Nine recommendations to the Trump Administration on the people of Defense

I once wrote that the business of defense under President Donald J. Trump could start with “General, you’re fired.” The president-elect has noted that the US military has been attaining less-than-satisfying results in its campaigns since the end of the Cold War, and he expects that to change. The US has been massively outspending its enemies, but not getting stellar results. In large part, the spending is because Americans make very expensive warriors, so the military must ensure that its high-class labor is very well utilized. Its people are already highly educated and motivated. For decades, though, they have been constrained by almost bizarrely unhelpful personnel policies and practices. So what to do? As a business-minded force for change, the incoming administration can take nine steps:

  1. Continue to eliminate burdensome, value-detracting tasks.
  2. Maintain those institutions that guide service culture.
  3. Pave alternative paths for promotion.
  4. End the micro-magagement and the witch-hunts.
  5. Reduce the numbers of the most senior ranks.
  6. Hire term-limited, limited-duty experts.
  7. Sunset and otherwise discourage 20-year retirements.
  8. Repeal the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act.
  9. Put some real human capital gurus in charge.

One poignant problem has been the imbalance between the supply of and demand for well-trained people. At the Atlantic Council on 19 December, outgoing Air Force Secretary Deborah James gave four explanations for the notable shortage of fighter pilots in her service: the airlines are hiring, operating tempo has been high, they’re not training enough new pilots, and pilots generally hate collateral duties. For the business-minded, the solutions may seem clear: hire more pilots, train them faster, pay them more, slow down operations, and find someone else for those annoying extra jobs—or just get rid of those jobs entirely. Operating tempo may be a whole other talk show, and how well the other measures will work in any context is another question, but at least we know what levers to pull. Indeed, activities to redress some of these problems are underway. Notably, Secretary James and Chief of Staff General Goldfein have been working to eliminate queep—the USAF’s not-quite-endearing term for questionably useful collateral duties. That’s an excellent start, and the new secretaries in all the military departments should follow James’s lead, and continue this work.

Otherwise, doing better means tackling the inefficient and downright straightjacketing rules of the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA) of 1980: the single entry point, the lockstep up-or-out promotion plans, and quite short careers before pensions. Want to rehire a fighter pilot who has been flying for the airlines? Or hire a senior maintenance engineer, at a market rate of pay commensurate with his experience? With DOPMA, those seemingly sensible moves are remarkably hard to execute. What’s wrong with the act has been discussed since not long after its passage. After years of talk, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and his people actually worked on the problem for many months, but ultimately pulled back from requesting big changes. To begin with, not everyone was happy, and opposition came from some predictable quarters. Senator (and retired naval captain) John McCain of Arizona assailed many of the ideas as “an outrageous waste of time.” Why work so hard to keep some people in, he asked, when you’re forcing others out? The outrage at the hearings last February cost a would-be under secretary for personnel and readiness his job.

Perhaps with more consideration, Senator (and retired lieutenant colonel) Joni Ernst of Iowa questioned how well commercial-grade practices would work in the military. It’s also reasonable to ask how well any big-bang changes will work. The US Navy’s plan to abolish its enlisted ratings was a great enthusiasm of Secretary Mabus and Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Richardson. That it proved so unpopular so quickly testifies to how badly the senior leadership misread sentiment in the ranks. Sure, there’s something weird and clinical about addressing a sailor as letter-letter-number, but the ratings scheme has long been the closest thing that the US military has had to a regimental system. If you wonder why that’s valuable, ask anyone who has served in a Commonwealth army. The culture that the ratings structure has inculcated is arguably more important now than it was in 1980, or in 1945.

That’s because, as our friend Chip Pickett has put it, the nature of the people in the US armed forces has evolved considerably over the past 70 years. From the beginning of the Second World War until about the end of the Vietnam War, the US had forces of mostly draftees, troops who came when summoned, or volunteered in the shadow of a summons, issued with the threat of legal sanction. Since 1973, the US has had a force of volunteers—people came of their own volition, and largely of far better quality. From the early 1990s, the US has had increasingly a force of real professionals—people who came of their own volition, and made it their lasting business. It’s arguable that since the early 2000s, the US has culturally had two forces—the professionals and the warriors. They all volunteered, but the infantrymen knew that they were signing up for something statistically more kinetic than the sailors and the cargo pilots were choosing. But regardless of relative proclivity for proximity to fighting, a great many joined because they wanted to be part of something. There’s now vast human and organizational capital tied up in the ranks and their various occupational corps. For this reason, the incoming leadership should take care to maintain those institutions that sustain sound culture in the military services.

