When Defense Secretary Ash Carter took the reins of the Pentagon in February, he inherited a Pentagon coming out of two prolonged land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, navigating a budgetary drawdown threatened by sequestration, and wrestling with how to remain the dominant military in a fast-changing world. As one of his predecessors Robert Gates noted, since Vietnam, “our record has been perfect” about predicting future wars: “We have never once gotten it right.”

His first speech was expected to signal his new priorities as secretary of defense. Some expected a talk in Silicon Valley, or at one of the service academies to showcase his message. Yet for his inaugural speech, Carter chose to return his alma mater, Abingdon Senior High School in Philadelphia, to speak to teenage students. Billed as a talk about the “Force of the Future,” many expected it to be about new technology, the Pentagon’s “Third Offset Strategy,” or the importance of cyber warfare.

Surprisingly, it was all about people—how to find, get, and keep the best military and civilian talent in the Department of Defense.

Despite his strong background in the world of technology and defense policy, Carter unequivocally emphasized that his top priority would be to recruit and retain talented young Americans into the Defense Department. In his Abingdon speech, he clearly stated, “I will drive change to build what I call the force of the future: the military and the broader Defense Department that we need to serve and defend our country in the years to come.”

His surprising logic is that winning the unpredictable next war will be less about advanced war machines and silicon chips than about out-thinking the enemy, and having a force chock-full of bright, adaptive leaders who can quickly navigate complex problems under the intense time pressures of modern combat. To Carter, winning the next war is all about talent.

* * *

Tyler Jost had wanted to be in the military ever since his kindergarten teacher read a children’s book about the Gettysburg Address to her young class. Although not from a military family, Jost attended a military high school in a Chicago suburb where he was an exceptional student. When it came time to choose a college, he applied to both the Naval Academy and West Point, and happily enrolled at West Point after receiving his acceptance letter.

Jost arrived at West Point during the summer of 2004, nearly three years after the 9/11 attacks. The nation and the Army were at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Jost took Chinese language classes to fulfill his single year of required language at the academy, and a summer program in China cemented his love of the Chinese language and culture. According to Jost, he gave up his vacation time nearly every summer to study in China, and graduated with a double major in Chinese and International Relations.

West Point cadets line up at their graduation ceremony in Michie Stadium. (Mike Groll / AP)

Jost excelled in his studies. He was academically ranked seventh out of 972 cadets in his graduating class, and was commissioned as a military intelligence officer. He won a Rotary scholarship for a graduate degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He became proficient in Mandarin, and earned a master’s degree in Chinese studies after a year of intense study. Now it was time to join the Army and use his education.

It would be the last time Jost used his Chinese until leaving the service five years later.

Losing Talent

The military services today are losing talent. Bright, capable young men and women—almost all combat veterans—are leaving the services in sizable numbers, shifting their lives from khaki and camouflage to chinos and corporate attire. They are entirely of the Millennial generation, those Americans born after 1980, and since 2001 they have only known a military at war. While the ebb and flow of young people into and out of the military is always a steady tide, the ongoing drain of experienced and bright young officers departing service today after five to 15 years in uniform is a concern. A 2010 survey of Army officers found that only 6 percent of those asked agreed with the statement, “The current military personnel system does a good job retaining the best leaders.” The military must always shed leaders since there is only so much room to move up. But it is essential to shed the right people—and not to lose too many of those with the brightest prospects or the most innovative minds. The military needs to know just who is going out the door, and why.

No one expects the U.S. military to redesign itself for its Millennials—to become a camouflaged version of Google or Facebook, or adopt a Silicon Valley start-up culture where Pentagon staff officers ride scooters down the hallways clad in shorts and T-shirts. The U.S. armed forces are instruments of conflict prevention in peacetime, and controlled violence in war. Their culture must reflect the unique demands this places on their members. Few businesses call on their employees to give up their lives if required to get the job done. Partly as a result, military service is often viewed as a calling, not simply as a job or even a career. Only a select few can be expected to answer that call for a career or a lifetime.

But they need to be the right few.

The U.S. military is in a competition for talent. The best and brightest graduates from American universities are in high demand. According to the Department of Defense, only a half of 1 percent of officers entering the military last year hailed from the top 20 U.S. colleges and universities—a percentage that is half that of just 20 years ago. Moreover, a recent study determined that 40 percent of today’s Marine officers would fail to meet the standards for Marine officer selection in World War II.

Warfare is a highly complex business, and the side that intends to prevail must bring every advantage into what could become an existential fight. Brainpower and talent matter. Which citizens the military attracts, what cognitive and leadership qualities they possess, and how many of them stay for a career are issues of strategic importance to the nation’s security. But the man who heads the Defense Department’s personnel and readiness office has described the military personnel system as “a Polaroid in the age of digital cameras, once the cutting edge, but now superseded.”

