Pentagon likely to request reforms to two major personnel laws

Within the next year, the Defense Department is likely to propose significant changes to the 1980 Defense Officer Personnel Management Act and the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, two laws that have formed the underpinnings of the personnel system for the military’s officer corps for the last 30 years.

The drive for statutory changes is coming now because it dovetails with Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s “Force of the Future” initiative to update the Pentagon’s personnel practices, but also because DoD wants to stay ahead of Congress, which intends to examine the same laws in great detail over the coming year. The two acts govern everything from how and when officers are promoted to the types of assignments they must perform throughout their careers. Many observers believe both are overdue for updates because of their inflexibility.

In the case of DOPMA, an internal DoD working group made up of leaders from all of the military services has been exploring potential changes since the spring and is ready to send its recommendations to  Carter.

As to the much broader Goldwater-Nichols Act, a separate working group is expected to start its deliberations within the next few days.

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“There are a host of things on the table for review,” said Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook. “The Secretary is getting input from the services, from the service secretaries, from people outside the building  who have experience in these matters. He’s looking to have some recommendations to move forward by early next year.  I know Congress is looking at some of these issues as well, but he wants to take a hard look at how things are structured right now and whether things could be done differently while keeping with the spirit of Goldwater-Nichols.”

At the time of its passage, Goldwater-Nichols was the most sweeping organizational reform in the Pentagon’s history, redefining the roles of the military service chiefs and combatant commands, making major changes to the acquisition system and requiring officers to service in joint duty assignments as a prerequisite for promotion because of worries that the military services had become so parochial and insular that they couldn’t conduct military operations as a single, joint force.

“There’s a lot of goodness in Goldwater-Nichols, but you could argue that certain aspects of it have let us drift into a place the law never intended,”  Vice Adm. Bill Moran, the chief of Naval personnel, told a gathering at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Wednesday in Washington. “We need to challenge ourselves. For example, there’s a theory that our combatant command (COCOM) staffs have grown because of the need to support joint duty assignments. I’m not sure that’s true, but we need to get all the services together, get the data, get at the truth and decide what adjustments we need to make.”

McCain wants to reduce layers of officers

One version of that theory holds that the large overhead costs incurred by COCOMs and other multi-service DoD organizations comes from a large number of permanent military billets whose main purpose is to serve as staff jobs for service members who must check the “joint” box on their military resumes in order to earn their next promotion — not because the positions are needed to support actual military operations.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee who has promised a wholesale reexamination of Goldwater-Nichols in the coming year, seems persuaded by that theory.

“Things have changed over the last 30 years. Now, when we have a crisis somewhere around the world, it’s addressed by a single-purpose joint task force, not the COCOM,” McCain said Tuesday at a U.S. Naval Institute forum in Washington. “Meanwhile, we have layer-upon-layer of  staffs that have grown and grown and grown while our combat capabilities have declined. We have something like 40 admirals and generals working in the office of the secretary of Defense. That’s remarkable. We’re going to look at the whole spectrum. In Goldwater-Nichols, we put a cap on the number of military officers, and we’re going to put a cap on the number of civilians in all of these organizations. We’re going to do a lot of things that will not be popular in institutions that enjoy business as usual.”

From DoD’s perspective, Moran said another reason to revisit Goldwater-Nichols has to do with the increasing specialization of many of the military’s career fields over the last three decades. In some cases, a rigid requirement that members of one service spend a tour with members from his or her sister services might not make sense.

“The specialty career paths we have now are a good way to employ really talented people who want to stay in the military but don’t otherwise have a path to stay, and jointness might not have anything to do with those positions,” he said. “That’s one of the things we need to take a hard look at.”

With regard to the separate DoD panel that’s just finished examining the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act, Moran said the Navy has endorsed its recommendations.

Since Carter has not made a final decision on any proposed legislation, he declined to discuss the specific conclusions, but Moran has previously expressed some concerns with aspects of the “up-or-out” personnel system established by the law, which requires officers to make their next promotion according to rigid timelines or else be kicked out of the service.

Military conveyor belt

While that rule might make sense for certain physically-demanding combat positions, many Defense experts believe that in at least some cases,  it forces the military to fire some of its best people even while they’re earning top-notch performance evaluations, simply because there are no spots available for them at the next pay grade.

“DOPMA gives us a one-size-fits-all personnel system for officers,” said Bernard Rostker, a senior fellow at the RAND Corporation and a former undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness. “To me, that makes no sense. I am certain that our specialty corps such as intelligence, medical, chaplain, acquisition, and many more — including in the future, cyber — do not need to adhere to the standard DOPMA structure of promotion timing, opportunity and tenure, which reflects our thinking about youth and vigor in the 1940s.”

Rostker emphasized that in his view,  for the vast majority of military occupations, up-or-out is a feature, not a bug, because it promotes a constant circulation of new people and provides them with promotion opportunities.

But at the top-end of the military’s career ladder, it also forces most general and flag officers to take their expensive government-funded education and training to the private sector just because they’ve run to the end of what is —  at best —  a 30-year career conveyor belt.

“We have a systematic expulsion of talented officers who, regardless of experience and skills, are forced out at 30 years of service,” he said. “We also have a lot of those who leave a lot earlier than 30 years because they know they’ll eventually be forced out. I can remember a young JAG officer who came to me at 20 years of service with a wonderful  career. He really wanted to stay in the Navy, but I told him, ‘We cannot offer you more than the possibility of 10 more years of service. And then you’ll not be in your early 40s, you’ll be in your 50s.’ At that point, there are only two admiral positions, and you can’t take that to the bank, so I had to counsel him to leave for the private sector. He would not have left if he saw the full career that he could have aspired to, even if he did not make flag.”

Speaking broadly about the DOPMA reform recommendations the working group will soon send to Carter’s desk, Moran said they would give the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force more discretion in the up-or-out military promotion regime.

“A good example of that is at the major or lieutenant commander level. Our promotion boards basically get two looks at you to promote you to those ranks, and then you’re out,” Moran said. “In my view, that’s the most important promotion board we do on a statutory basis, because it culls the herd very early in peoples’ careers. I think we’re missing people who’ve been victims of timing and other factors that they couldn’t control.”

He said the working group had asked Carter to recommend a replacement of that scheme with a more flexible “high-year tenure” process that gives the military services more discretion to keep personnel in their current pay grades for a longer period than allowed by DOPMA’s statutory timelines.

“We already do that for our O-5s and O-6s, but not for O-4s,” he said. “I want to make sure we’re giving every possible look at the talent at that level to make sure we’re keeping our best people. We have had trouble doing that in years past.”