UPDATE with Hill reaction WASHINGTON: Defense Secretary Ashton Carter today asked Congress to help the Pentagon’s quest for talent in specialized areas such as cyber warfare. Among many other reforms, this latest iteration of Carter’s “Force of the Future” initiative requests changes to existing law to:
- Let cyber and other technical experts join the military at higher ranks than fresh-faced second lieutenants right out of ROTC, something only doctors can do today;
- Let DoD hire talented graduates as Pentagon civilians fresh out of school, without going through the usual civil service rigmarole of USAjobs.gov;
- Let military officers take non-standard assignments, such as going to graduate school, without being penalized for it when they’re up for promotion;
- Let Carter and future secretaries waive provisions of the landmark Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA) to address shortages in crucial skills.
None of these ideas is new, and none is as radical as many reformers have called for. But they all face an uphill battle against bureaucracy, tradition, and long-established statute. Carter has struggled for years to improve the Pentagon’s access to high-tech talent. He created a Defense Innovation Unit (Experimental), DIU(X), in Silicon Valley — but felt compelled to replace its founding leaders, who were civil servants and military officers, with Valley insiders. Carter’s protégé and the chief of Strategic Capabilities Office, William Roper, comes from an accelerated-hiring program for Highly Qualified Experts — but across the Defense Department there are just 90 such hires.
“For each of these changes, we’ll need Congress’s help,” Carter said of his proposals today. “We know some on Capitol Hill already agree with us… Over the past year, Congressional leaders have expressed support for reviewing DOPMA.”
Up Or Out (Or Not)
The essential problem with that 1980 statute is that it encodes in law what’s now a century-old, rigid, industrial age system that treats personnel as interchangeable parts moving through their career as if on a conveyor belt. That approach worked for the mass mobilizations of World War I and World War II, but it can’t accommodate the diverse career paths required to develop the wide range of specialized skills — from technical to cultural — need by an information age military.
“DoD can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach,” said Carter. Despite his call for reform around the edges, Clark defended the core of DOPMA: “Up or out is not broken, in fact it’s an essential and highly successful system,” he said. “But it’s also not perfect.”
“Up or out” is a system which kicks officers out of the military if they don’t get promoted fast enough. The intention is to avoid the problem Gen. George Marshall faced as the US girded for war with Germany Japan, superannuated and often incompetent deadwood that clogged the ranks. The unintended consequence is often to kick out officers who step off the sanctioned hamster wheel of alternating command and staff assignments to do something unconventional, be it advising foreign troops or attending graduate school.
So, far from being rewarded, officers who take the time to acquire such specialized and useful skills are often punished. Carter cited the case of Army Lieutenant Joseph Riley, the top ROTC cadet of 2013, who won a Rhodes scholarship — only to be almost kicked out of the military because he’d spent two years at Oxford instead of in combat units. Rescuing Riley took personal intervention by the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley. As a Rhodes Scholar himself, Carter understand this all too well.
“We can’t have a system that inadvertently almost kicks out a Rhodes Scholar just because the calendar tells us to,” Carter said. “That’s a disincentive to those who might otherwise take advantage of a broadening opportunity – like earning their doctorate, or pursuing other advanced training, or doing a tour with industry – to gain experiences that will make them a better officer.”
What Carter didn’t mention, but which many past reformers have, is that the current system also punishes officers for learning how to deal with foreigners: advising a friendly military, for example, or serving as a Foreign Area Officer. While the current secretary’s focus is clearly on the crying need to find and retain cyber warriors, the lack of language and cultural skills is what bit the US over the last 15 years. Many of Carter’s requested reforms are applicable to both areas, and to other specialties as yet unforeseen.
Most critical to cases like Lt. Riley’s is Carter’s proposal to let the services defer when officers face a promotion board. In essence, this would extend the DOPMA deadline to move up or be kicked out. This reform would give officers time to do unconventional things and the traditional core jobs required for promotion — if they got permission from their service, which could open a can of bureaucratic worms.
Carter also wants Congress to let the services shorten the time between an officer being selected for promotion and that promotion taking effect (“pinning on” the rank). The number of officers at each rank is regulated by law, and if there are more officers currently selected for promotion to that rank than can fit under the cap — as is often the case — then the most senior officers get promoted first, in strict order of time spent in uniform without regard to talent.
