The Pentagon have launched a controversial new scheme aimed at recruiting future senior military leaders from the streets of America.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter has said that he wants to open the door for more “lateral entry” into the military’s upper ranks, allowing members of the public without the usual prerequisite skills to enter the military at a senior rank.
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.
Carter acknowledged some concerns, saying it’s unlikely that lateral entry would affect the operational career fields that have little if any civilian counterpart, like the infantry, surface warfare or combat aviation. “Now, I have to say we can’t do this for every career field — far from it. It will probably never apply to line officers, as they’ll always need to begin their military careers as second lieutenants and ensigns,” he said. “But allowing the military services to commission a wider segment of specialized outside talent … will make us more effective.”
The individual military services would hammer out the details for themselves, which would involve more than just identifying the high-demand career fields and high-skilled recruits. They would have to consider how candidates for lateral entry will adapt to service-specific military life.
“There are some cultural issues,” said Brad Carson, the Pentagon’s former personnel chief who helped draw up the ambitious slate of personnel reforms. “People who come in won’t just have to have the skills. They’ll have to have a military bearing and understand the military ethic. You don’t just get that by walking in off the street.”
But what if Mark Zuckerberg, the inventor and CEO of Facebook, wanted to join the military? Carson cites this hypothetical to illustrate the rigidity of today’s personnel system.
While Zuckerberg’s skills would likely be profoundly valuable to U.S. Cyber Command, the 32-year-old computer programmer dropped out of Harvard and has no bachelor’s degree, making him ineligible for commission as an officer. A military recruiter could probably find some ways to grant him credit for the skills and experience evident in his self-made fortune — estimated to be $51 billion — but not much.
“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.”
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