Document created: 26 April 2007
Air & S pace Power Journal-Spring 2008
Filling the Ranks: Transforming the U.S. Military Personnel System, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs (BCSI) Studies in International Security, edited by Cindy Williams. MIT Press (http://www-mitpress.mit.edu), 55 Hayward Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02142-1493, 2004, 376 pages, $50.00 (hardcover), $25.00 (softcover).
Normally, one does not expect too much from an anthology made up of chapters written by various authors. Usually, the quality varies from chapter to chapter, and the resultant book often lacks cohesion around any central themes. Filling the Ranks is the exception that proves the rule. From cover to cover, it is well written and edited; the various authors are first-rate experts; and the book coheres around the theme of how the United States might convert its Cold War military personnel system to one more suitable and affordable for the new century.
There is little doubt that the system needs an overhaul and even less doubt that the task is a difficult one. Motivators are different; the required talents are often quite different. The other superpower is gone. Another peer competitor is not on the horizon. US armed forces are no longer forward deployed, for the most part. Rather, they have become more expeditionary in nature. The draft is gone, and the supply of high-quality males is limited. Women are increasingly a major factor and now are a growing element in the combat forces of the Air Force and Navy. Forces are older, and more of them are married. Requirements for technologically capable people have continued to grow in a steady, upward curve. Potential adversaries include not only the states of old but also all sorts of nongovernmental organizations posing a wide variety of threats at all points of the compass. It seems that quality has become relatively more important than quantity. Yet, the Cold War personnel system goes on with its associated obligations that make it an increasingly expensive consideration—but it is supported by a host of groups reluctant to accept radical change.
The distinguished contributors to Filling the Ranks include Owen R. Coté Jr., Aline O. Quester, Stephen Peter Rosen, Bernard Rostker, Elizabeth A. Stanley-Mitchell, and others. Most of them are from leading research institutes, Ivy League schools, or government. Prominent among them are people from the Center for Naval Analyses.
One of the best essays, by Coté, predicts the kind of operational and technical world we will face as the century goes on. He estimates that the disappearance of the Cold World and the conventional military hegemony of the United States will increasingly lead to conflicts that avoid American strength. The conflicts will be more varied and harder to define, which in turn will require decentralization of both the operational and acquisition worlds. That means recruiting not only junior officers and enlisted personnel with a wider set of capabilities than those of the past, but also those willing and able to assume greater decision responsibilities. One implication of that requirement is the need to decrease costs through more-flexible pay systems since the United States can no longer afford to pay people in unskilled fields at the same rate required to attract and hold individuals with technological and operational skills of a higher order.
The chapter by Rosen, one of America’s foremost scholars on military innovation, is most impressive. He understands that real personnel reform will require a difficult culture change. The present leadership has a lifetime investment in learning and experience that it is understandably reluctant to sacrifice for unproven virtues. One of Rosen’s examples of obvious reforms difficult to change is the US individual replacement system in place since World War II. He argues that the “regimental system” has long ago achieved greater combat power by replacing losses by unit rather than by individual. Yet, we still have the traditional American system. He sees similar difficulties with the military’s system of professional military education—the war colleges and command-and-staff schools, for example. He says that these are relics of the nineteenth century, when civilian colleges teaching the needed subjects were not available. Now they are. The schools also served as a means of storing officers capable of command-and-staff work during times of peace so that they would be available when mass mobilization became necessary. Such mobilizations, according to Rosen, are not likely in the future. One of the impediments of change is the difficulty of measuring combat power in the absence of major war. Simulations cannot do it because they are full of assumptions that may or may not be true. Competition between units or services can help, but it is not a perfect tool. Rosen suggests that trying new pay policies in one service might help demonstrate the potential to attract more people with technological and leadership capabilities. Another of his suggestions involves making reforms by stealth. Adm William Moffett remained in the closet for a long time by advocating airpower as a supplement, not a replacement, for battleships. In that way, he got the money he needed for carrier and aircraft development out of battleship sailors without seeming to threaten their well-being.
Those are just two examples of the many first-class essays in Filling the Ranks. Flexibility is a common plea among them: the system pays a private without a high school diploma the same as one with an associate’s degree. Pilots, engineers, scientists, and other technical people can easily transition into lucrative civilian jobs, but there is not much of a civilian market for combat infantrymen. Yet, the system is not flexible enough to hold those with the most necessary skills. Another idea common to several chapters is that options should exist for longer careers for some officers. The days of needing strong and fast “yellowlegs” (cavalry) to chase Indians are long gone. We are much healthier now. Yet, we often must retire folks after 20 or 30 years, just as they are reaching their prime. Since the end of the Cold War, a major change has occurred in the utilization of reserve components. The days of the weekend warrior are over; this is the day of prolonged activation and repeated deployments—a difficult situation for reservists, their families, and their employers. Unless we improve compensation, recruiting will surely suffer. In sum, Filling the Ranks is relatively free of the typical limitations of anthologies, and air warriors would do well to add it to their reading lists.
Dr. David R. Mets
Maxwell AFB, Alabama
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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