Reform the Pentagon
A freer military would allow future presidents to manage the force more nimbly.

Soldiers with the Army's First Cavalry Division train at Fort Hood, Texas. (Photo: Specialist Fred Brown)


Bloated personnel costs have doubled since 2000, according to the BPC, even though the active-duty force is almost 10 percent smaller. When Ronald Reagan was president, the U.S. Army had 20 active divisions. Currently, it has ten, and it is on track to have only six during the next administration. Less is more? No, but less costs more — the opposite of efficiency. Think more broadly for a moment about what inflexibility is doing to military culture.

One Army officer and scholar commented to me that, in the past half decade, most congressional hearings about military personnel issues have neglected the Pentagon’s leadership-stifling bureaucracy. That problem, fingered by Defense Secretary Robert Gates as the “greatest challenge facing your Army, and frankly, my main worry,” during his final visit to West Point in that role, has received almost no attention from Congress or the Obama administration. Gates asked, “How can the Army break up the institutional concrete, its bureaucratic rigidity in its assignments and promotion processes, in order to retain, challenge, and inspire its best, brightest, and most battle-tested young officers to lead the service in the future?”

Instead, legislators on the personnel subcommittees have focused where the media have focused: gays and sex. Sure, there are countless stories about helping veterans find jobs after they leave the service, even more stories about post-traumatic stress. That’s all well and good, but it feeds into the narrative of the veteran as victim. What about the active force?

The issue of gays in the military has been more or less resolved with the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The other issue, the handling of sexual harassment, is currently raging. Regardless of your feelings about both issues, neither is eroding morale and eating up cash the way dysfunctional personnel practices are. To the contrary, an argument can be made that both problems — intolerance of gays and tolerance of sexual predators — are made worse by the military’s top-down management system.

Here begins a modern lesson on central planning versus common sense.

The Pentagon’s central planners of 2013 are unlike military commanders in 1943, men by the name of Nimitz, Eisenhower, Marshall, and MacArthur. The military back then had an informal network of communication that enabled commanders to hire their own teams. That kind of flexibility allowed officers to root out bad eggs, the kind of people who are inevitable in any large organization. Today, sexual predators can hide in plain sight because performance evaluations in the military are so inflated, formal, and rigid — and the promotion process is so centralized. A commander may know that one of his soldiers is a creep, but the assignments and promotions boards don’t.

On Capitol Hill, what is imagined to be the main solution to the problem of the military’s sclerosis? Of all people, Senator Ted Cruz is teaming up with Democrats to take even more authority from local commanders in the matter of prosecuting sexual predators in the ranks. A better solution would be to give some power back to commanders — specifically, the freedom to hire their own subordinates. Such a process allows informal information about potential workers (soldiers) to be shared among commanders so that jobs and personnel can be optimally matched. The libertarian-minded Cruz is pushing the central-planner’s solution instead.

My wish for Christmas? Chuck Hagel applies the logic of flexible personnel management to the DOD budget, embraces the Ryan–Murray deal, and spends 2014 talking about institutional reform. Instead of taking personnel expenses off the table, as sequestration did, make them the main course. Consider the proposed FY2014 DOD budget, which totals $115,210,902,000 in personnel costs.  One hundred billion is for active-duty pay, but only half of that is basic pay. The other half consists of incentives, special pay, and assorted allowances. In addition, nearly $5 billion is spent on change-of-station costs.

The reform I propose is called the Total Volunteer Force, inspired by the 1973 reform that ended the draft. The military learned then that paying volunteer soldiers more than conscripts lowered fatalities and costs. It enhanced retention, thereby lowering training costs while improving troop quality. We could do it again.

First, decentralize military hiring. Second, free the troops. Third, restructure the 20-year pension.

What’s so bad about centralization? During the Cold War drawdown, the Air Force culled its officer corps by offering exit bonuses to anyone willing to retire early. It famously sucked the most entrepreneurial senior officers out of the ranks and left many risk-averse peers in place, to the chagrin of junior officers and enlistees. Crude force-shaping of this kind is routine because officers and enlistees in the U.S. military are treated like interchangeable inventory instead of unique talents to be managed.

That’s why freeing the troops is key. If all soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines had the choice to stay in their jobs if they wanted, rotation costs would fall dramatically. It seems a safe assumption that troops and their spouses who have been begging for more career control and stability would choose stability and specialization. Forgive the economist bias, but specialization generates rather large efficiencies.

In the current system, troops who neglect to play the box-checking game of frequent assignments are considered by the service’s centrally planned human-resources commands to be uncompetitive for promotion. But wait, aren’t promotions basically given out lockstep to every soldier who breathes? Yes, but no one has time to stop and question the merry-go-round, not even the top brass. By the time they notice the illogic of it all, it’s time for them to rotate into retirement.

As for retirement, the current 20-year cliff is the foundation of the coercion that remains in the military. All men and women in uniform feel forced to keep serving, whether or not it’s good for their careers or for the country. Much better to free resources on both sides of that equation by converting to a 401(k)-style retirement plan.

A freer military won’t be the answer to all the budgetary problems. But it would allow future presidents to manage the force more nimbly than is possible for Obama. More important, it would match the values of the nation it defends.

— Tim Kane is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He was a captain in the U.S. Air Force and is the author of Bleeding Talent.


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