Senate committee proposes biggest change to military personnel in nearly 30 years

The Senate 2019 defense authorization bill gives the services more flexibility in promoting officers.

The Senate Armed Services Committee is making some of the biggest changes to the military personnel system since the early 1980s in the 2019 defense authorization bill.

The bill, which was passed by the committee on May 24, completely revamps the role of the undersecretary of personnel and readiness, a position that has been plagued by high turnover rates and frequent vacancies over the past decade.

If passed, the bill would split the responsibilities between readiness and personnel. There would be an undersecretary of defense for personnel who acts purely as a chief human capital officer.

The readiness responsibilities would be delegated throughout a few assistant secretaries.

While rearranging the deck chairs isn’t too new to the Defense Department, the changes to the actual promotion and up or out system, which forces service members to promote in a certain time or leave the military.

The bill pushes more promotion decisions down to the services to create alternative paths and timelines for officers to move up in the ranks.

“Our approach to [the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA)] was granting the service secretaries more flexibility to the service secretaries to shape their promotion timeline in a way that’s most effective for their service. The committee didn’t feel that the Air Force promotion system didn’t necessarily need to resemble the Marine Corps promotion system,” a Senate Armed Services Committee staffer said on background May 25.

The bill also gives services the ability to change the promotion timeline for certain occupations.

This is something the Air Force is particularly interested in for pilots. As the service is struggling to keep pilots in the service, it found many pilots are not interested in the up-or-out system. They would rather just fly and not worry about meeting goals to become a general one day.

The Senate Committee also wants to expand officer spot promotions up to the colonel level. This would allow the service to give a lower ranking officer a higher rank on-the-spot if he or she takes a high demand or challenging job.

Finally, the bill repeals age restrictions on how old someone must be to reach a certain rank.

The changes come as somewhat of a surprise considering the House did not touch DOPMA reform at all in its version of the bill.

The House Armed Services Committee said it was waiting for the Defense Department’s report on DOPMA, which is currently behind schedule.

A Senate Armed Services Committee aide said many of the reforms in the bill are issues DoD wanted to address.

DoD and Congress already made some changes to DOPMA in order to retain talent and to recruit people in needed areas.

DoD already implemented a direct commissioning program for cyber professionals and the House version of the bill expands that authority to other occupations.

In the past DoD suggested allowing officers to opt-out of promotion board consideration upon request if it is deemed beneficial to the military. The Senate bill would most likely let the services use an authority similar to that.

The idea is something brought up in the past by former Defense Secretary Ash Carter as part of the Force of the Future initiative, which expanded maternity leave for service members and lengthened child care hours, among other things.

“In an effort to import talent development and management within the department, this proposal will ensure that officers, with the approval of the secretary concerned, are given the flexibility to explore educational and other career broadening opportunities, without being penalized for not meeting the promotion eligibility criteria in the usual time allotted,” the proposal stated.

Former Army Secretary and Force of the Future architect Brad Carson praised Mattis’ decision to rehash the promotion board issue.

“The proposed reforms are ones we did recommend as part of the Force of the Future and we thought were very common sense, but were somewhat controversial and it’s great to see DoD coming around to support them,” Carson said.

The “up or out” mentality hasn’t always worked to the benefit of talented officers. Officers who take unusual career paths or pursue experiences tend to be forced out of the military, despite being exactly the kind of innovative thinkers the 21st century military is trying to recruit.

Promotion boards, at times, will end up picking someone with operation experience in Iraq over a Rhodes Scholar. That ends up going counter to DoD’s policy decisions to prepare for future conflicts in new domains against more sophisticated adversaries.

“Mattis is forward thinking in every way and so I’m not surprised he’s interested in it. It’s heartening to see their interest because of how important it is,” Carson said.

Center for a New American Security Research Associate Lauren Fish said the proposal is a great way to keep talent in the ranks.

“By allowing officers to extend their time in grade without penalty, more officers would be interested in career-broadening assignments or educational opportunities without the concern that they will be foregoing valuable time to “check the boxes” that they need to for promotion. This reform would be a great first step toward increasing the flexibility in human capital management to both create more well-rounded officers with broad experience, as well as institute policies more consistent with civilian employment where getting new experiences or education increase your saliency for promotion, rather hurt your chances of promotion tied to stringent timelines,” Fish told Federal News Radio.

Read more of the DoD Personnel Notebook.

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