Carter Proposes Pay and Benefits Overhaul in 'Future Force' Plan

Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks at George Washington University in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015, announcing the first phase of personnel reforms in his Force of the Future initiative. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks at George Washington University in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015, announcing the first phase of personnel reforms in his Force of the Future initiative. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter unveiled Thursday the first phase of his comprehensive "Force of the Future" personnel and management overhaul that included what could prove to be a controversial proposal on the issue of pay.

In a move likely to raise concerns in the ranks, the Carter plan said that pay scales should be influenced by "the principles of talent management."

The Pentagon was going ahead with "a comprehensive study for the purposes of better aligning basic and special pays with the principles of talent management," according to a fact sheet on the plan.

The document did not define what was meant by "talent management" or provide other details but said, "This study will build upon the recent findings of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission by focusing exclusively on possible reforms associated with basic and special pays."

When asked for an explanation, a senior Defense official, speaking on background said that Carter's intent was to reform the way the military pays its troops to be more in line with the way major corporations handle compensation to attract talent.

"Right now everyone is paid the same based on your rank and time in grade," the official said, but "that isn't necessarily how America's leading companies do that -- you might be on the same team and you make different amounts," because the wages for particular skills were different.

"We have an egalitarian culture" in the military, the official said, and so an E-5 signalman, or infantryman, or cyber technician, would likely be paid the same.

"The question is -- if we have to pay more to get" for instance, a cyber specialist – "how do we do that, how does the culture accept that? That's what we're going to try to get at. We don't really have answers yet," the official said.

Carter has discussed elements of the "Force of The Future" plan including more sabbaticals and enticements for high-tech specialists since taking office last February, and his proposals were in line with his general goal to make the Pentagon and the services function more like businesses.

The same intent was behind Carter's "better buying power" initiative to overhaul the Pentagon's acquisition process for weapons systems. Some of the changes proposed by Carter would require congressional approval, while others could be initiated internally, the official said.

The senior Defense official did not give a timeline for implementation of the proposed personnel changes but said they amounted to the most sweeping management overhaul at the Pentagon since the scrapping of the draft and the adoption of the all-volunteer force in the early 1970s.

Carter was "in a hurry" to make the changes, the official said. President Obama has little more than a year left in office and Carter was likely to be out at the Pentagon in the next administration.

In an address outlining the plan at George Washington University, he cited the Paris terror attacks last week and other world crises to urge students to consider a career of service in the military to make their country and their world better places.

However, Carter said, "I know not everyone wants to serve in uniform, and that's okay – though I do want more Americans to be exposed to that possibility."

"Not everyone's going to want to contribute to public service for their entire career, either – some may do so only for a time, or on and off over the years. That's okay too," he said.

"You don't often hear these thoughts from a Secretary of Defense, but they're all critical to building what I call our force of the future" to boost retention and recruitment, Carter said.

"While the military cannot and should not replicate all aspects of the private sector, we can and should borrow best practices, technologies, and personnel management techniques in common sense ways that work, so that in future generations, we'll keep attracting people of the same high caliber we have today," he said.

Cater said he wanted to create "on ramps" into the military for college students through improved internship programs. In addition, he said the Pentagon was creating a "Defense Digital Service" to "bring in talent from America's technology community to work for a specific period of time, or for a specific project, to apply a more innovative and agile approach to solving DoD's complex IT problems."

He also said he wanted to establish what he called "resident entrepreneurs" -- individuals with expertise in management -- "who will work with senior leaders on some of our most challenging projects for two years at a time."

To get more business expertise into the Pentagon, Carter said he wanted a corporate-type "headhunter." He said "we're also going to hire a chief recruiting officer, who'll serve as a headhunter to help bring in some of America's best qualified executives for stints in top civilian leadership roles throughout the Department."

The plan also supported "off ramps" for those in the military through expanded sabbaticals during a service member's career, Carter said.

"We're also going to create short-term off-ramps for those already serving to connect with ideas and innovators outside the Pentagon. Because we want to make it easier for more of our people to gain new skills, experiences, and perspectives – whether in the private sector, in academia, or elsewhere -- that they can then bring back into the military," Carter said.

On the personnel side, he said, "We put a lot of effort into staying on the cutting edge with weapons technology, and it's time we did the same in how we manage our people," especially in the way the military matches up assignments with military occupational specialties.

"We're going to launch LinkedIn-style pilot programs that help match up service members looking for their next assignment with units who are looking for qualified people to fill an opening," Carter said.

"Think of a soldier logging on, setting up a profile, seeing what they're qualified for, and selecting what they want to do, while the unit looking to bring someone on sees the profiles that fit their criteria, and chooses who they're interested in," Carter said.

The secretary said the "Force of the Future" plan was the forerunner of additional changes he will propose to improve the Department's efficiency and performance.

"For example, we're taking a serious look at making some common sense reforms to our officer promotion system," Carter said. "We're also looking at ways to improve how we manage our civilian personnel, working with the government-wide Office of Personnel Management as well as federal employee unions."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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