This system penalizes young officers who are rising stars, the very people the military needs the most. Sure, they may get selected for promotion ahead of everyone else, but then they have to wait longer than everyone else for that promotion to take effect. In the meantime, Carter said, the military isn’t making full use of their talents — and they may get fed up and leave. Giving the services authority to adjust each individual’s order in the to-be-promoted list, what’s called their “lineal number,” is a relatively simple fix.
“With naval references to lineal numbers dating back to at least 1800, this is one of the last vestiges of the pre-World War I, promotion-by-seniority system,” Carter said, crediting the idea to change it to the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Jonathan Richardson.
Along with more flexibility in promoting current officers, Carter wants more freedom to bring civilian talent into the Defense Department, both as uniformed officers and as civil servants. Both pathways are clogged by bureaucracy and conservatism. With cyber talent in particularly high demand, what technical expert wants to wait months for the federal hiring process or don the uniform of a second lieutenant alongside baby-faced academy graduates?
Today, only medical doctors can perform “lateral entry,” starting their military service as (say) a captain. Carter wants Congress to expand that option to other specialized, high-demand fields. “When perhaps a network defense or encryption expert from a tech company feels a call to serve, and is willing to contribute to our mission as a reservist or on active-duty, we need a way to harness their expertise,” he said. “We should be able to offer a rank, status, and leadership position commensurate with their abilities.”
“We’ve done this before in similar career fields,” Carter added, citing how World War-era radio experts joined the Army Signal Corps as mid-grade officers, including the inventor of FM radio, Edwin Armstrong, and RCA president David Sarnoff. While the military can rely on contracts and civil servants for many technical needs, he said, “some missions have to be done by someone who has the legal protections we afford our (uniformed) military personnel.”
Carter also wants to ease entry into the Defense Department’s civilian ranks. “We’re seeking authority from Congress to directly hire civilian employees from college campuses,” something intelligence agencies already have authority to do, Carter said. “Make no mistake: this is going to be huge. I can’t emphasize that enough.”
“Right now, if a DoD recruiter meets an undergrad student, a grad student, or a recent graduate who’s a perfect candidate for a particular job opening, they have to send them to the USAJOBS website,” Carter said. That site runs the would-be civil servant through a gauntlet of electronic paperwork that easily takes three months “if everything’s moving at lightspeed,” he said. That’s enough time for a bright young computer science graduate or engineer to get deluged in tempting private-sector job offers.
By contrast, if Congress grants the new direct-hiring authority, “our civilian recruiters will be able to go to campus job fair, do some interviews, and if they find someone who’s the right fit, they can make a tentative offer on the spot,” said Carter, “pending security clearance” (which is a tedious, dysfunctional bureaucratic process all its own).
Carter wants easier entry into the ranks for military personnel as well. For starters, “that means no more paper forms,” he said. “Plenty of our personnel can tell stories about having to fill out the same packets of paperwork over and over again….Enlistment alone requires processing 70 to 80 million pieces of paper every year. That’s slow, expensive, and inefficient. So over the next five years, we’re going to move to an all-digital system.”
The military will also build a new “precision recruiting” database to identify prospects who might not fit traditional demographic profiles of likely recruits, Carter said. While he didn’t specify what they might look like instead, the secretary’s focus on cybersecurity suggests they might be less physically fit but more technically savvy than traditional grunts.
Traditional military jobs still require traditional military virtues and should draw on traditional recruiting and promotion paths, Carter made clear. “Growing our own military leaders is part of being a profession of arms,” he said, “and frankly, no civilian job can prepare a person to lead an infantry or armored brigade in the field, command a fighter squadron or a bomber wing, or skipper a submarine or an aircraft carrier at sea. Only years of training and experience in the military can do that.”
But when it comes to new arenas like cyber warfare, Carter argued, the military needs a new approach. The question is whether Congress will agree.
[UPDATE] The first word from the Hill was one of cautious welcome. “We encourage the Department to find ways to improve its military and civilian workforce,” said one congressional staffer, “and we look forward to reviewing these proposals in detail.”
Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain, who’s pushed similar reforms himself, issued with a slightly acidic endorsement: “I am pleased to see the Secretary Carter found some useful ideas in the Senate NDAA and supports many of its initiatives, including promotion board flexibility, allowing certain officers to defer promotion consideration, direct hiring of students and recent graduates, and establishing a public-private talent exchange.” [UPDATE ENDS]