Friday, June 03, 2005

Recruiting and Retention

Congress recently passed an $82 billion supplemental budget to finance the continued fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the world. The U.S. military and its supporting contractors are making technological advances in weaponry, transportation and communication at a rate rarely seen in history. Support for the military among the general public, despite a divided view of the war in Iraq, is arguably stronger than at any time in the last half century. The average U.S. soldier is more adequately armed and protected than perhaps any warfighter in history. But the largest problem facing the United States military today trumps the long list of positives.

Recruiting is at a virtual standstill and retention rates among active duty soldiers are falling tremendously. They have the money, they have the support, but they don't have the manpower. Outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Richard Myers, recently testified to Congress that the current deployment of soldiers to Iraq and elsewhere could potentially limit the effectiveness of the U.S. military in future confrontations. Despite his assertion that we would eventually be victorious in any potential war, a total vote of confidence this is not.

It would be reactionary to claim that the military (particularly the Army and Marine Corps) is in crisis mode, but it is obvious to the most casual observer that a some new ideas to reverse the trend in recruiting and retention need to be proffered.

A number of factors are at play in the recruiting dropoff. Resistance from parents, a strengthening economy and the potential of serving in a combat zone have all contributed to the dismal statistics. Meanwhile, as the Wall Street Journal reports, standards for new enlistees and current servicemen have been lowered in order to increase the raw number of personnel. This is a practice that Phil Carter and Owen West over at Slate rightly see as a counterproductive solution.

(T)hese are not soldiers who field commanders want to retain. One lieutenant colonel currently commanding a civil-affairs battalion said these troops were the ones "who eat up my time and cause my hair to gray prematurely." A former infantry officer said he could "not recall a single soldier chaptered for the reasons identified ... that I would have wanted to deploy with."

This new retention directive represents a regression by the Army, from the vaunted all-volunteer force of today back in the direction of the all-volunteer force of the 1970s, when drug use, race riots, and AWOL incidents were common among all services. The Marine Corps Historical Branch traces its own severe spiral to "the end of the draft and the pressure of keeping up the size of the Marine Corps. In the process, a number of society's misfits had been recruited." By 1975, the corps had so decayed that newly appointed Commandant Lewis Wilson sought permission from Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger to implement a radical personnel proposal: Push the authority to discharge unworthy Marines down to the battalion level. Under the "expeditious discharge program," commanders quickly cut 6,000 undesirables, sending a message that reverberated throughout the military, paving the way for the subsequent military performance surge credited to President Reagan.
Now the Army intends to reverse the policy, implying that battalion commanders are not able to weigh the needs of the total force against those of their units. By the time a soldier reaches the discharge point, the officers above him have already invested a great deal of rehabilitative effort. Forcing units to keep these troops—and indeed, to take them to war—puts a very heavy rock in the rucksack of any field commander who must now balance managing these subpar performers with his mission and the needs of his unit.
It may seem counterintuitive, but perhaps a raise in standards would be positively reflected in recruiting numbers. At the very least this practice would increase the productivity and effectiveness among current forces. It is essential for the military to set its sites on increased retention rates, particularly among the officer and specialized forces ranks.

The Pentagon must stop the proliferation of its private army. Today there are as many as 30,000 private military contractors serving in traditional military billets. They are paid up to five times as much as soldiers performing the same duties. Encouraging the privatization of soldiers when there is a severe shortage of riflemen is circular reasoning. While the Army and Marines struggle to increase their infantry ranks, the DoD is paying private companies lucrative contracts to act as personnel brokers. Where do these firms find the recruits? The military. So the government is paying hefty finders' fees to locate quality soldiers it recruited in the first place. Far from being castoffs, they are among America's best, mostly senior soldiers lured by pay and flexibility. They belong in the ranks of the Army and the USMC, not the NYSE.
This is the most striking argument of all. As a government contractor with the military, I can attest to the accuracy of these statements. It is common for highly ranked and capable servicemen to retire from the military in favor of a contracting job. There is no feasible reason that the Army or Marine Corps could not match those offers by scaling back the amount of work done by private firms.

There are several broad-based campaigns being implemented to drive up numbers among enlisted soldiers, including a sped-up naturalization process and targeting niche audiences. While the Defense Department would be remiss to minimize the recruiting struggles as they stand, the first reaction should be to hang on to the best soldiers that are already serving. Increased retention could solve dual purposes. Indeed, what greater incentive for a potential recruit than a service that expects the best, provides the best and does the most to hang onto its current people?



Anonymous Anonymous said...

While increasing the level of direct salary given to officers (or the military in general, as you suggest) would they have a commensurate drop in benefits to match those of the private sector as well? Would housing allowances disappear? How about the nice health care for families? I am sure the government could up salaries if they got rid of the very generous pension after 20 years. How would that go over? (For an hint, see recent article on economic reform in France and Germany.)

Another issue is the "pyramid" of power that makes up the military and the private sector. Only a handful of LtCols (LTCs, Lt Cols) make it to Col--and then only a few get their star...and so on. Once they move to retirement, the only place for them to go that matches their skils and their pay is the private sector, where they can be highly paid consultants to projects. Or they can be business development folks who use their contacts to build business. The military does not have a rank of "consultant" so it is either up or out.

3:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found this post to be too long. Will you two ever get tired of hearing your own voices (or keystrokes)?

5:54 PM  

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