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Losing Our Edge: Pentagon Personnel Reform and the Dangers of Inaction

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

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The U.S. armed forces derives its strength from superior technology wielded by a force of dedicated and capable men and women who volunteered to serve their country. To preserve our military advantage—which not only secures the safety of the American people but also underpins an unprecedented rise in global prosperity—we must ensure both of these elements of our military strength remain capable of succeeding against future threats. Despite ongoing efforts to support military and civilian defense personnel, our nation risks failing to recruit, retain, and prepare a force adequate to meet future demands.

While the size of the armed forces and the quality of their equipment are legitimate metrics of their strength, the foundation of the military’s power is the quality of the people, both in and out of uniform, who have elected to serve. Military modernization must be pursued not just in terms of hardware but also in terms of talent.

Today, the U.S. military faces many diverse challenges. The threat posed by great power competition has returned as China and Russia continue to disrupt international security norms. Rogue states like North Korea and Iran threaten significant swaths of the world through the development of weapons of mass destruction. ISIS and other non-state actors continue to pose a global threat through brutal acts of terrorism. If present challenges are any indication of the future, demands on America’s military will continue to increase.

Military modernization must be pursued not just in terms of hardware but also in terms of talent.

Moreover, those who would seek to disturb global stability are pursuing strategies specifically designed to eliminate the sources of the U.S. military’s technological advantage. The democratization of technology means that confrontations with any of these potential adversaries could take place in entirely new domains—cyberspace or space—or require new ways of fighting. Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointed to the rise of “information operations, cyber activities, space and counterspace, and ballistic missile technology” as having made “the character of war today much more dynamic and complex.”

Maintaining the security environment that has allowed the U.S.—and many other nations—to enjoy relative security and prosperity will exact increasing demands on our military forces, both in the variety of threats they face and the skills required to address those threats. Although recent major strategic national security documents point to rising disorder, instability, and complexity in the future, to date our military has failed to make the changes necessary to succeed in the new security environment. Two critical transformations are needed to enable the force to grow, evolve, and become more capable: the total force has to be redesigned, and it must become more adaptable to a range of threats.


The Bipartisan Policy Center established its Task Force on Defense Personnel to identify opportunities to support the recruitment, retention, management, and training of the total force (military and defense civil servants) to better face the demands of a complex future national security environment.

KEYWORDS: CHINA, ISIS, JIM JONES, LEON PANETTA, RUSSIA, TASK FORCE ON DEFENSE PERSONNEL

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