategically and technologically, our military still operates with a personnel system designed in 1947 to fight the Soviet Union. Unchanged since then, this one-size-fits-all system for recruiting, retaining and promoting troops, treats nearly every service member as an interchangeable cog.

 That is why we led a Bipartisan Policy Center task force focused on modernizing how the military manages its personnel. We recommend replacing the current system with a more flexible model that expands the military’s access to talent. This model would reward experience and performance without unduly burdening military families.

Since the draft ended in 1973, all new enlistees must be recruited. But the recruiting process—primarily geared toward young adults—is trapped in the past. The future force will also require experienced professionals with highly valuable skills such as engineering, cybersecurity and foreign languages. We recommend discarding policies that prohibit experienced individuals from entering the military at higher ranks so that the military can entice talented recruits.

Once troops are recruited, the Defense Department invests heavily in training them. A new fighter pilot, for example, costs $11 million. To ensure the military does not lose access to trained people who have already volunteered to serve, it must make it easier to make the transition from active duty to the reserve or National Guard.

The military could encourage troops to continue serving by allowing them to compete for promotion. Military promotions today are largely a seniority-based system governed by predetermined timelines. Those not promoted on schedule are kicked out. We recommend placing increased emphasis on merit and allowing individuals to seek promotion when ready. This will allow troops in critical specialties, like cyber, to master their skill sets without racing to meet arbitrary promotion cutoffs. Conversely, high-performing service members, ready for greater responsibility, could be promoted more quickly.

Some people would prefer to keep flying than have a desk job or become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The military must recognize this. We recommend creating new career paths for those who want to devote their military service to a particular specialty instead of pursuing senior ranking command. Allowing service members more say in their career aspirations would create a more skilled military while improving satisfaction and retention.

Serving in the military will always require sacrifice. On the battlefield and back home, service members place what’s best for the military ahead of their personal desires. Career service members typically will move nearly a dozen times—usually with a family in tow. This can help produce well-rounded troops. But it also results in stress and instability for military families. We recommend giving service members more influence over when and where they move. They should not have to make the untenable choice between serving their nation or their family’s best interests.

Uniformed service is not a calling for every American, nor does it need to be. But to build a strong force capable of succeeding against future threats, the military must be attractive to Americans with the skills and talents that are necessary to keep America safe. As an all-volunteer force, the U.S. military competes for talent with the world’s top companies, best universities and highest-performing organizations. The military must work to make its offer more competitive.

As Congress considers a military buildup, it should include in its agenda bipartisan defense personnel reform to create a 21st century force. To strengthen our military, we must focus not only on new ships, planes and tanks, but also on those who sail, fly and drive them.

Mr. Panetta, a Democrat, served as defense secretary, 2011-13. Mr. Talent, a Republican, was a U.S. senator from Missouri, 2002-07.