Best Defense

Essay contest (3): To bring the military into the Information Age, get and keep the right people — often as couples

The digital revolution ended the industrial age and brought with it a wave of changes to the government, military, and common people alike, in ways that are still developing and difficult to understand.

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By Lt. James Schmitt, USAF
Best Defense contest entrant

The digital revolution ended the industrial age and brought with it a wave of changes to the government, military, and common people alike, in ways that are still developing and difficult to understand. One clear trend for the U.S. military is the universal shrinking of forces, despite an ever-increasing operational tempo. Inventories of ships, aircraft, and troops have all been replaced by smaller, more elite forces. At the core of this revolution is the need for more specialized and highly trained personnel than ever before. If the military has one change to make to adjust to the information age, it must adjust its personnel system. One less obvious way to do so is by taking a look at how the military treats active-duty spouses.

The problem of adjusting military personnel to the information age is best handled by those that were raised in it; junior officers recruited from tech-savvy backgrounds. The military is having the most trouble retaining this exact group. From 2003 to 2007, the rate of junior officers with four to nine years of experience separating increased by over 50 percent and Army leadership noted that those leaving were disproportionately “high-performance, high-potential leaders”. The Navy is experiencing similar problems; less than 36 percent of eligible aviation officers are staying in the service after their minimum commitments. At a time that the military needs to attract and retain more young, tech-savvy young officers than ever it’s losing them at record rates.

There are many reasons why the military is struggling to retain quality officers, but one of them is the need to balance their careers with those of their spouses. There are countless anecdotal stories of junior officers leaving the service in order to allow both spouses to pursue a career, many of which I and other young officers could tell. It’s certainly understandable why there is tension between active duty members and their spouses — over 90 percent of military wives (husbands weren’t surveyed) are underemployed. At the same time, women make up a majority of college graduates, and the gap between them and men is growing. The military personnel system, built in the industrial age, requires frequent moves that prevent spousal careers; 79 percent of military wives reported that they had moved across state lines in the last five years, and 50 percent reported that they had moved twice in the same time. The only mitigation that the military offers is education and training programs that make spouses’ careers more flexible, but limited to certain career fields.

The way forward is in expanding another military program, “Join Spouse.” This program gives married couples a better chance of being stationed at the same base, but is limited to spouses that are both active-duty. Not only should this program be expanded to an intra-service program (versions of it are limited to each of the sister services), it should be expanded to cover the federal government. A federal join spouse program would allow military spouses to establish themselves in a career that can be both relevant to their studies and fulfilling, given the breadth of the federal government. Further, it would by its nature be well-targeted to the information age generation; so-called millennials are interested but underrepresented in the federal government. Millennials are also likely to find civil service to be an appealing career, as they disproportionally value giving back to their community. But more than the practical benefits, opening cross-agency join spouse gives active-duty military members and their military spouses a path forward and hope for being stationed together. The idea of living in perpetual long-distance relationship or restarting a career over and over for 20 years is enough to drive many away from military service altogether, let alone staying in.

Interagency joint spouse would not be a program that would instantly fix the retention of junior officers, nor singlehandedly bring the military into the information age. But as a first step, it would acknowledge a small part of what is changing about the people that the military is relying on to run the ever more complex, ever more knowledge-intesive instruments of national defense. This program would allow for an introduction and a reexamination of a military personnel system built in the industrial age, which is the real key for building a new, more effective, information age military.

James Schmitt is an active-duty pilot in the United States Air Force with over 1,500 combat support hours. He graduated from American University’s School of International Service in 2012.

Photo credit: U.S. Army/Flickr

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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