We have both spent our careers working on U.S. national-security issues. One of us is a retired Army officer with over 30 years of experience, including overall command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan; the other is a scholar who has spent her career at various Washington think tanks, working with and writing about the military. Our current projects examine how to best prepare the U.S. military for the many challenges of an uncertain future. Our research and our own experiences have left us both gravely concerned that the military is losing too much talent—that the rigid and anachronistic personnel system is driving too many bright, innovative, and creative officers out of the military. That could have disastrous long-term effects on the nation’s ability to fight and win future wars—or craft strategies to prevent them from erupting.

* * *

No one in Katelyn van Dam’s family had ever graduated from college, though many had served as policemen and firemen. But in fourth grade, van Dam discovered a coffee table book on the Naval Academy in a doctor’s office, and decided, “I want to go there some day.” When she was in high school, finding out that Navy had a Division I women’s volleyball team sealed the deal.

Van Dam excelled in all-things military at Annapolis, and held her own academically, majoring in political science at a school dedicated to engineering. She has said that she was most animated by the intense military and athletic programs in which every midshipmen participated, and was deeply impressed by the U.S. Marines on the staff and faculty—models to her of military precision and unwavering professionalism. She knew she wanted to be a Marine.

Courtesy of Katelyn van Dam

Most women entering the Marine Corps as officers—women comprise only 4 percent of its officer corps—gravitate toward intelligence, logistics, or communications. Van Dam wanted to be a Marine infantry officer—but the military’s rules excluding women from ground-combat positions precluded that choice. Instead she won a slot to flight school, and studied hard enough to get her dream billet as an attack-helicopter pilot flying AH-1W Super Cobras. She became one of only a handful of women flying attack helicopters in the Corps. Her call sign was “Talent.”

For van Dam, flying Cobras in support of ground troops in Afghanistan was the best way she could contribute to the fight, since many Marine specialties were then closed to women (and many remain so today). Flying combat missions from her Cobra in support of those Marines slugging it out on the ground was the closest she could come to direct combat. Rolling in with rockets and cannon fire to relieve a Marine unit pinned down under enemy fire became the ultimate high. She quickly became a highly respected combat flier, sought after to lead missions, and occasionally bailed out peers in trouble during combat. After two operational tours, she was selected to train male and female Marines in the Corps’s intense junior officer course, The Basic School. Married to a Marine recon commander, she was experiencing the best jobs the Corps had to offer a promising young officer.

Today, neither van Dam nor her husband are active-duty Marines. She is attending graduate school while he works as a civilian for the Department of the Army.

Today’s Military Personnel System

The current military personnel system was designed decades ago in large measure to provide interchangeable human parts to fit the diverse requirements of each service. This flexibility was an important virtue in growing the force from several-hundred thousand to 16 million in World War II. That war also provided the impetus for today’s “up or out” promotion system, after hundreds of aging officers had to be quickly removed at the war’s beginning to bring in energetic younger replacements who could meet the challenges of a global war.

Despite a world that has vastly changed since 1945, many elements of that wartime system remain in place today. The most significant prior reform occurred in 1980, when the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA) was signed into law. But even then, large elements of the previous system remained. According to a 1993 RAND report, the 1980 Act “…replaced an existing patchwork of rules and regulations governing the management of military officers… While breaking new ground (permanent grade tables, single promotion system, augmentation of reserve officers into regular status), DOPMA was basically evolutionary, extending the existing paradigm (grade controls, promotion opportunity and timing objectives, up-or-out, and uniformity across the services) that was established after World War II.”

This legacy system is woefully archaic in the 21st century—and far removed from the best talent-management practices of the private sector. It may well be the last untransformed segment of an otherwise modern, flexible, and adaptable U.S. military. Yet the personnel system touches every single person in the military every single day of their career—and determines how much they are paid, where they live, what kind of jobs they perform, and how often they move or get promoted. Neither officers nor enlisted troops have any substantial input in how they fit into this system—nor how to maximize their talents for the greater good.

The U.S. military is largely a closed-loop system for talent. Lateral entry is nearly nonexistent outside of unique specialties such as medicine. The four-star generals and admirals who will be the chairman and members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) in 2035 are serving in uniform today as majors or lieutenant commanders with somewhere between 10 and 16 years of service. Even the members of the JCS in 2045 are already serving in uniform, just starting out as ensigns and lieutenants, most with fewer than four years of service. Losing talented, experienced, and innovative leaders in the first 10 years of their military careers means that those leaders will not be available to serve in ever-more senior military leadership positions during the next the 20 or 30 years. This problem deserves rapt attention because getting the quality of the force wrong—unknowingly keeping in less capable leaders while losing the best and brightest talent—could have debilitating effects on fighting and winning the complex wars of the future.

Unlike its private-industry counterparts, the U.S. military does not track the levels of quality among those who are leaving the force, nor does it have any insight on why they are choosing to leave. There are no exit interviews for departing leaders, no accumulation of data on who is staying or going, no statistical rundowns provided the service chiefs on the percent of each performance quintile by rank (or IQ, or any other measure) who are choosing to leave or stay. The military does not even gather such information.

