Is Ash Carter’s Force of the Future Plan a Good One?

Defense Secretary Ash Carter is trying to resurrect his “Force of the Future” plan, which would mark a huge change in the way the US military recruits and retains its personnel. Congress doesn’t seem too happy about it – Senator and veteran John McCain called it “an outrageous waste of official time and resources” – and there are certainly some aspects of it that are far from ideal. One of Carter’s aims is to make the military “more business-like,” a goal that sounds very familiar to me; an expensive consultation tried to do the same to the British military during the 1990s.

The problem is that the military isn’t a business. Lots of things that are good practice in the commercial world are either pointless or actively dangerous in the military one. Take overmanning, for example. In a business that’s bad, because it’s just inefficiently wasting resources. In the military it’s essential because, if you’re already operating a lean manning structure with no slack, what are you going to do when people start becoming casualties? The UK’s review decided that having six NCO ranks was unnecessary, and three (Corporal, Sergeant and Warrant Officer) would do. It had to be explained that this just wouldn’t work, because you’d end up with people at the same rank when one was in command of the other – for example, under the proposal, both NCOs in an infantry section would have been corporals. Then there’s just-in-time procurement. That’s great in manufacturing, because it cuts down on storage costs and ensures you don’t get left with a shed full of obsolete components, but militarily it’s a disaster. One glitch and suddenly your expeditionary force is stuck somewhere with no ammo and their vehicles breaking down.

Sec Ash CarterThere’s one aspect of Carter’s reform that might be worth a closer look though. He’d like to see an end to the controversial “Up or Out” promotion system. Aimed at avoiding blockages in the career ladder, this mandates that any officer who’s passed over for promotion twice will be discharged from the military. There’s logic behind it; nothing’s more frustrating for a captain than to be stuck in his or her present rank because all the major’s slots are filled with people who’ve reached the limit of their abilities and aren’t going anywhere. That’s an age-old problem for many organizations – but it’s not clear that Up or Out is the best way to solve it. Retaining good people is always a challenge, and even in an age of shrinking force structures it remains one. When an army cuts its numbers, it’s usually not the worst people who volunteer to leave. They’re happy to stay where they are, enjoying the security of a job they know – but talented and ambitious ones often seize the chance to try something new.

Meanwhile, Up or Out takes an annual toll on majors who might not have what it takes to be a half colonel, but can do a major’s job very well indeed. There needs to be some way to make sure they’re not blocking the way for younger officers, but is getting rid of them actually a good idea? I don’t think so. An army needs its talented superstars, but it also needs the less brightly shining lights that are happy at their current rank and form a huge reservoir of knowledge and hard-won experience. If Ash Carter has a way to keep them in uniform, it’s certainly worth listening to.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Fergus Mason

Fergus Mason grew up in the west of Scotland. After attending university he spent 14 years in the British Army and served in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Iraq. Afterwards, he went to Afghanistan as a contractor, where he worked in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Camp Leatherneck. He now writes on a variety of topics including current affairs and military matters.
Fergus Mason

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