- By Thomas E. RicksThomas 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 email@example.com.
You, like us, are dissatisfied with the status quo in the defense enterprise. The problems facing our Department of Defense are many: an antiquated acquisition system, sclerotic talent management system, fragile strategic planning, and shapeshifting enemies ready to strike when we least expect it. But it is no longer enough to merely name these problems so that some sage on high will solve them on our behalf. In the words of our president, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change we seek.” We invite you to join our ranks. We are a group of emerging military and civilian professionals who have dedicated ourselves to the service of our nation through reform from within.
We, too, see systemic flaws in military talent management and read with interest your letter to Best Defense. Many of us have similar stories, and even those who have succeeded within the personnel management system have seen the casualties of managing humans as undifferentiated pegs to be shoved into square holes. But while we sympathize with your frustration, we encourage you to channel it into positive action. We need brave men and women, like you, who are committed to action — not for themselves — but for something greater.
We know that we can make our military better, and that we do have agency. We challenge you to create your own agency and stand with us. There are many examples of men and women, young and old, who are already doing so.
One such group committed to action is the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum. Since its inception in 2013, the DEF members have dedicated themselves to inspiring, connecting, and empowering emerging defense leaders to have an outsized impact within the national security arena. We come from different backgrounds, but we share a deep passion for solving daunting challenges.
As an example of how a small group of dedicated people can have an outsized impact, last summer, members of the DEF D.C. community were invited by the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness to make our voices heard. The task was to develop a comprehensive plan for building a future force: overcoming the failings of a bureaucracy that seemingly only changes in miniscule increments, reforming a frozen military personnel management system, and optimizing recruitment, development, promotion, and retention.
Without some grand flag officer decree or signed charter, a small group of committed professionals gathered in a room of the Pentagon to debate, discuss, and recommend solutions. The gathered group consisted of active duty and reserve, enlisted and officers, DoD and non-DoD civilians, think tank fellows and members, other government agency emerging leaders, and design-thinking facilitators. The room was strikingly absent the uniforms, parochialism, and structure by which so many Pentagon meetings are accompanied. Replacing them were passion, energy, and yes, a whole lot of sticky notes.
For a full day, participants applied design thinking tools to develop impactful, implementable solutions to problems. We wrestled with the same issues you take on in your letter. We analyzed talent management and professional development of both military members and civilians, questioned assumptions, and developed solutions — all with the purpose of creating a system which foremost improved the combat effectiveness of our Department and, in doing so, secondarily provided for the betterment of the individual.
This group of change agents broke down the false dichotomy of the military hierarchy versus the “selfishness of the millennial generation” and changed the narrative. After just one day conferring and two weeks writing on our own time, the group produced a 70-page report on the Force of the Future: From the Future Force (F5) that can be read in its entirety here. We captured ideas that had been proposed, discussed, iterated, and improved upon by people who care for over two years. DEF provided the ready network to quickly assemble a group to meet the time-sensitive need of a senior DoD leader.
Our conclusions reflected something you already know intuitively: that by leveraging both our people and technology, our force can be managed much better. Proper talent management can develop both satisfied team members AND a more effective team. This makes us more resilient to meet the unknown threats of the future.
This report was only the first of several subsequent opportunities for DEF members to put these far-reaching, yet well-considered recommendations directly into the hands of senior leaders. Just as important, it validated what a small group of committed individuals can do when empowered.
We feel your frustration. But ultimately, we shouldn’t forget why we joined the service; for the greater good of our nation, not for ourselves.
So, Lt. Kiriluk, we exhort you to use your Harvard education and leadership skills to make a difference for yourself, your team, and your service. Whether you do so within the Navy or through organizations like DEF, channel your frustration into change that is meaningful to you and the emerging leaders that only you can lift up in your wake.
Our problems are bigger than any single person or anecdote can ever describe. We have chosen to manifest our national service by becoming the change agents that will leave this hallowed institution in better condition than when we found it. Stand with us.
CPT Jim Perkins, USA
Capt Chris Wood, USMC
Maj Miriam Krieger, USAF
Maj Kevin Kenney, USAFR
LT Roger Misso, USN
LT Chris O’Keefe, USN
The authors are involved in the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum and other ongoing efforts to improve warfighting and policy across the Department of Defense. This letter reflects their personal views, which are not necessarily those of the U.S. Army, the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy, nor the Department of Defense.
Photo credit: THOMAS DUVAL/U.S. Department of Defense