Yet few senior military leaders acknowledge there is a problem today. They often argue they have always had plenty of great people, and that the current personnel system has served the United States well. Of course, these same leaders are products of the system that they are convinced is highly effective. It is rare to hear them admit that they could be anything less than the very best and the brightest—or that the military was at all hurt by the loss of many of their young contemporaries during the previous years and decades. The generals who led the war in Iraq in 2003 cannot be measured against their missing alter egos who might have left the service as majors in 1975.

There are no objective metrics by which to determine whether the military leadership is succeeding—or failing, needing replacement. In the U.S. military, there are no quarterly earning statements, no public stock prices, no annual profit and loss numbers. However the military performs, it seems simply good enough. During the darkest days of the war in Iraq, from 2004 to 2006, there was little thought given to replacing military leaders, even when the combat effort was clearly failing. Even losing a war—or nearly doing so—seems to be an insufficient impetus to objectively assess military performance and hold leaders accountable. It only becomes worse in peacetime where little can seemingly be measured as related to what the nation wants from its military during a war. The abject lack of metrics on the performance and skills of those departing the force compared to those remaining reflects a culture that insists the current system works well.

* * *

Tyler Jost found his two tours in the tumultuous combat zone of Afghanistan his most rewarding time in uniform. “On my first day, my battalion commander came up to me. He shook my hand and said, ‘Welcome to a combat zone.’” Jost was 24 years old. “That was an awakening. It may sound dramatic, but combat operations were much different than I anticipated. I don’t think I fully appreciated what the Army was about until I arrived in Afghanistan.”

During his first year-long deployment, he served as a young lieutenant in eastern Afghanistan with duties as an assistant intelligence officer in a deployed battalion. “I felt part of the fight—part of something larger than myself,” he said. “From your first day in theater, you assume tremendous responsibilities—to help protect the lives of your teammates, to play a small but direct role in national security. You feel as though you are part of something meaningful, important, and significant early in your career.” Jost worked up to 18 hours a day, slept in a wooden “B-Hut,” and worked most of the time in a windowless command center—and loved his job. Serving in Afghanistan was everything he had hoped for about being in the Army. Time flew by.

He was ambivalent about returning to stateside duty after his tour in a combat zone. But after 12 months deployed, Jost rotated home with his unit to Fort Campbell, Kentucky—a place he had only spent a few weeks before shipping out a year earlier. Lacking the daily rewards of supporting troops in combat, he was immediately bored. Army garrison routines and home-station bureaucracy of rules and regulations only made it worse.

Tyler Jost receives a Bronze Star for service in Afghanistan in 2012. (Courtesy of Tyler Jost)

Within weeks, he was ready to go back to Afghanistan—or anywhere else overseas with a real-world mission. Waiving his guaranteed “dwell time”—the typical one-year period at home before being eligible to deploy again—Jost volunteered to return to Afghanistan as the aide to a Navy admiral working strategic-level policy issues.

A staff job in Kabul was a far cry from his first job as a tactical-intelligence officer, but he quickly secured the position, and returned to Afghanistan less than four months after coming back from his first deployment. The new job at the senior NATO headquarters in Kabul exposed him to the world of strategy and policy. It would become one of the most eye-opening and broadening opportunities of his career.

But Jost said that he also realized that many of the State Department civilians working alongside him in this area were his age or only slightly older—and that if he stayed in the military, he wouldn’t be able to do what they were doing for at least another 10 years, or more. Over time, the rigid boundaries of the military rank and seniority system felt more and more restrictive. Jost loved his job, loved being deployed, but could see the writing on the wall. His future path as an intelligence officer was clearly laid out for him, and largely out of his control.

He began to think about getting out.

Millennials in the Military and Beyond

The young men and women coming into the military today share two characteristics in common—all have joined since the attacks of 9/11, and know they are signing on for a military at war, even if at diminished levels. Astonishingly, almost three-quarters of Americans from age 17 to 25 are disqualified from serving in uniform due to obesity, education, criminal records, or medical reasons. But all who do are part of the Millennial generation, those men and women born between 1980 and 2000. Ten years from now, 98 percent of the military will be comprised of Millennials. By definition, the remaining 2 percent will be the senior-most enlisted and officers by age and rank—and these leaders of the force will come from Generation X or even the tail end of the Baby Boomers.

Civilian studies have found that the Millennials share a number of characteristics in common. And although military members may reflect some very different attributes given that they are self-selected from less than 1 percent of society, they inevitably will have some traits in common with their civilian generational peers. Millennials value personal life and family above paychecks. They value diverse work experiences and the ability to change jobs often. They want a bigger say in their career paths and their future, and value higher education. They see themselves as likely to leave jobs, companies, and career fields at a much higher rate than their predecessors. They believe in merit-driven upward mobility, and are convinced they should be able to compete for any job in their reach. They dislike hierarchy, bureaucracy, and inflexibility in the workplace and private life. But they are also far more interested in public service, in all its forms, than many generations that came before them.

