An Air Force officer: The military doesn’t want to retain talent (or at least that’s the perception)

An Air Force officer: The military doesn’t want to retain talent (or at least that’s the perception)

In January, I wrote a column wondering whether the military will nurture creative, talented thinkers:

I’d like to believe that the military is not only a learning organization but an idea-generating organization, fertile ground for hundreds more Petraeuses. I’d like to believe that the intellectual ferment that characterized the COIN community was not a once-in-a-generation phenomenon. I’d like to believe that there are people in the military community who don’t mind being controversial and don’t mind being wrong — sometimes it’s the big but flawed ideas that spark the most useful debates — and I’d like to believe the military will nurture and reward those people, not push them ignominiously out."

I asked readers to email me with their comments. Here’s one, from a disillusioned young Air Force officer:

Let’s go ahead and admit it. The military stifles talent — in fact, it seems almost designed to drive out talent. No rational actor would choose to play this game. Before you label me as bitter or disloyal, consider the following flaws endemic to our system. What I offer are the perceptions that junior officers have of the bureaucracy they’re trying to navigate. Put yourself in their shoes. Ask yourself what your chances of staying in would be, once your four-to-five-year commitment was up. Caveat emptor: These are the observations of a top performing mid-career Air Force officer across four bases, five skill communities, and ten years, based on the beliefs observed among the company grade officers around him.

– The promotion system offers no opportunity to excel or advance. As an officer, the first truly competitive promotion (where you can get promoted ahead of your peer group) is at your 15th year. Fifteen years. Before that you can only disqualify yourself; you can miss a critical gate and fall behind the rest of your peer group.

– The retirement system discourages risk taking. It’s an all-or-nothing, up-or-out system. If you fall behind your peer group, you will get passed over for promotion. Getting passed over makes it nearly impossible to remain in the force long enough to draw retirement. Retirement is only paid upon reaching 20 years; if you serve fewer than 20, you get nothing. Risks can only hurt you.

– The assignment system directs assignments based on the need for an officer of a particular career code (i.e., "Security Forces") and rank (i.e., "Major") in a location. It makes no attempt to catalog their skills, intentionally develop them, or track officers towards experiences they will need for higher command. Most officers don’t even talk to their assignment team before being handed an assignment. Refusing any assignment means you must resign within seven days.

– Deployments, remote tours, hardship tours, and thankless staff jobs are frequently cited as ways to "pull ahead" of the pack. Successful senior leaders emphasize their divorces and flaunt how many years they’ve been away from their families. Rewards appear to be aligned with willingness to sacrifice work/life balance; no rational organization defines success by how much they can give up.

– Officer performance management offers no transparency; officers are not given real, honest, or timely feedback. Only the top 25% are ever quantified and stratified ("My #1 of 25 Captains!") in performance reports. The rest are left to assume they’re doing ok; that they’re somewhere just below that top 25%. Lacking stratification, reports are written as if each officer is fantastic. Grade inflation leads to ego inflation which encourages both complacency and mediocrity.

– Officer performance reports offer no objective measures of success or mission accomplishment. Absent objective measures, officers are left with subjective measures — specifically, how much their bosses like them compared to their peers. When promotion and stratification depend on your boss’ regard for you, a system creates perverse incentives toward politicking, backstabbing, and whitewashing your record. This system should naturally select towards the selfish and power-hungry.

– Promotion boards appear arbitrary and capricious. The Air Force freely admits that each officer’s paper records get fewer than 30 seconds of review when being scored for promotion. Given the lack of stratification on most officers’ records and the grade inflation for lack of objective criteria, most officers can only guess at what might be missing. The board presents no feedback to the officers being considered for promotion.

– The career field structure creates sub-competitions which do not select the best available talent for senior leadership. Some career fields top out at Major, meaning those career fields are effectively ineligible for senior leadership. Others are disproportionately selected because of cultural bias (e.g., fighter pilots) despite being relatively less equipped to manage large organizations. Note that your career field is selected for you, after you’ve agreed to commission, and is exceptionally difficult to change.

– Promotion is a one-way street — officers cannot be demoted and then promoted again — so one mistake (sometimes one bad performance report) can be a career killer. Negative feedback will only occur when someone is already on the way out — this pattern encourages passive aggressive leadership. Officers will not be afforded a chance to learn from their mistakes or grow.

– There are no established success criteria for reaching senior leadership; officers are left to infer the right career path from anecdotes, most of which are not positive. Since generals are most exposed to promising and like-minded colonels within their career field, the flag officer ranks appear to be primarily driven by nepotism and politics.

– The decision structure is exceptionally vertical, resulting in a top-down economy of ideas even though the information resides at the bottom. Important decisions must go through multiple levels of commanders, each time being "fixed" by officers with less knowledge of the problem. Much of an officer’s time (and career) are spent simplifying complex problems to be presented to a flag officer who has very little time to understand them. New ideas and initiatives are generally unwelcome, and especially from the junior ranks.

Why would a bright and enterprising young officer want to compete in this Air Force? Is there a sense of efficacy? Can they expect to manage their growth, develop their skills, or guide their own career? What young strategic thinker would choose this life? What senior leader would design this system?

The key issues in retaining top talent, at least for the Air Force, revolve around transparency, efficacy, and the incentive structure. Most of these rules are self-imposed. This is the culture we’ve ossified into. If we want to keep our top talent as we downsize and pivot to newer and more complex warfighting domains (e.g., drones, cyber) we have to fix this now.