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Defense Personnel Systems: The Hidden Threat to a High-Performance Force

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

People, both in and out of uniform, are essential to the U.S. military’s ability to defend the nation and project power around the world. Almost 3 million military personnel and civilian employees work for the Defense Department.2,3 These men and women are managed using a personnel system that is a complex combination of statute, military policy, culture, and tradition. Over the long history of the nation, lawmakers and the military have established a variety of personnel systems and practices to organize the force. These systems have been modified to reflect the nature of the conflicts the military would be called upon to respond to.

Today’s personnel systems are based mostly on the needs of the post-World War II military. While this system has been largely successful in furthering a strong U.S. military, it has not been updated to reflect new national security threats or current and future needs of the force. Despite several attempts over the years to update the system, the fundamental characteristics of a “one-size-fits-all” and “up-or-out” military remain largely intact. Now is the time to examine the reasons and rationale behind the present personnel system and assess its ability to meet the needs of the future force and to deliver U.S. national security outcomes. Therefore, this paper examines a brief history of military and defense-civilian personnel management, assesses its performance, and summarizes recent attempts to update the personnel system.

Now is the time to examine the reasons and rationale behind the present personnel system.

While military and defense-civilian personnel systems serve many purposes and must meet varied goals, a handful of key aspects are especially relevant in the increasingly complex national security environment. To ensure the nation’s future national security and military advantage, future Pentagon personnel systems should:

  • Leverage the full spectrum of American society. The United States is fortunate to have an abundance of talent and experience across its diverse population. The personnel system must serve as a bridge—not a barrier—to accessing this talent, especially hard-to-find or in-demand capabilities. The military must be able to consistently acquire top talent, whether experienced or entry-level, and to retain that talent amid a competitive employment marketplace, even if those individuals do not progress toward command.
  • Adapt to new threats as they arise. Because future national security needs are uncertain, personnel systems must be able to accommodate changing requirements as commanders’ needs shift: more of one skillset, less of another, or entirely different capabilities, such as mastery of new technologies or familiarity with certain languages or cultures. Recently, the perennial answer to unexpected military needs has been use of special-operations forces—which is not an optimal long-term solution. The increasingly complex and unpredictable national security environment will require the rest of the force to develop the personnel capacity and adaptability to confront nontraditional missions.
  • Be financially and culturally sustainable. In an era of financial constraints, the necessary personnel capabilities must be maintained efficiently, while simultaneously ensuring that service members and defense civilians are competitively compensated and have the best training and equipment available. Just as importantly, personnel systems must also be supportive of the personal lives of service members. If the conditions of military life force service members to choose between their family’s well-being and a military career, the family will win and the military will lose access to a critical segment of the talent pool.
  • Build and maintain technical proficiency. The skillsets required by the military will only become more technical as the national security environment becomes more complex. Whether developing new capabilities to confront the increasingly difficult challenge of defending the frontiers of space and cyberspace, applying new technologies and greater individual decision-making to existing military roles, building language skills and cultural knowledge, or maintaining expert-level trauma care capabilities, these challenges are fundamentally personnel issues. A personnel system that cannot consistently build and retain these types of capabilities has failed, with profound implications for military readiness and national security.
Military personnel policies & must change to confront today’s and tomorrow’s challenges. 

Military personnel systems have changed before to meet evolving national security needs, and personnel policies and practices must change again to confront today’s and—especially—the future’s challenges. BPC’s Task Force on Defense Personnel will examine these and other issues to make recommendation to improve the military’s disparate personnel systems to ensure the U.S. military is able to attract and retain the talented men and women required for future national security.


Bipartisan Policy Center. The Military Compensation Conundrum: Rising Costs, Declining Budgets, and a Stressed Force Caught in the Middle. 2016. 
Department of Defense. “National Defense Budget Estimates for FY 2017.” 2016. 260.

KEYWORDS: DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE, TASK FORCE ON DEFENSE PERSONNEL

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