While all of these are broad characterizations of an entire generation, they strongly suggest that much about today’s military personnel system may alienate the very segment of the population from which the military must draw upon to fill its ranks. In particular, military officers have many options outside of the military, since their service and leadership experience is often prized in the private sector. Getting the best of this group of junior officers to decide to remain in uniform for a career thus poses significant challenges—and few current uniformed military leaders seem to be paying attention to those challenges.

* * *

For many months, Katey van Dam chafed at the prospect her squadron was missing the war. Even though she had previously done a “pump”—a six-month cruise aboard Navy amphibious ships—supporting counter-piracy missions in the Arabian Sea, combat had eluded her unit. Van Dam volunteered for a Marine Female Engagement Team, women Marines who operated on the ground with the infantry, interacting with Afghan women in ways men could not. Her squadron XO, the second-in-command, turned her down. According to van Dam, he told her, “Slow your roll,” perhaps knowing the squadron was about to get orders for Afghanistan.

Van Dam’s squadron finally got the word: They would deploy for seven months to southern Afghanistan, supporting Marines fighting in some of the toughest Taliban strongholds. She may not have been allowed to fight on the ground because she was a woman, but by flying a Super Cobra attack helicopter, she could lash the enemy with rockets and cannon from less than 50 feet altitude. She was in the fight—and loved it. Van Dam racked up over 330 flying hours in her Cobra gunship during her deployment. It was the most rewarding assignment she ever had.

After returning home, van Dam began to negotiate her next job with her assignment managers. Her husband David had returned from his deployment a few months earlier, and was now stationed on the East Coast—3,000 miles from van Dam, who was now stationed in southern California. She wanted her next Marine job to be on the East Coast, and to involve working closely with troops.

A U.S. Marine Corps Super Cobra helicopter fires a missile during a training exercise in Arizona. (Rick Scuteri / Reuters)

A job at Quantico teaching young men and women who were “boot” Marine lieutenants in The Basic School (TBS) seemed like a good fit. After a year of classroom teaching, she was selected to be a Platoon Commander in TBS. She was finally allowed to go to the field and live in the dirt for days on end—as close to infantry conditions as she would ever reach under today’s rules.

As she was near her husband for the first time in many months, the idea of starting a family became more and more part of their conversations. Van Dam also yearned to be back in an academic environment—her job at TBS was highly rewarding, but a long way from her goal of eventually getting an advanced degree. But she soon discovered that Marine officers cannot even compete for slots to attend graduate school until after completing battalion-level command, probably at age 40 or older—meaning that she would have to wait nearly 10 more years. And David, now promoted to major, was now getting closer to making his own decision about leaving the Marines.

Challenges With the Current System

Military career paths are governed by a set of highly structured processes that rarely allow any deviations. Promotions, for example, are governed by DOPMA’s immutable statutory rules: There are no 35-year-old generals or admirals, no military options to mirror Silicon Valley’s penchant for bright young CEOs. Navy destroyers, Marine-helicopter squadrons, Army-infantry battalions, and F-16 fighter squadrons are all commanded by officers with about 16 to 18 years of service. There are no exceptions for the bright light with only six years in; you must wait for 16 to 18 years regardless to even have a chance to compete for command at that level. And if you don’t command at that level, your prospects for further advancement are highly constrained. Generals and admirals, with few exceptions, come out of the “command track.” There are virtually no three- or four-star admirals or generals who have not commanded ships or squadrons, battalions or brigades—and then gone on to command again at senior levels of the organization. Specialists—cyber gurus, foreign-area experts, human-resources types—who do not command often have far fewer promotion opportunities, especially to wear stars.

The military promotion system is also based on the principle of “up or out.” Unlike the vast majority of workers in the private sector, military personnel are not permitted to stay in the same job or rank year after year—even if the position may be one for which they are perfectly suited, by skill or disposition. They must continually compete for promotion, and be selected for advancement in order to stay in the military. The military’s best F-16 pilot cannot stay in the cockpit her whole career. After approximately eight to 10 years of flying, she must go to broadening schools, be promoted to major and then lieutenant colonel, and serve on staffs and maybe even in the Pentagon. If she fails to do so, she will fail to be promoted—and multiple failures to be promoted almost always results in a pink slip forcing separation from the military.

The combination of “everyone must command” with “up or out” creates a military of incessant turbulence, with moves between jobs and bases a constant feature of uniformed service. On average, military families move 10 times as often their civilian counterparts. Officers typically change jobs every one to two years, and often move from base to base every two or three years, although the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have somewhat slowed that pace (since families often stayed while their service members deployed). This fast-moving treadmill of jobs and locations sacrifices much hard-won expertise among officers in order to ensure as many officers as possible get through all the “gates” needed to be eligible for command or promotion to the next rank. Multiple jobs and a diversity of locations (rather than “homesteading,” or staying in one spot year after year) continue to be valued by promotion boards as evidence of a well-rounded officer.

