The US boasts of the best military in the world. So you might be surprised to hear that the incentive and benefits structure virtually guarantee that the best people don't stay in their jobs very long. That's the conclusion of Tim Kane, a former US Air Force captain, and economist with the Hoover Institution, who has written a new book called "Total Volunteer Force."
Tim Kane: The biggest perverse incentive, I think, is that the pay structure’s based almost entirely on seniority. So you could be a captain in the Army and I might be a captain in the Army that is four years senior to you. You have a more important job than I do, but you’re paid less because I’m senior. That doesn’t make sense anymore. We can pay people based on the skills they have and the role that they’re fulfilling. The biggest perverse incentive though is they’ve got a retirement system that, even if you serve nineteen years in the military, you would get no retirement. You hit that twenty-year gate, though, and you get half-pay for the rest of your life. Well that creates a bubble of people from about year twelve to year twenty. and then you see about fifty percent drop-off in every branch where the individuals, officers and enlisted, get out.
Sharyl Attkisson: The system the way it is, would you say, obviously makes people want to stay in twenty years to get the retirement, but then leave quickly?
Tim Kane: Yes.
Sharyl Attkisson: So the good talent isn’t necessarily sticking around?
Tim Kane: We’re talking about enlisted soldiers and sailors, who are thirty-eight years old and qualify for lifetime retirement. Now, thirty-eight years old, even in the military today, you’re in the prime of your life. You understand things really fully in an organization and more deeply, and I so I think we’re losing people at peak productivity. And a bigger challenge is we’re not letting individuals specialize. It’s up or out, up or out, up or out, so you’re constantly forced to go up in rank, even if you might be the best fighter pilot, or you might be the best cyber warrior. Nope, time for a middle-management desk job. That just is bad management.
Sharyl Attkisson: You’ve also said ‘neutered command authority over personnel decisions makes it difficult to match the right people with the right jobs, hurts readiness and prevents toxic and predatory individuals from being weeded out.’
Tim Kane: You might be captain of a U.S. Navy destroyer and there are two-hundred to three-hundred people who work for you on that ship. How many do you select, or hire or screen? The answer is zero.
I’m recommending in this book, not to create an ‘old-boys club’, but at least give some discretion to commanders. Send them three names and let them do an interview and a background check. Why this is important?
The odds of a woman in uniform being sexually assaulted are ten times higher than the odds of a woman on a college campus. And that’s because the military is not weeding out the bad apples, and I think that’s because it’s a centralized bureaucracy
Sharyl Attkisson: Who has to be the ones to change that, because Defense Secretary Gates and Carter have tried to do some of that, but it hasn’t worked.
Tim Kane: You know, there’s one individual, Donald Trump, could establish another presidential commission, and we’ve already got a name for it. Just like the Gates commission, back in the late sixties, we could have another Gates commission and ask the former Secretary of Defense to just focus for a year or two on this issue, come up with some reforms that Congress would vote ‘yea’ or ‘nay’. And this is an easy fix.
Sharyl Attkisson: In the past when we’ve had commissions, a lot of times Congress doesn’t take the recommendations of the commissions.
Tim Kane: You know what’s really beautiful about military personnel reform is it’s not partisan. You won’t find Democrats, or Democratic staffers because I’ve met with them, they’re not opposed to the Republicans on the same committee. It’s really bureaucratic inertia.
Sharyl Attkisson: But for those of us who aren’t in the military, how does this impact our national readiness and our national security?
Tim Kane: I’d like to see us win all of our wars. I had a commander, one of our commanders in Afghanistan, that said to me ‘do you realize we’ve been in Afghanistan for over ten years and we’ve had over ten commanders of all of our forces there? Can you imagine in World War II saying ‘Ike, you did really well in nineteen-forty-two, but it’s somebody else’s turn’, and rotating, giving everybody a turn. Up or out, up or out, move the system. This doesn’t make sense. Let people specialize at their best and finish the job.
On the positive side, Kane says the corporate world can learn a few things from how the military works. Top of that list learning from the military leadership culture, and its commitment to a shared purpose.