Best Defense

If I could change one thing in the U.S. military personnel system (1): It is time to extend the age of military retirement

Note: This begins a new Best Defense contest! If you could change one thing in the U.S. military personnel system, what would it be? Got a good idea? Please send it to the blog e-mail address with "PERSONNEL" in subject line. By John T. Kuehn Best Defense guest columnist In the ongoing swirl of the ...

via Wyoming National Guard/flickr
via Wyoming National Guard/flickr

Note: This begins a new Best Defense contest! If you could change one thing in the U.S. military personnel system, what would it be? Got a good idea? Please send it to the blog e-mail address with "PERSONNEL" in subject line.

By John T. Kuehn

Best Defense guest columnist

In the ongoing swirl of the various debates over defense reform, which all too often look more like debates about "what do we spend our money on next?" we find one area of particular promise. This is the area of the promotion, retention, and retirement policy affecting all ranks and grades of the U.S. military. One headline proclaims, "Changes needed in Army’s ‘archaic’ retention, promotion system."

First we must understand the system in place today. Simply, service to 20 years while on active duty gets one a military pension, although at the lowest level of 50 percent of base pay (BP). Service to 30 gets one the maximum allowable by law, 75 percent of base pay. Recently I listened to retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper share his thoughts on this very issue. Van Riper advocated longer time in grade with a view toward longer terms of service, noting that when the current system was created, over 50 years ago, the average 45-50 year-old (normally male) smoked, drank, and did not eat and exercise in a manner that led to long-term health. The current system was designed because between the 20 to 30 year stretch was statistically when military personnel had been physically and emotionally "used up." However, these conditions no longer apply.

Today, folks are a lot healthier when they retire and could reasonably be expected to serve under the generally harsher circumstance of military service longer than they could in the past. The current system needs to recognize and account for the improvements in healthcare and lifestyle by those Americans who qualify for military service in its promotion and retention policies, and it should do this with meaningful policy change.

When it comes to implementation of change, I am with the incrementalists. Change tends to work better, and is easier to implement, in chunks. Create and pass legislation that "grandfathers" certain year groups (YG) — the year a person enters active military service (e.g. YG 2005 and earlier) — and then apply a system that begins with YG 2006 being eligible for retirement at the completion of 25 years, instead of 20 years, of active service. This will require a commensurate change in time in grade, a change that will modify the "up and out" paradigm that forces personnel out of the service because they fail to promote to the next rank or grade. An incremental approach here should be aligned with any retirement eligibility extension. This would impact the middle grades of officers and enlisted the most, especially E6 (e.g. staff sergeant) and O-4 for officers (majors and lieutenant commanders).

The second and "n-th" order effects will be considerable, and the assignments officers, detailers, and personnel managers at the various bureaus of personnel and human resources commands (HRC) will have to earn their pay, but they should also be in their jobs longer, which means folks currently in command will probably serve a bit longer, especially at field grades (O-4) and above. So this is the first step. I think a 25-year no-earlier-than date is probably something we should do for ten years to transition to a goal of 30 years as the minimum retirement. I am sure smart people on active duty are thinking about this, but like the end of the Cold War, they probably do not think it will happen on their watch.

My sense today is that all the reform talk simply is nibbling at the margins and calling it profound. Reform of the promotions and time in grade system is a good place to start and it might lead to bigger things. Let’s call a turkey a turkey and not an eagle. Until then we will not soar, and instead we might get our goose cooked.

John T. Kuehn is the Major General William A. Stofft chair of historical research at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College. He retired from the Navy as a commander in 2004 and earned his Ph.D. in history from Kansas State University in 2007. He is the author of Agents of Innovation (2008) and Eyewitness Pacific Theater (with D.M. Giangreco, 2008). The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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. Twitter: @tomricks1

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