This constant job shifting also creates a military where every officer is expected to perform across multiple, often unrelated skill sets—even though the skills of an effective Pentagon staff officer have next to nothing in common with those of an Apache attack-helicopter pilot or an infantry-battalion commander. Officers don’t get to find their niche and stay in it; they are constantly on the move. This facet of military careers can be immensely frustrating to officers who know what they love to do—and who recognize no matter what it is, the military will eventually force them to do something very different, often at a time and place not of their choosing.

Perhaps the most damaging effect of this incessant turbulence is a continuous loss of continuity and expertise in key jobs. Even at the most senior ranks of general and admirals, jobs are often held for two years or less. It is viewed simply as the cost of doing business in a military still wedded to a Cold War personnel system of interchangeable parts. Spouses of military personnel, especially officers, now often have careers of their own, and the military’s moving turbulence often makes such normal two career pursuits utterly unsustainable. Uncounted numbers of junior officers leave the military because they simply see a career pipeline that will force them down a path where they do not want to go—or force their spouse to give up a valued job or even a career in order to move. Even those who want to command and move to the top of the force are confronted with the unalterable long climb through years of unrelated assignments with little prospect for accelerated promotions, no matter how talented.

Lack of access to advanced civilian education also causes many young officers to leave the military. Masters and Ph.D. programs throughout the nation’s top schools are chock full of former military officers who were simply unable to find any venue to pursue civilian graduate education inside the military—and who, thanks to the generous benefits of the post-9/11 GI Bill, can afford to attend these programs if they leave the military. In the Army alone, the annual number of fully funded civilian graduate-school slots for officers dropped from as many as 7,000 in the 1980s to approximately 600 to 700 today.

Many of the best and brightest know this, and they want the challenge of going to a top-rated graduate school with others who have survived the rigorous admissions processes. Once they are admitted, they often find that the military personnel system will not accommodate their desire to attend, even though, in many cases, the military wouldn’t have to pay for it. But the “up or out” system, combined with the need for most to command in order to advance, means that the service’s personnel offices do not support this. As a result, many of the best and brightest must leave the military in order to receive the best graduate education that this country has to offer.

Decisions surrounding starting a family also play a major role in military-career choices, especially for women. This choice is a difficult one for individuals or couples in any setting, but starting a family in the military is fraught with even greater challenges than most civilians face. Timing pregnancy and childbirth around operational deployments, the accessibility of both parents, who may be geographically separated for child-rearing, and life-and-death risks in training and in combat all factor into the equation. Both men and women in uniform have increasingly sought means of scheduling pregnancies around the demands of their careers. Egg and sperm freezing are not yet commonplace, but increasingly in demand even though not covered by military health benefits. The exigencies of wartime, including fertility risks of debilitating or fatal injuries, have placed an even sharper point on this option.

Dual-career military couples face the most complex minuet of planning and juggling deployments, other separations, fertility cycles, and the often highly physical demands of military jobs for both parents. Combine the occupational uncertainties of military life with the often unpredictable prospects of conceiving on a set schedule, and having a family while one or both parents are in the military—especially mothers—is a Rubik’s Cube of complex orchestration, sometimes with disappointing results. And the military’s policies on leave and return to duty after childbirth for both mothers and fathers are less than generous—after six to eight weeks, mothers are expected to be back at work and doing physical training with their units.

In sum, the military faces a growing cohort of young men and women within its ranks who have much different expectations from their Baby Boomer seniors who now run the services. Cosmetic changes to the current system—a few pilot programs for sabbaticals, or a handful more funded graduate programs—are unlikely to meet the lifetime goals that many of these young leaders share with their civilian peers. They expect their lives to have a modicum of stability, protected from constant moves and job changes. Many of them seek broader opportunities for advanced civil schooling, and nearly all want to be able to both serve in uniform and raise a family in a reasonable American lifestyle. They hope to have far greater input to tailor their career paths more closely to their skills and interests.

Yet when asked, these same people are fully willing to risk their lives in combat or dangerous peacetime training—again and again. They fully understand the unlimited-liability contract under which they serve. They “get it,” as much as any generation in uniform that has come before them—and many of them have deployed and fought time and time again. They simply want some degree of control over their life and career when not fighting the nation’s wars overseas—not an unreasonable outlook.

* * *

Jost returned from his second tour in Afghanistan and ran directly into the unbending demands of the Army’s officer personnel system. During his tour in Kabul, he sought career advice from both his Navy admiral and an Army general on the NATO staff. He said that they were thoughtful, candid, and willing to help him assess options in and out of uniform. But his assignment manager back home gave him only one option, insisting that he must go to his captain’s career course and return to being a staff-intelligence officer in a garrison in order to continue to serve. Jost mentioned that he was considering leaving the military after his next assignment, when his service obligation would be complete. He remembers being told in essence, “If you’re getting out [of the Army], you’re getting the bottom of the barrel picks for your next assignment. You need to think seriously about this.”

