The Pentagon’s controversial plan to hire military leaders off the street

Lateral entry, if approved, could open a door for civilians to join the military’s senior officer ranks. Some leaders want to explore this idea for enlisted military jobs, too.(Photo: John Harman/Staff)


Defense Secretary Ash Carter wants to open the door for more “lateral entry” into the military’s upper ranks, clearing the way for lifelong civilians with vital skills and strong résumés to enter the officer corps as high as the O-6 paygrade.

The idea is controversial, to say the very least. For many in the rank-and-file military, it seems absurd, a bewildering cultural change that threatens to upend many assumptions about military life and traditional career paths. But while it’s not universally embraced, there is interest in Congress and among some of the military’s uniformed leaders — even, they say, in exploring how the services could apply this concept to the enlisted force.

This is a key piece of Carter’s “Force of the Future” personnel reform. Unveiled June 9, it aims to help the military bring in more top talent, especially for high-tech career fields focused on cyber warfare and space. Advocates say it will help the military fill important manpower shortfalls with highly skilled professionals and, more broadly, create greater “permeability” between the active-duty military and the civilian sector.

At the same time, it suggests eroding the military’s tradition of growing its own leaders and cultivating a force with a distinct culture and tight social fabric, which many believe to be the heart of military effectiveness. Critics worry it will create a new subcaste of military service members who are fundamentally disconnected from the traditional career force.

They will enter a culture they don’t know, understand or potentially appreciate,” said Dakota Wood, a retired Marine officer and military expert at the Heritage Foundation. “The Marines around them will likely be challenged to appreciate them as they would a fellow Marine.”

If approved by Congress, the individual military services would be authorized — but not required — to expand lateral entry up to the rank of colonel, or in the case of the Navy a captain. It’s part of a broader reform effort that may also include new rules for bringing enlisted troops in at the noncommissioned officer ranks, which does not require approval from Congress.

Yet the proposed change raises many cultural concerns and could result in a host of second-order effects. The services would have to tackle a range of questions. For instance, what kind of initial training will those officers undergo? Will lateral entry officers be eligible for promotion? Will junior officer retention be affected by the prospect of potentially leaving and returning years later at a higher rank?

Cyber, principally, is driving the call for change, but lateral entry could extend to any high-demand career field with a robust civilian counterpart — logistics, for example, and military policing or public affairs. Those who work in such technical jobs often are lured away from the military’s officer and enlisted ranks by high-paying jobs in the private sector. Offering personnel the opportunity to earn an O-6 salary — plus benefits — might alleviate that.

However, this raises another set of issues that’ll need to be addressed. For instance, the military’s current pay structure would offer significantly less to a colonel or a captain with one year of service versus one with 20 or more. And the military retirement system does not offer much in exchange for only short-term service.

The Navy is the most enthusiastic about Carter’s proposal. The Army and Air Force say they will consider high-level lateral entries if the change is approved. And the Marine Corps appears to be the most skeptical.

“If Mark Zuckerberg decided that he wants to serve his county in the military, we could probably make him an E-4 at cyber command,” Carson said. “Corporal Zuckerberg. We think we should have the ability to bring him in at whatever rank the military service thinks he’d be effective.”

First cyber. Then what?

Even the suggestion of directly commissioning civilians as full-bird colonels or Navy captains — a rank many career officers never attain — reflects the degree of concern surrounding efforts to build out CYBERCOM. Created in 2010, the command is trying to stand up a force of 6,200 active-duty specialists organized in 133 teams.

But progress has been slower than hoped. The target date for standing up those teams was the end of 2016, but that deadline has been pushed out to 2018. So far, about half of those teams, 68, have reached what the military calls “initial operational capability,” and as many as 100 teams are currently conducting missions to meet the demand for offensive and defensive cyber capabilities, defense officials say.

Ultimately, those with prior military experience might be the best candidates because they are familiar with military culture, and would acclimate and find acceptance far more quickly.

“Can you imagine someone coming in as an O-5 or O-6 and not knowing who salutes who? Or how to wear a uniform?” Bejtlich said. “The traditional military’s worst nightmare is to bring in some long-haired hippie and make him a colonel. The way I think you could make it palatable to the rank and file is, you would limit it to bringing in former military.”

The Navy

“Right now the one we’re focused on is the cyber [community] because that’s the immediate need,” said Vice Adm. Robert Burke, the chief of naval personnel. “But we want this authority in place … because we want to be responsive when the need comes — we don’t want to start writing policy the minute we discover we need it.”

The Navy is also considering more lateral entry for the enlisted force. Legally, that’s easy and, unlike for officers, requires no congressional approval. But culturally, the Navy could struggle to integrate chief petty officers brought in at the E-7 paygrade.

“He states that he is ‘seeking the authority to bring somebody in at the E-7 level,’ ” the sailor said, asking for anonymity to speak freely. “I find the choice of words interesting. Notice he doesn’t say they want to bring someone in at the CPO level. There’s only one entity that selects, tests and accepts chief petty officers. That’s the United States Navy Chief Petty Officers Mess. Anything else is an E-7.

“They’re talking about cheapening the CPO brand. They’re talking about creating counterfeit chiefs.”

The Army

Army leadership also has been quick to endorse Carter’s “Force of the Future” ideas, to include lateral entry — primarily as a way to shore up readiness.

“It gives secretaries of the services the authorities to use those tools that are needed,” Army Vice Chief Gen. Daniel Allyn told a crowd at the Heritage Foundation on June 13. “That’s important. You want to have a toolbox that allows you to adjust as needed.”

The Air Force

The Air Force is open to the idea of expanding lateral entries, particularly for people with cyber skills. “We’re still exploring it,” Brig. Gen. Brian Kelly, director of military force management policy, said during an interview in May. “We are looking at similar programs to what the Navy is talking about.”

The Air Force has regularly sounded the alarm about undermanning in career fields such as cyber, intelligence and maintenance, and adopted a slate of recruitment and retention incentives and strategies to bolster those positions. But officials would need to be careful how they bring on these new airmen, Stevens said. He said the service shouldn’t bring anyone into a rank higher than major, to avoid putting anyone in a leadership position who doesn’t have experience with the military, its culture and its processes.

“They have absolutely no military background, they don’t know how the systems work, they don’t know how to supervise military personnel,” Stevens said. Such a move would “create a lot of animosity, confusion and distrust” on the part of the existing officer corps.

If the Air Force needs someone’s skills badly enough to make them an O-6, Stevens said, it should instead hire them as a civilian at, for example, the GS-15 grade.

The Marine Corps

The Marine Corps might be the most skeptical among the four services.

A Marine personnel officer said the service’s leaders support the proposal in part because of its “flexibility” and the fact it does not force the services to change their policies. “We are prepared to observe the ‘experimentation’ efforts of other services and adopt the best practices where applicable and advantageous,” said Col. Gaines Ward, head of the service’s promotions and policy branch.

“If lateral-entry civilians actually become serving, uniformed and ranked ‘Marines,’ then I think their fellow ‘normal’ Marines would expect them to operate just as any Marine would,” he said. “Not having the years of growing up in the Corps, however, this might be a difficult transition for some to make, especially in combat situations.”

Full article: The Pentagon’s controversial plan to hire military leaders off the street (MilitaryTimes)

One response to “The Pentagon’s controversial plan to hire military leaders off the street

  1. Reblogged this on Rifleman III Journal and commented:
    Odd. Very, odd. The USMC only has two things listed in the personnel file, (A) Rifle qualification; (B) Physical Fitness. Would the newly appointed people be waived, or stand to qualify, as every other Marine?