That said, the staffing structures that sustain that culture do remain too rigid. Consider the case of AT1 Richard Walsh. For the non-naval, that’s aviation electronics technician first class, or E-6 in plain terms. His impressive resume includes authorship of the SMART maintenance data-mining software, notable participation in the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum (DEF), service in the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC), and an award straight from Secretary Mabus. That’s pretty enterprising, but the AT1 has had trouble earning promotion to ATC (that’s aviation electronics technician chief, or E-7) because he hasn’t been doing enough AT-ish things. The promotion boards would seem to be saying great work, AT1, but get back to work.

Writing in Task & Purpose, Sergeant First Class (E-7) Harlan Kefalas of the White House Transportation Agency has likened Walsh to a minor genius of the Second World War, Sergeant Curtis Culin of the 102nd Cavalry. In that fight, one of the iconic innovations in American armored forces was the hedgerow-cutters of Normandy. But multiple attempts across the US First Army were required before Culin finally devised a useful one from the scrap iron taken from a captured German roadblock. That’s why Walsh’s story isn’t just about Walsh; it’s about retaining and promoting enough of the most creative people, so that deck-plate adaptation and innovation become second-nature throughout the armed forces.

Thus we return to McCain’s less radical option: at least keep the good people the military already has. Remember that H.R. McMaster was twice turned down for brigadier, and was only advanced when David Petraeus himself sat on the promotion board. It’s no surprise that the Army’s institutional attempts to throw out its Rhodes Scholars and its most entrepreneurial officers created a kerfuffle last year. The case of Captain Jim Perkins—funded graduate student and executive director of the DEF—similarly wasn’t all about him, but another great case study in what has been wrong with promotion boards. Clearly not everyone has gotten the memo on even the better parts of Carter’s “Force of the Future” initiative. Remember (as I do) any great instructors from ROTC? They too have gotten short shrift, so Carter now specifically wants ROTC teaching experience valued in promotion consideration. Fortunately, this requires no special legislation and rather little investment, so the Trump Administration’s leadership in the Pentagon should advance Carter’s so far modest reforms for altering promotion criteria.

A little harder will be re-instituting a culture of respect. As my colleagues David Barno and Nora Bensahel wrote last September, the Army in particular needs to decrease its bureaucratic tolerance of bureaucracy. All the troops seem to get the ubiquitous “thanks for your service,” everwhere from halftime shows to the line at Starbucks. None of them, however, should need to fill out insultingly stupid paperwork to get a weekend pass. None of them should need to run in those ridiculous glow-belts. None should have to endure investigative witch-hunts concocted to satisfy domestic political audiences. The incoming administration should make clear, as General John Allen has said in another context, that political correctness is over with. In particular, the incoming administration should swiftly conclude the ponderous “Fat Leonard” investigations of almost every admiral in the Navy. There’s a simple reason that the nukes seem to be taking over the service. They never got liberty in Singapore, so they’re the ones most promotable. Someone somewhere probably is guilty, but “an abundance of caution” is no way to formulate personnel strategy.

Along those lines, though, the one sub-demographic occasionally ommitted from that treatment of universal praise is the top brass. President-elect Trump has been quite critical of generals and admirals who have not produced clear victories. Perhaps the record isn’t shocking: all have progressed over decades through an execrable personnel system, so the military is bound to have lost some of its better people along the way. Part of the answer now is clearing out the excess amongst those who administer things that need less administration. It’s a little weird, for example, that the general in charge of thinking about the USAF’s nuclear weapons at the Pentagon outranks the one who actually commands them in the field. The Navy takes the opposite approach, but all the services—and the fourth estate of the defense agencies—have bloated headquarters staffs. The ratio of generals and admirals to all troops is more than four times higher today (1:1300) than it was in the Second World War (1:6000). As Celeste Ward Gventer wrote in the New York Times, too many top-level managers in “too many headquarters retard decision-making and erode military effectiveness.” That Second World War ultimately went pretty well for the United States, by the way. So should the Pentagon really think that the Pentagon is that important? Secretary Gates wanted to eliminating the positions of fifty generals and admirals; the Trump Administration should go much further.

