The U.S. Military Has a Management Problem

(The Bloomberg View) -- The U.S. armed forces are good at many things, but conspicuously bad at managing talent. As a result, many good officers are quitting. The Army’s latest leadership survey found that fewer than half of active-duty junior officers hoped to stay in the military after 20 years of service, when their pensions kick in, and only half of active-duty leaders say morale is high or very high. In the Air Force, which has a shortfall of some 2,000 pilots, the problem is acute.

The Defense Department recognizes the problem, but hasn’t done enough about it. Perhaps Congress can do better. Its latest defense policy act calls for change — including reform of the services’ longstanding “up-or-out” promotion system. Together with a few other reforms, that would help a lot.

Under the current system, officers must stay on a promotion timeline or be eased out after 20 years. While this system aids junior officers who stand out early in their careers, it tends to put good warriors into desk jobs, discourages risk-taking, and fails late bloomers and those who want to take unconventional paths or go into specialties that the military has undervalued.

Congress would have the Pentagon cut back on promoting officers based on the year they were commissioned, and expand “competitive categories” that recognize specialized skills. The most promising talent could be promoted earlier. Service members with the most valuable skills who fail to be promoted on traditional timelines would no longer be forced out, but could stay for years longer in their current ranks.

In addition, Congress wants civilians with crucial skills in areas such as cyber-technology to be able to enter service with ranks up to Army colonel or Navy captain. And it supports allowing service members to be released from active duty for education, private-sector or even family issues without short-circuiting their careers.

This all looks good on paper. It would have looked even better if Congress had set deadlines for action.

Meanwhile, here are some other ideas. An Air Force initiative allowing retired airmen to return to active service should be broadened to the other services. Officers (and perhaps enlisted troops) should be allowed a greater voice in choosing their next assignments or opting to stay in their current jobs; studies have shown this improves retention and productivity. Commanders should have more freedom in choosing their top subordinates. 

This summer, after an anonymous Air Force officer wrote a series of op-ed articles with trenchant analysis of flaws in the system, Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein offered the author a job on his staff. That kind of openness should be welcomed. When it comes to managing personnel, the Pentagon needs all the new ideas it can get.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg View editorial board.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.