Anxious to avoid a garrison assignment, Jost attempted to waive his dwell time again and volunteered to deploy with a special-operations unit looking for an intelligence officer. He flew to Georgia for the job interview, and was accepted. But the lieutenant colonel in charge of personnel for his branch killed that option. He was going to the career course, or else.

Resigned, Jost spent six months at the Army’s Intelligence School in Arizona, and began to negotiate for his next job. Since he had already served as a staff intelligence officer while deployed, he requested assignment as a company commander. But his assignments officer was reluctant to accept even such a minor deviation from the approved career path. Frustrated by the system, Jost sought help from a network of alumni from the Department of Social Sciences at West Point. After an in-person intervention by his future boss, he finally landed a job commanding a cyber-warfare unit at Fort Meade, Maryland, where the military’s top cyber warriors are located. Although far from his areas of previous expertise and deployed experience, Jost enjoyed the opportunity.

But he knew he was nearing the time to make a major life decision: stay in the military and continue the uphill battle of obtaining permission from personnel officers at every career juncture, or find a different path.

Building the Force of the Future

In late April, work on Carter’s initiative to find, get, and keep the best talent in the military, the Force of the Future, began in earnest. At its helm was Brad Carson, who became the Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness just three days after Carter’s speech. A softspoken Rhodes scholar and lawyer from Oklahoma in his late 40s who wears cowboy boots with his suits, Carson honed his political skills as a member of Congress from 2001 to 2005. He later served as the chief executive officer of Cherokee Nation Businesses, and as a professor of business law at the University of Tulsa. He also served on active duty in Iraq for most of 2009, in an extremely unusual position for a U.S. Navy intelligence officer—embedded with a U.S. Army explosive ordnance unit, responsible for identifying and dismantling the homemade bombs that were killing so many U.S. military personnel and Iraqi civilians.

Carson returned to Washington in 2012, serving as the Army’s top lawyer and then as the Undersecretary of the Army before assuming his current office. He is the ninth person to hold his job in the past six and a half years, a rate of turnover that has diminished its effectiveness. But unlike any of his predecessors, Carson possessed a clear mandate for change from the defense secretary himself.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks at a Pentagon news conference in May 2015. (Yuri Gripas / Reuters)

He soon turned full-time to the all-consuming initiative. His small staff worked around the clock from a cramped office space on the Pentagon’s E-Ring. By early summer, inflatable air mattresses started appearing under many of their desks.

From the earliest stages, Carson tried to build consensus. He recognized that every service would ultimately have to buy into the final proposal—or at least not violently object. Otherwise, any prospects of its eventual implementation, even if signed out by the defense secretary, would be grim. A thick report gathering dust on the shelves of bored Pentagon staff officers would be the definition of mission failure—an outcome he wanted to avoid.

Carson reached out far beyond the service staffs and their personnel specialists. He met repeatedly with the uniformed-service chiefs and their principal deputies, journeyed to Capitol Hill to meet with staff and members, and made the rounds of think tanks across Washington. Carson’s team examined best practices from the private sector on everything from family leave to incentives, and from flexible workplace environments to advanced education and professional development. His speeches on the subject emphasized the need for change—and the cost of doing nothing. He convened senior-level working groups with representatives of all the services to look at options and propose new ideas, unconstrained by conventional thinking. At Carter’s direction, Carson’s team examined the civilian personnel system within the Department of Defense as well as the military personnel system. Scores of meetings unfolded over the following months.

Although the final recommendations have not been made public yet, an earlier draft of the report was obtained by several media outlets.  According to press reports, the report is likely to include the following reforms:

