Aboard the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier in early March, President Trump vowed that the United States “will have the finest equipment in the world—planes, ships and everything else.” But what good will this equipment do if the military lacks the personnel to use it?
People are the vital ingredient to America’s military edge, but increasingly they are in short supply. “The Air Force has a shortfall of almost 1,500 pilots,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford testified before a House committee in March. Similarly, the Army is offering bonuses to convince soldiers to extend their enlistments, the Marines cannot produce enough snipers, the Navy is straining to keep officers who operate its ships’ nuclear reactors, and all branches have struggled to build new cyber units.
We recommend replacing the current system with a more flexible model that expands the military’s access to talent.
These examples portend larger difficulties ahead. Even with the U.S. being threatened by enemies near and far who are evolving strategically and technologically, our military still operates with a personnel system designed in 1947 to fight the Soviet Union. Unchanged since then, this one-size-fits-all system for recruiting, retaining and promoting troops, treats nearly every service member as an interchangeable cog.
That is why we led a Bipartisan Policy Center task force focused on modernizing how the military manages its personnel. We recommend replacing the current system with a more flexible model that expands the military’s access to talent. This model would reward experience and performance without unduly burdening military families.
Since the draft ended in 1973, all new enlistees must be recruited. But the recruiting process—primarily geared toward young adults—is trapped in the past. The future force will also require experienced professionals with highly valuable skills such as engineering, cybersecurity and foreign languages. We recommend discarding policies that prohibit experienced individuals from entering the military at higher ranks so that the military can entice talented recruits.