The "Force of the Future"

Q1: What is the “Force of the Future” that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced today?

A1: The Force of the Future announced today—in a point paper and in a speech by Secretary Carter—is an eclectic group of initiatives “to maintain [the Department of Defense’s (DoD)] competitive edge in bringing in top talent to serve the nation.” There are internships, a new office of people analytics, a study of recruiting, exit surveys for departing service members, an update to databases, implementation of the recently passed changes to the military retirement system, diversity briefings, and increased use of reserve personnel. There may be further initiatives in the future.

This announcement will be a disappointment to many observers because expectations—fed over recent months by senior DoD officials—had been for a much broader and substantive set of proposals.

Q2: What was Force of the Future supposed to be?

A2: Problems with the military personnel system are legendary. Every member and former member has some horror story—many even true—about how the system was unresponsive, counterproductive, or just plain dumb. Any system that manages 2 million personnel (active and reserve), moves from peace to war and back to peace again, has long training and education cycles, and ultimately, may ask individuals to die in the service of their country is going to be pulled in many directions. Not surprisingly, proposals for reform abound.

Brad Carson, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, had promised “revolutionary change.” He had dozens of staff working on proposals, trying to improve the system and to pay more attention to what is widely regarded as the U.S. military’s greatest strength, its personnel. The proposals would have changed the way military personnel were recruited, educated, promoted, and managed, for example:

· Basing officer promotions more on experience and less on time in grade;

· Allowing some personnel to opt out of the up-or-out system and remain permanent specialists;

· Increasing the number of personnel going to civilian graduate schools and on tours with industry;

  • Targeting pay raises;

· Increasing maternity and instituting paternity leave.

Q3: What happened? [Todd Harrison]

A3: Force of the Future was off to a good start over the summer, with a number a bold and ambitious reforms being considered. The problem Carson was attempting to address is that a career in the military has become less attractive relative to private-sector opportunities in many important areas. The services often rely on bonuses to help retain key personnel, but bonuses are a Band-Aid solution for what is really a systemic problem—a personnel system that does not sufficiently reward talent and is too inflexible for many modern families.

The original Force of the Future proposals tried to overhaul the personnel system by changing the promotion system and the incentives used to guide a service member’s career trajectory. Perhaps it overreached in some areas—maternity and paternity leave is important to many men and women, but 18 weeks of paid leave may have been too much. The fundamental approach, however, was sound: if the military wants to compete for the best and brightest our nation has to offer, it has to be able to lure people away from private-sector careers. The military does not need to be like Google, but it needs to be able to compete with Google for talent.

These ambitious proposals were effectively killed by senior military leaders this fall. This is a group of people for whom the current system worked extraordinarily well. Because we have a military personnel system that only promotes from within, nearly all senior military leaders have spent their entire adult lives in the military. Some have little outside experience and may have trouble seeing that there is anything wrong with the current system. And it is hard to prove that the military is not retaining the best and the brightest without insulting the very group of senior leaders you are trying to convince.

In the end, Secretary Carter decided not to have this fight and watered down the Force of the Future proposals to a handful of small, noncontroversial items. But the issue is not necessarily dead, because leaders in Congress could pick up the cause of personnel reform next year. If Congress was waiting for ideas from the military, they will have to move ahead without them. When it comes to personnel reform, it appears that Secretary Carter has chosen to lead from behind.

Q4: What happened? [Mark Cancian]

A4: The broader vision for Force of the Future collapsed in the face of two problems: a failure to articulate the problem and the cost.

The effort never really answered the question, “What is the problem to be fixed?” The notion of recruiting and retaining top talent is always attractive, but forcing major change to current policies requires making a convincing case that current policies are failing. There were lots of stories about good people who got out, but there was never any data presented showing that the people who got out were better than the people who stayed in. There was some data in the academic community showing that over time the intelligence levels of new Marine Corps officers had declined, but it was not clear whether this applied to all the services or what the long-term effects were. Trying to make military service more attractive to millennials and competing with Google for talent were not, in themselves, an adequate argument.

Cost is always an issue, but especially now, when DoD’s budget is capped and the fiscal future is uncertain. While many of the proposed reforms were low or no cost, others—like graduate programs and sabbaticals—would be very expensive. Estimated budget costs were reported to be over $1 billion per year. Opportunity costs would have been even greater. For example, if the services send 100 officers to graduate school, there is no additional budget cost, but now there are holes in units where those officers would have been. Maternity/paternity leave—however attractive as a benefit and common in the civilian sector—would be very expensive. DoD has a young workforce. If 5 percent of service members took 18 weeks of paternity leave in a year, that would be the equivalent of losing 24,000 service members.

Increasing personnel benefits is a particular problem now, as DoD is arguing to reduce personnel costs. Analyses have shown that per person costs increased 50 percent in real terms in the last 15 years. Many, including then-Secretary Robert Gates, argued that these increases were “unsustainable.” As a result, DoD has proposed caps to pay raises, housing costs, and medical benefits. It would have been hard to shift direction and make a set of proposals that created new benefits and increased personnel costs.

Mark Cancian is a senior adviser, and Todd Harrison a senior fellow, with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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Todd Harrison

Todd Harrison

Former Senior Associate (Non-resident), Aerospace Security Project and Defense Budget Analysis