What are our country’s most important national security assets? While new weapons and hardware (drones, the latest fighter jet or technological wonder) receive a significant amount of attention, the men and women operating the tools of warfare and diplomacy unquestionably remain the nation’s greatest national security assets. But their strength appears to be deteriorating. It doesn’t have to – we should take several steps now to safeguard their health and well-being.

At the State Department, senior officials and diplomats are leaving at unprecedented levels. And State is reportedly offering staff buyouts, while Foreign Service exam applicants have fallen to their lowest level in a decade since Donald Trump became president.

This post focuses on a recent, related trend: the alarming personnel developments that are beginning to emerge at the Department of Defense (DoD).

Military recruitment appears to be stagnating at levels not seen since the 1970s when the military draft ended and the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) was first introduced. And no military service appears immune from this stagnation and personnel shortage. The Air Force is facing such a severe pilot shortage that the White House authorized the Air Force to recall recently retired pilots. The Navy also appears to be suffering from manpower struggles and a high operational tempo, with reports of 100-hour workweeks on its warships—a contributing factor to recent ship collisions in the Seventh Fleet. The Army recently loosened restrictions to allow personnel with mental health issues to enlist, but this decision was later overturned following widespread media reports. Beyond the widely reported personnel difficulties at the State Department, keep a weather eye on military recruitment and retention.

While it is unclear what, precisely, has caused this personnel crunch – a potential “Trump effect,” an improving economy, general war fatigue, or a combination thereof, three problems persist: (1) the critical law governing officer personnel matters within the military dates from 1980 and is ill-suited for today’s dynamic and diverse workforce; (2) recent ill-advised initiatives to limit transgender and legal foreign-born military service undermines readiness; and (3) the underlying pool of eligible potential applicants to the military remains shockingly low: It is estimated that seven in 10 young people fail to meet the minimum requirements to join the military due to educational shortfalls, obesity, drug use, or prior criminal offenses.  To safeguard our nation’s greatest national security assets, we should begin to take action on the following four steps now. 

(1) Reform the Personnel Law System: The central law governing the military officer personnel system—titled the Defense Officer Promotion Management Act (DOPMA)—remains remarkably unchanged since its passage in 1980, just five years after the end of the Vietnam War and seven years from the end of the military draft that introduced the AVF. But how much has the world and workforce changed since 1980? At the time of DOPMA’s passage, cyber warfare and drones were science fiction fantasies. While we have adapted to meet the new emergent threats, our personnel system is stuck in the Carter/Reagan era with rigid and inflexible laws and policies. To give but one example, despite the emergent cyber threat, it is impossible to bring specialized cyber professionals into the military at higher ranks. Why?

Consider, too, dramatic shifts in the workforce since DOPMA’s passage.  In 1980, female military officers were just starting to graduate from the service academies. And an enormous swath of military jobs was closed to female service. In 1980, women were the clear minority of college graduates. Today, the percentage of female college graduates is 56 percent and climbing.

At the heart of DOPMA is an “up or out” 20-year retirement system where military retirees receive generous health and monetary benefits for life. While the DoD has made incremental and well-reasoned efforts to reform the retirement system, the core law and corresponding incentives governing officer personnel management remain. Under DOPMA, perverse incentives emerge: frequent moves and a corresponding high job turnover rate are commonplace as service members attempt to make compressed career “wickets.” Personally, during my time in the military, at every command, there was always a cluster of talented individuals “getting up to speed” and learning a new job and a similar group “winding down” and in the process of departing the command.

Make no mistake: These frequent moves harm military operational effectiveness, particularly in a deployed or high op-tempo environment. DOPMA effectively devalues continuity, expertise and deep specialization. Further, this built-in instability is increasingly incompatible with dual career families and generational shifts where personal autonomy and control is highly valued. In sum, DOPMA is a blunt, outdated law to address an increasingly bespoke workforce.

Yet an encouraging sign recently emerged this month: In the most recent defense spending bill, Congress ordered DoD to study changes to its officer promotion system. But this has been studied before—whether this recent effort forces real change remains to be seen.

(2) Keep Faith With Immigrant and Transgender Service Members: Since 2008, the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program has authorized the military to recruit foreign-born immigrants with expertise “vital to the national interest” with the promise of fast-track citizenship. Yet, this program has had fits and starts under both the Obama and Trump administrations since its inception in 2008.  Recent immigration disputes have created even more uncertainty regarding MAVNI’s future, with reports this summer that the program will end with the potential deportation of 1,000 foreign-born recruits who lost their legal immigration status while awaiting orders. In addition, the status of transgender service members is also in limbo after a White House directive barred their service. While two federal court orders recently placed the transgender ban in jeopardy, the future service of the estimated 2,000 to 11,000 transgender service members still remains very uncertain. We need to continue to tap into both groups’ expertise and provide a place for them in the military. 

(3) Maintain the AVF But Embrace an Expansive View of Diversity in Recruiting: Since the AVF’s inception in 1973, there have been sporadic calls to reinstate the military draft to force military service across a larger cross-section of society. While I believe the AVF has served the nation well, service members disproportionately enter the military from the South and rural areas. And there is a certain “warrior caste” emerging in the U.S. based on inter-generational service where people join the military exclusively from military families. The military should build upon its efforts to extend a welcome mat to all eligible Americans and embrace a broad view of diversity. This includes “traditional” notions of diversity (gender, race) but also geographic, educational and economic diversity. Steps undertaken by the Obama administration to bring Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or ROTC, back to several campuses – particularly at Ivy League and similarly selective schools – should also continue.

(4) The Future (of the Military) is Female

We simply have to do a better job recruiting, retaining and promoting our female service members who are now eligible to participate in the full menu of military jobs. This should become a renewed priority in light of the opening of over 250,000 new combat roles to women. Since the AVF, women military service rates rose significantly but today, they reside at just 15 percent. More needs to be done.

In an underreported but troubling statistic, women service members’ divorce at a significantly higher rate than their male counterparts. Hopefully the recently mandated DOPMA study will examine why this is occurring while making military service more attractive to half of our population. This should include looking at short-term, intermediate, and long-term goals for female service as well as the success of other militaries.  For example, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) has opened up nearly all-military roles to women.  Today, the majority of IDF officers are female. As the U.S. opens up previously closed military roles for women, the U.S. must tap into the enormous female talent pool in greater numbers.

In sum, while the latest technological innovation, fighter jet or aircraft carrier are absolutely essential to our national security, we should not forget that the people of national security are our nation’s greatest national security assets.  As we take a few moments this holiday season to thank members of the military for their service, we should follow up by taking these four concrete steps necessary to safeguard their future and the national security of our nation.


Image: U.S. Department of Defense