In that same column, however, Hoover Institution economist Tim Kane argued that what matters more than sacking the old guard is flexibility in hiring the new. After all, after cleaning house, the military will need more of the right people. As such, the Defense Department does not need $140 million for a branding campaign for attracting new talent. What it needs is new rules. Even the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management (which lost all your data, by the way) think that their own hiring barriers have gotten formidable. The long-standing answer has been to hire contractors—as the USAF is again doing to fill out its drone squadrons. That keeps the likes of Booz Allen and CACI happy, but throwing in the towel is also no way to formulate personnel strategy. 

As an alternative, the drone-pilot-lacking Air Force needs alternative means for hiring drone pilots. The service is already recruiting senior sergeants to take the stick. The new administration should find the authorities for supplementing unrestricted career officers in some roles with term-appointed limited duty officers and NCOs. As one might expect, RAND has already studied the idea. If recruited for the duration of whatever downturn the service is experiencing, they needed be guaranteed DOPMA-like job security. The US Navy did just this with specialists in its enlisted ranks during WW2. The Brazilian Air Force recently decided to hire its administrative and other support officers in this way. To fill their critical shortages, the US State Department and US Agency for International Development have been hiring term-limited foreign service officers for about ten years now. Perhaps more ambitiously, retired General Stanley McChrystal told the Washington Post last year that he had “dealt with a lot of chief executive officers who could walk in and be general officers in the military tomorrow. All we’d have to do is get them a uniform and a rank” (his book is worth a read). If the newbie general is a cyber-general, this might not be a stretch. It certainly shouldn’t be for a temporary major or warrant officer. And if the appointments are indeed temporary, the reasonable resistance from the existing ranks about the resulting ninety-day wonders can be managed.

For that particular drone-pilot problem, there remains at least one more possibility: the Air Force might consider recruiting some retired Army helicopter pilots who want to fly (well, sort of fly) again. But who let them retire in the first place, or forced them to do so? The 20-year retirement predates the DOPMA, but the 1980 act codified it as a virtual right. Providing pensions from age thirty-eight or forty-two is mindlessly costly, but wantonly discarding talent at that age is stupefying. In the Canadian Armed Forces, the 20-year retirement has recently (with grandfathering) been extended to 25, and without obvious chaos. As Bernard Rostker of RAND has long argued (and told the Senate Armed Services Committee in December 2015), military officers and NCOs should selectively be allowed to serve in plenty of jobs for up to 40 years, “particularly for the specialty corps.” The service secretaries can already grant that tenure. While the incoming leadership should maintain some up-or-out flow to routinely refresh the force, the new team should approve more career extensions, and should request that Congress sunset the 20-year retirement.

Some of the greater changes here would legislative initiative. While not every institution of personnel management should be burned to the waterline, it’s time, as Arnold Punaro has argued in the context of acquisition, to zero-base the personnel system. Thus, the Trump Administration should request repeal of the DOPMA. If you’re scared of what comes next, then to flip Nancy Pelosi’s infamous line, perhaps we need to abolish the system to learn what was really in there. This time, rather than exquisitely crafting new legislation that attempts to manage 30-year careers with impossible foresight, the Congress should write a more flexible act that allows the personnel chiefs of the military departments and the defense agencies the professional room to cultivate their workforces.

Who should those chiefs be? In military personnel management, it’s really time for real change. Just as the under secretary of defense for acquisition is expected to have executive experience in industry, the under secretary of defense for personnel, and the assistant secretaries for manpower in the military departments, should now come with experience in commercial human resources management. To affect great changes with steady hands, Defense needs people experienced in making bigger changes than Defense has seen in decades. The new administration would do well to find some real human capital gurus, and put them in charge.

James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

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