Dark cloud over future force with current strain on troops, says DoD’s top personnel official

The Defense Department’s top personnel official called some of the findings in a new Blue Star Families Survey a sign of a dark cloud for the all-volunteer force in the future.

Anthony Kurta, who is currently performing the duties of the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said facts in the survey, such as 60 percent of service members are not willing to recommend military service to their children, is a concerning development.

“Since we have a relatively small all-volunteer force and since it is 1 percent of our population or less and since it is a family business all of the strain that we talk about here is leading those currently in service at declining amounts to recommend to their children, and not only to their children but to everybody that they know, to put on the uniform and serve their country,” Kurta said, during a Nov. 16 event at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Kurta said it’s not just service members that are not suggesting service, but also teachers, coaches and counselors.

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That’s an issue for a military force that wants to grow in the coming years. The 2018 defense authorization bill allows the Army to grow by 7,500 soldiers, the Air Force by 4,100, the Navy by 4,000 and the Marine Corps by 1,000 in the next year.

Furthermore, DoD is trying to bring in more people with diverse experiences, education and talent than it traditionally did in years past. Without recommendations from community leaders and those in service, the military could be scrounging for recruits in the future.

Time away from family came in as the top worry for service members, according to the 2017 survey.

The concern may show some of the operational stress being placed on the all-volunteer force as it continues to fight two wars. It also underlines the growing importance of family life to service members, something the Bipartisan Policy Center recognized in a report issued this spring.

“If the military is going to recruit and retain a volunteer force with the necessary skills, it needs … to better accommodate the evolution of American society and the American family. And it needs to do those things without sacrificing the aspects of the system that are working well,” former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) told Congress during a hearing this May.

The Pentagon and Congress are both recognizing the problem. Former Defense Secretary Ash Carter oversaw the Force of the Future initiative during his tenure. The program gave service members increased maternity leave and opened childcare centers on bases for longer hours. It also welcomed gay and transgender people to serve openly in the military to widen the recruitment pool. Still, DoD wasn’t able to implement all of the ideas in the Force of the Future dossier.

Kurta said despite the change in administration and President Donald Trump’s backpedaling on some of the program’s initiatives, the personnel and readiness office still routinely goes back to ideas from the Force of the Future.

“We still continue to churn away at all those ideas. Some of the things you see today were directly a result of that. The increase of dollars and hours that went to our childcare centers, the expansion of family adoption leave, all of those things were part of that effort. One of the good things about that effort is it was a lot of ideas that had been in the minds of the personnel experts for many years, we just need some help getting things over the line, raising the awareness,” Kurta said.

One area where things have slowed in personnel policy changes is fitting those policies to the individual services. Each service’s talent management system is unique, Kurta said.

“It won’t be a one size fits all because the service cultures are so unique. They have different personnel systems and those service cultures are a warfighting advantage. There are some times that you want to have a DoD solution to something, particularly when it comes to the business line, but when it comes to the warfighting culture, you want to take advantage of the service identities and service cultures,” Kurta said.

The Force of the Future had some pushback from Congress when it first started.

“Many of these Force of the Future proposals appear to be solutions in search of a problem,”  Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in 2015, when the Army was drawing down its force. “I find it deeply disturbing that you are proposing to add expensive fringe benefits allegedly aimed at retention during a time when we are asking 3,000 excellent Army captains to leave the service who would have otherwise chosen to remain on active duty. From my perspective, this initiative has been an outrageous waste of official time and resources during a period of severe fiscal constraints. It illustrates the worst aspects of a bloated and inefficient Defense organization.”

But McCain and other lawmakers seem to have come around.

The final version of the 2018 defense authorization bill includes a provision ordering the DoD to deliver a set of recommendations on reforming career management for military officers by the end of March. That report is a likely prelude to personnel management changes to be considered in the 2019 NDAA.

Specifically, the language calls for DoD to conduct a comprehensive review of the impacts of the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act, the 1980 law that defines most of today’s promotion policies for officers.

On Tuesday, McCain called the current DOPMA-based rules “outdated” and “overly rigid,” partly because of their across-the-board enforcement of training requirements and an up-or-out approach to military officer promotion and retention.

“One of today’s most pressing personnel challenges is the worsening pilot shortage. We’ve heard over and over that flying time and career stability are crucial to solving this crisis. Yet, DOPMA-driven personnel policies require pilots to assume numerous staff assignments, relocate every two-to-three years, and complete military education courses, all in order to be promoted according to inflexible timelines,” McCain said. “All of this is done to turn every officer into the military’s next general or admiral. Well, not every officer wants or needs to be a general officer, and it’s about time we figured out how to provide for more variety in military careers.”