Best Defense

A guidebook for managing military talent

At any mention of personnel reform, most defense wonks and service members will either jump on their soapboxes for a sermon or run for the hills as fast as their legs will carry them.

Fire jump


By Sebastian J. Bae
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted

At any mention of personnel reform, most defense wonks and service members will either jump on their soapboxes for a sermon or run for the hills as fast as their legs will carry them. Both reactions are completely understandable; reforming talent management within the colossal machinery of the military is no small order. The hyper-centralized and rigid nature of the Pentagon inherently resists change. So, unsurprisingly, recent attempts in changing how the military manages talent have all failed in spectacular fashion. And for this reason alone, anyone working in the defense sector should read Tim Kane’s Total Volunteer Force.

The fact that the military struggles to nurture and retain talent is no secret. In “Can the U.S. Military Halt Its Brain Drain?”, Lt. Gen. David Barno and Nora Bensahel paint a near-doomsday depiction where young, talented officers are crushed by a blind, uncaring military bureaucracy. In his earlier book, Bleeding Talent, Kane similarly argued that the current post-industrial military structure stifles and mishandles talent, often resulting in the departure of talented service members.

So how do you fix this unruly mess?

In Total Volunteer Force, Kane provides twenty specific recommendations, which include peer evaluations, eliminating the “up or out” promotion system, altering the pay formula to match responsibilities instead of tenure and rank, and allowing veterans and reservists to apply for active duty positions. Several of his recommendations have been advocated previously, while others are more radical (at least from a military perspective). There’s no doubt these recommendations will incite both accolades and scorn throughout the defense enterprise.

But the most intriguing and critical element of Kane’s Total Volunteer Force model lies in its empowerment of commanders in selecting individuals for their respective units. Currently, each service directs personnel assignments through a centralized command. The opaque process is seemingly arbitrary and terrible at effectively matching individuals with posts that maximize their utility. Anyone who has served has suffered at least once from this capacious process, which is thinly defended by “service needs.” Yet in Kane’s scheme, the bulk of assignments would involve a three-step process (illustrated below by the author). Individuals would apply to eligible positions through an online talent management system. Then personnel commands would screen and narrow down eligible candidates to a short list of three or more. From this list, a commander can select the best candidate for his or her unit. The scheme is a grand compromise of individual choice, unit prerogative, and centralized planning.


As a former Marine and fellow defense wonk, I doubt the Pentagon can muster the long-term leadership and political capital to successfully implement the Total Volunteer Force model. The disappointing progress of Force of the Future has only reinforced my skepticism. Furthermore, the Total Volunteer Force model does not address the growing civilian and contractor labor force within the military. Additionally, the empowerment of commanders allocating assignments carries the risk of promoting the old boys club of yore and systematic nepotism.

Nevertheless, Kane provides the best roadmap to solving the miserable talent management within the military I’ve seen in years. If the military can implement even half of Total Volunteer Force‘s recommendations, the Pentagon will undoubtedly be closer to becoming the military required for tomorrow’s conflicts.

Sebastian J. Bae served six years in the Marine Corps infantry, leaving as a sergeant. He deployed to Iraq in 2009. He received his Masters at Georgetown University’s security studies program, specializing in violent nonstate actors and humanitarian interventions. He holds the Marine co-chair on Best Defense’s Council of Former Enlisted.

Photo credit: Department of Defense. Figure: Hoover Institution

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola