Secretary of Defense Ash Carter speaks with service members at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam during a visit to Hawaii Nov. 6, 2015.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter speaks with service members at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam during a visit to Hawaii Nov. 6, 2015. (Adrian Cadiz/Department of Defense)

WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Wednesday detailed his plan to overhaul the Defense Department’s personnel system, highlighting changes he said would push the Pentagon into the modern era and allow it to better recruit and retain servicemembers.

Carter’s “Force of the Future” program, a key initiative he’s promoted since he was sworn into office in February, will allow greater career flexibility for the more than 1.3 million active duty troops through a series of modernization efforts, the secretary announced at George Washington University. Some changes include allowing servicemembers expanded access to mid-career sabbaticals and high-tech industry fellowship programs, restructuring the retirement system and streamlining the process to move from active-duty to reserve service.

“We want to make it easier for more of our people to gain new skills, experiences, and perspectives – whether in the private sector, in academia, or elsewhere – experiences that they can then bring back into the military to help keep us strong, creative, and forward-thinking,” Carter said. “And there’s added value in that offering those kinds of opportunities will make us more attractive to future generations, too.”

The military is “already good” at offering such programs, Carter said, adding he would greatly expand programs including the Pentagon’s Corporate Fellowship Program and the pilot Career Intermission Program.

The expansion of the fellowship program will allow more troops, including for the first time senior noncommissioned officers, as well as commissioned officers, to work assignments up to two years at cutting-edge institutions such as Google, Amazon and SpaceX before returning to military positions.

“I want more people to have these kinds of broadening opportunities – to be able to get off the (military service) escalator for a time, and get back on – without hurting their career, but instead helping it,” he said.

Carter said he will ask Congress to make permanent the Career Intermission Program, a pilot program set to expire in 2019, which allows servicemembers to take a three-year sabbatical from service to pursue other interests such as higher education, having a child or even traveling. The secretary aims to allow greater access to the program that was initiated in 2009 by the Navy and since implemented by the other service branches.

He described the program as an effective way to retain servicemembers who might be leaning toward leaving the military to pursue short-term goals. This way, Carter said, they could accomplish their goals and return to service at the same rank they held, without penalty.

“Because this was a new, experimental program, lots of people discouraged (servicemembers) from trying it, saying it might hurt their path for promotion, even though … it’s only helped them,” Carter said of the program, that according to the Government Accountability Office has only had about 160 participants through July 2015, representing about 30 percent of the sabbatical slots authorized in the program. “… You don’t have to choose between getting ahead in the military and gaining a valuable experience that will help you get ahead in life. That is and always should be a false choice. That’s why we intend to work with Congress to make this program permanent.”

The secretary also expressed support for overhauls to the long-existing retirement system that were passed in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act. The change allows people entering service after October 2017 access to a 401(k)-type plan, ensuring they’d have some retirement savings even without serving 20 years – the minimum service time now for most troops to receive retirement pay.

New recruits will automatically have 3 percent of their pay diverted into a Thrift Savings Plan account, which the DOD will match with an amount equal to 1 percent of their pay. After two years of service, the DOD match could be increased by another 5 percent of pay. Troops now serving would not be required to participate in the Thrift Savings Plan, but it will be an option for anyone with less than 12 years of service.

Other changes that Carter announced include a talent-management system designed to better match servicemembers with open positions, implementing exit interviews for troops leaving service and conducting a recruiting improvement study.

Billed as the largest overhaul of the DOD’s personnel system since the all-volunteer force was implemented in 1973, the changes that Carter outlined Wednesday were just the beginning of the program, he said, as he and other senior Pentagon leaders “take the time to get them right.”

Carter is expected to green-light several additional programs that were presented to him in a 150-page report based on a five-month review of Pentagon and private sector practices, a senior defense official said. Programs being considered could change the way troops are paid and could potentially end the long-standing military “up-or-out” rules, in which servicemembers are forced to leave the military if they are not selected for promotion within a set time period, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the program publicly.

“Our force of today is great, and we’ve been great for a long time,” Carter said. “…We live in a changing and competitive world, and we have to earn that excellence again and again. Because our force of the future has to be just as great, if not even better, than our outstanding force of today. Our (national) security depends on it.” Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.

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