GIs, military benefit from career flexibility
The 2018 National Defense Strategy states correctly that “the creativity and talent of the American warfighter is our greatest enduring strength.” In a world where America’s adversaries are rapidly catching up to our technological military advantage, it is even more important for the military to attract and keep the people our military needs to retain its edge. As the chairman of the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on personnel, my highest priority is ensuring the military has the tools needed to be attractive to all talented Americans with the ability to serve.
For this reason, we included the largest revisions to officer personnel policy in nearly four decades as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which was passed overwhelmingly by Congress and recently signed into law by President Donald Trump. Named in honor of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., this law orients the military toward threats identified by the National Defense Strategy by building a more adaptable and resilient joint force.
As anyone who has served in the military in the last 40 years knows, officer promotions are hardly the model of rapid adaptability called for by today’s defense leaders. Based on a system last updated in 1980 to fight the Cold War, officer careers are managed according to predetermined timelines and calcified policies primarily concerned with ensuring the military has sufficient numbers of young and vigorous troops to fill the ranks. Today, while youthful and vigorous Americans are still the backbone of the military, information-age warfare places additional demands on our forces.
Adaptability in the context of officer personnel policy means the ability to quickly recruit, promote and retain the officers required to respond to emerging threats. Achieving this outcome will require de-emphasizing tenure as the primary factor in officer promotions in favor of a model where individual knowledge, skills and behaviors are matched to military needs. This shift in mindset aligns the military with best practices in other large organizations, while always being mindful of the distinct demands of a military career.
This year’s NDAA includes several provisions that provide additional avenues of attracting and retaining talent. We provided flexibility for the military to bring in new officers in all specialties up to the rank of colonel or captain in the Navy. Previously, this authority was provided only to doctors, lawyers and chaplains. While we don’t envision this tool being used for the infantry or other frontline specialties, over 85 percent of all active-duty military personnel serve in “noncombat specialties.” It’s easy to imagine cases where a person with significant private-sector experience would be recruited to fill a senior officer role in a cyber unit or as a program manager in an acquisition office.
We also included more adaptable promotion policies for those officers already serving. This law expands an existing authority to allow temporary spot promotions designed to attract officers to volunteer for challenging, hard-to-fill, assignments. The Navy has used this authority for decades for its nuclear engineering and special operations personnel. We thought the other services could also benefit from this flexibility and the services’ top leaders agreed.
To move promotions away from predetermined timelines, this law authorizes an alternative promotion process. This would do-away with artificially constructed “promotion zones” in favor of a more flexible system that would create larger windows where an officer can be considered for promotion. This alternative process will be particularly useful to highly technical career fields, where depth of expertise is more important than developing a wide breadth of experience. Officers serving in medical, finance and engineering roles will benefit greatly from this alternative system.
As the all-volunteer force has matured over the last 40 years, new policies have thoroughly changed the demographics of the officer corps, with women and married servicemembers now comprising a much larger percentage of the military than in 1980. While women now comprise over 17 percent of the military, they continue to leave active duty at greater rates than their male counterparts. Over 11 percent of married officers are in a dual-military marriage, which means those families must balance the demands of two full-time military careers. These changes have strengthened the officer corps but have never been seriously considered as a factor when designing suitable officer management policy.
To respond to these demographic realities, we included a number of provisions to emphasize individual merit and to provide opportunities for more individually tailored career paths. In today’s competitive labor market, it is crucial to balance military necessity with the ability of servicemembers to have greater influence over their careers. In the vast majority of circumstances, both interests can be achieved without sacrificing the distinct concerns of a servicemember or the legitimate demands of a military career.
We have frequently heard, from female servicemembers in particular, that policies designed to provide additional career flexibility are especially effective retention tools. Therefore, this law includes provisions to allow officers to opt out of consideration for promotion. We also permanently extended the popular career intermission program, which provides a sabbatical from active duty for officers and enlisted personnel.
While the NDAA makes important progress toward modernizing officer management, we believe there is still more work to do. Our committee will continue to look for opportunities to align personnel management with the priorities outlined in the National Defense Strategy. As we do this, we must keep in mind that personnel policy is not an end unto itself. Rather effective recruiting and retention programs must provide the military with the talent it needs to protect our nation.
Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, is chairman of the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on personnel.