Best Defense

Essay contest (15): We’ve lost the first wars of the Information Age, so it is time to revamp the military personnel system

The first steps the military should take to succeed in the information age include retooling an antiquated industrial-era personnel system.



By Capt. Caleb Cienski, USAF
Best Defense essay contest entrant

The first steps the military should take to succeed in the information age include retooling an antiquated industrial-era personnel system.

It is people who make the difference between good and great organizations. Future militaries will be defined less by the number of soldiers and the amount of firepower they wield than by the type of people and the creativity they possess. The military of the future will succeed or fail based on the quality and creativity of its people to tackle never-before-seen problems. It must recruit, develop, and retain the best people to face the complex threats of this century.

The military recruits well and the greatest aspect of my job is that I get to work each day with other individuals who are intelligent, motivated, and driven. However, the military continues to be disproportionately white and male, which makes me think that we are probably failing to tap into some incredible talent. The military of the information age will be more diverse, which will bring more perspectives and more capabilities into the force. Some recruitment related questions include:

  1. How can the military reach minority groups who are underrepresented in its current force? Is it possible to develop programs to inspire children who do not know that the incredible careers in the military are options for them?
  2. Does the rise of remote warfare (Cyber, RPA) require all military members to be deployable? Are such requirements outdated?  Do they prevent the military from recruiting the best talent?
  3. Can the military continue and build on the SECDEF’s initiative to reach out to Silicon Valley? Can the military prove a viable option for young tech-savvy millennials looking to make a difference?
  4. Are there career fields (besides medical and legal) that could benefit by bringing in expertise from the civilian world? Do all careers in the military have to start at the same point?

The military of the future must capitalize on opportunities to develop its force. To develop the agile thinkers demanded by the information age, PME must become a place where creative thinking is protected by academic freedom. It should be the place where each service takes the gloves off to examine past failures, avoid future pitfalls, and makes the nation better as a result.  Some development related questions include:

  1. Should the military dictate what advanced degrees its people pursue?  Does the type of degree matter as much as the fact that the individual has a degree?
  2. How can the military cultivate a culture where dissent is encouraged, in certain settings, and where individuals are able to disagree with the conventional wisdom of the age?
  3. Is it possible to have essays such as these presented via military channels instead of relying on external discussion and debate?

Finally, once the military has found and developed its people, how does the military keep them around? There are incentives beyond cold, hard cash that help them retain talent. Incentive pay and bonuses can help, but they are usually not what keeps people in the military. Some retention related questions include:

  1. How and when will the military update/replace its industrial era personnel system? Is there any viable alternative to the “up-or-out” mentality? Is DOPMA helping or hindering the military’s attempts to improve?
  2. What other ways could the military incentivize its best people to stay? Assignment options? Education opportunities?
  3. Will similar programs to the USAF’s Career Intermission Program (a three year sabbatical) be a viable option for both developing and retaining creative thinkers?
  4. Is it absolutely essential to military operations to move every member of the military about every three years or so? Are there more ways to allow more freedom of choice for individuals when it comes to assignments?
  5. What more can the military do to provide for families? Can it provide more options to help working mothers? How can the military help the 90 percent of military spouses who are underemployed or unemployed?

The United States has arguably lost the first wars of the information age. Ideas power global terrorism and fuel insurgencies.  Despite unparalleled defense spending, the US has not been able to win the war of ideas. It must recruit, develop, and retain creative thinkers who innovate rather than conform to succeed in the information age. Ultimately, the US military must chose between growing a bureaucracy and reinventing itself to face future challenges. Let’s hope they chose wisely.

Capt Caleb Cienski, an F-16 pilot, is an instructor in a front-line USAF fighter squadron. He has served in Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific.  He holds a graduate degree in International Relations from the University of Oklahoma. This essay represents his personal opinions, which are not necessarily those of his squadron, the U.S. Air Force, or the Department of Defense. 

Image credi: U.S. Office of Personnel Management/Wikimedia Commons

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 @tomricks1
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