  • Replacing “up or out” with performance criteria. Officers would no longer be held to rigid promotion timelines and forced to compete with other officers who happened to join the military the same year that they did. Instead, they would compete for promotion after meeting established performance standards. Not only would this enable officers far more flexibility in managing their careers, but it would also restore the original purpose of the rank system—to provide capable individuals with the authority necessary to execute their responsibilities.
  • Increasing “permeability.” Policy changes here would make it far easier for military personnel to shift between the active and reserve components of each service, or to choose to work as a DOD civilian. Officers would also be able to step out of DOD entirely—into the private sector or other parts of the government—while retaining an option to return to the military at a later time. Such moves in and out of uniform would be considered normal and seen as a routine career-development step. This would not only help retain some people that would otherwise leave, but DOD and the services would also benefit from having more officers with a broader set of skills and experiences as they face an increasingly diverse and interconnected world.
  • Establishing a technical, or enterprise, career track. Requiring all officers to command at ever-higher levels in order to remain competitive for promotion wastes a great deal of human talent—especially since most generals and admirals serve in institutional and staff leadership positions rather than in operational-command positions. Officers would be separated into two parallel career tracks: a command track, whose milestones and performance criteria would remain similar to the current system, and an enterprise track that would enable officers to develop continuity and expertise in specialized areas throughout their careers. Officers choosing the enterprise track might forfeit the opportunity to command troops, but in exchange they would have viable promotion paths up to the most senior levels in their areas of expertise. Of equal value, many of these officers could stay on for much longer duration in positions of senior institutional management for which they have been expressly prepared.
  • Expanding civilian schooling. Although the number of officers with advanced degrees continues to grow, the vast majority of those degrees are now being granted by military institutions. Those programs are often less rigorous than their civilian counterparts, and do not provide the broadening intellectual experience that comes from sitting in a classroom with students from truly diverse backgrounds. (This also deprives civilian students from having a military perspective in their classrooms, which only exacerbates the increasing civil-military divide.) DOD could change this balance by requiring that degrees from civilian institutions constitute a set percentage of all advanced degrees earned by personnel within each service.
  • Improving parental leave and other family policies. In July, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced that maternity leave for women in the Navy and the Marine Corps would triple, from six to 18 weeks—a number deliberately chosen to match what Google offers. The report will probably recommend making that the new standard across all of the services, and may also increase the amount of leave available to other new parents (regardless of gender). It could also address some of the other challenges facing military parents, such as the fact that many military day-care centers are closed during the early morning and later evening hours when some service members are required to work.

Turning the Force of the Future Into Reality

The Force of the Future initiative faces a long uphill battle to adoption and implementation, even though Carter has made this issue one of his highest priorities. Many recommendations have already encountered some stiff bureaucratic and cultural resistance as they work their way through the Pentagon. Some of the most important reform ideas will require congressional action (such as revising the “up or out” promotion system enshrined in DOPMA). But these are also some of the most controversial, which means that parts of this battle will play out in the public square.

Other actions fall within Carter’s purview, and require changes he can make unilaterally to policy or regulations. His personnel and readiness office, led by Carson, could be charged to enact and follow up on a sizable number of the initiatives that it drafted. The military services also hold great authority to enact sweeping personnel changes. The service secretaries, in concert with their uniformed service chiefs, can readily adjust personnel practices unique to the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force populations.

Yet perhaps the greatest challenge facing the Force of the Future is that its proposals will fundamentally confront a deep-rooted culture where “one size fits all”—an approach that the bureaucratic guardians of the half-century-old military personnel system have long seen as adequate to any demand. Many of these entrenched personnel bureaucrats have served for decades, combining time in uniform with subsequent careers as civilian officials in the services’ Pentagon personnel offices. They have great pride of ownership in today’s structure: For years, they have adjusted the current system with literally tens of thousands of ad hoc modifications. And to be fair, the current system has survived the greatest test to date of the all-volunteer-force: nearly 15 years fighting two sizable, prolonged wars overseas.

These civilian skeptics are quietly joined by some in the senior ranks of each service who are very comfortable with the system that groomed and selected them for positions of high rank. Implicitly, they are satisfied with the quality of the officer corps because they are that quality. Lesser men and women fell by the wayside. Those that left the military either didn’t have the “right stuff” to gut out the hard years and stay for the long haul, or the system deliberately and effectively eliminated them. The military, in this line of reasoning, has always had enough great people, and no exodus of this generation’s bright young men and women will change that.

Many people in the Pentagon and beyond are skeptical about the Force of the Future.  They note that the current system has been tested in war and peace, and delivered a professional and dedicated military leadership that remains the envy of militaries around the globe. The system put in place after World War II and subsequently modified, has largely kept the officer corps young and vibrant, and  weeded out those staying beyond their ability to perform. “Up or out” has done just that—removed those incapable of performing at the next level while promoting those who can excel. Critics also argue that the military ultimately only needs to select a few hundred generals and admirals from among a very competitive bench of thousands of strong performers who have proven themselves over decades of experience. Nothing in the current system, in their view, suggests that this process is failing.

The skeptics also correctly argue that an effective military can never be overly focused on meeting the needs of the individual in a world where the performance of the organization—the team—matters most. The military personnel system must be designed first and foremost to meet the needs of the service, not those of the individual member. “Selfless service” is a value widely revered throughout the military. Those concerned about the proposed changes to the current system are also wary of upending decades of predictability in promotions, pay, and the well-known “gates” that must be met in order to advance through a well-defined process. They argue that disrupting these proven incentives could have entirely unforeseen second-order effects on performance, retention, and quality of leaders navigating a largely new and unproven system.  

Yet simply surviving the challenges of yesterday or even those of today with the current system is no longer enough. In a world of exponential change, leap-ahead technologies, and a generation entering the military comfortable with both, a World War II-based personnel system at some point will simply be unable to provide a military force that is prepared to deal with the challenges of the future. But overcoming the bureaucratic resistance from those unable to imagine the military of tomorrow remains Carter and Carson’s toughest fight. Military leaders are famously conservative, rightfully protective of the values, history, and traditions of the services they manage. But the current and future security environments demand flexibility and agility in attracting and retaining top-notch people just as much as they do in conducting effective military operations.

* * *

Tyler Jost couldn’t make it work. He was going to get out of the Army.

While in company command at Fort Meade, Jost had applied and been accepted to Harvard’s Ph.D. program in government, where he could return to his studies of China and foreign policy that he had started at West Point. He was unconvinced that the Army would be willing or able to support his long-term goals—to use his language skills, interests, and experience—while remaining competitive for promotion.

Tyler Jost at a change-of-command ceremony in 2014 (Courtesy of Tyler Jost)

His nascent military career was over. After company command in a cyber unit, a graduate degree from London’s School of Advanced Oriental Studies, two tours in Afghanistan, and more than a passing fluency in Mandarin, Jost was getting out. To help design his own career. To find a way contribute in some unique ways—and in ways that many civilians his age were already doing.

Jost is keen to dispel the notion that he is somehow special, or that the Army owed him or his peers some special considerations. He sees himself as no more talented or skilled than a wide range of his peers. And he knows that the Army has many positions to fill—some desirable and others less so. But he remains unsettled by the indifference that both he and many of his friends now out of the Army encountered in dealing with a personnel system that lacks sufficient focus on individuals. He said that among those who have already left the Army, “I know perhaps 10 to 15 peers I felt would have made tremendous general officers. I don’t want to speak for them, but across the board there was deep-seated frustration with the bureaucracy of the assignments process, the way the Army mismanages talent.”

* * *

Katey van Dam did not want to leave the Marine Corps.

Many of her mentors tried to talk her out of it. Van Dam said that her commanding officer at The Basic School, a leader she respected deeply, “sat me down on more than one occasion and said, ‘Don’t leave the Marine Corps.’ To have somebody that I respect so much say that, it certainly made me think twice about it—probably more than twice.”

But there was simply no way for her to grow further, have diverse job experiences, and advance her education at the same time if she didn’t leave. The Marine career path for aviators was far too rigid; she would have to get back into the cockpit soon, or not be competitive for promotion.

Grad school was a distant and far from assured prospect many years down the road—and even then not until after command as a lieutenant colonel if she made it through all the wickets to get to that pinnacle. And her clock to start a family with her husband David—now a civilian—was also ticking.

By now, van Dam could see the direction her future was headed. She said, “Since I first decided I wanted to be a Marine, I wanted to be on the ground and it was limited by my sex.” She was barred from Marine ground combat positions, even as a forward air controller (FAC) supporting the infantry—a job she thought would be “the coolest thing in the world.” But her options were flying jobs alternating with staff assignments, indefinitely. “I just saw my experiences repeating themselves over the next 10, 15, 20 years. But there are lots of opportunities as a civilian to do something high speed. I wasn’t going to be able to do that in the Marine Corps. I want to do everything and couldn’t do that being a pilot.”

After months of agonizing, van Dam decided to leave the active-duty Marine Corps and pursue graduate school and seek other more flexible career options. She remains in the Marine Corps reserve—ironically, now as a civil-affairs officer rather than a pilot. It was a very tough decision. She worried about disappointing her many mentors and bosses—all men—and she knew she would no longer be a role model for younger female Marines. She said, “That’s a huge weight I have to carry getting out of the Marine Corps. That I won’t be that for somebody.” But a career as a Marine Corps pilot with so many continuing constraints was just too limiting.  

Stanching the Bleeding

Unfortunately, proving a counter-factual is impossible. There is no way to prove that the loss of the Tyler Josts and Katey van Dams of the world, or even hundreds of officers like them, will have measurable effects that may harm the military of the future. The military does not even attempt to measure the “quality”—by any definition—of those that are leaving, or have already gone. That alone should be deeply unsettling to American taxpayers who are spending substantial tax dollars to produce what is advertised rightly as “the best military in the world.” If the best military in the world doesn’t care whether it will be led by the best people in the world, something is fundamentally wrong.

For the first time in nearly five decades, the U.S. military may fundamentally alter the way it recruits, trains, and retains its talent. Getting this right may be the most important legacy not just for Carter, but for every service chief embarking on his four-year tenure. Leadership and people are the real advantages that the U.S. military will bring to the future battlefield—superior technology can be stolen or neutralized, brilliant operating concepts outflanked, and unexpected surprises at hand around every corner of the next conflict. The margin of victory for the United States will often be decided by whether it has the smartest, most capable, most dedicated people the nation has to offer on the battlefield.

The stakes here are enormous: They involve nothing less than the ability of the military to prevail in future conflicts. The military has long acknowledged that people are its most valuable resource, far more than weapons and technology. And the unpredictable and complex nature of future warfare make that truer than ever.

The stories of Jost and van Dam represent a dangerous trend for the U.S. military. It cannot afford to continue bleeding promising talent like theirs without putting its future in jeopardy.


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