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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, August 20, 2001

Military Update
Pentagon reviews personnel management system

Military Update focuses on issues affecting pay, benefits and lifestyle of active and retired servicepeople. Its author, Tom Philpott, is a Virginia-based syndicated columnist and freelance writer. He has covered military issues for almost 25 years, including six years as editor of Navy Times. For 17 years he worked as a writer and senior editor for Army Times Publishing Co. Philpott, 49, enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard in 1973 and served as an information officer from 1974-77.

By Tom Philpott

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld believes the military's personnel management system might be a Cold War relic that encourages too many service members to stay for 20 years, too few to stay thereafter and most members to scurry between assignments at a pace harmful to unit cohesion and to families.

Even if his critique is on target, Rumsfeld and his personnel chief, Dr. David Chu, know that changing the system will be a slow, difficult process.

After all, the two elements they criticize — the "up-or-out" promotion system and 20-year retirement — helped to shape the most capable military in the world.

"The obvious issue will be, 'Why should we change what is a very successful system?'" said Chu, under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, during an Aug. 8 media roundtable.

Chu said his staff will draft a set of "strategic human resource plans" to present to Congress early next year, with the 2003 defense budget.

Two likely goals of those plans will be to encourage longer careers so the services realize a greater return on highly trained, experienced careerists, and to lengthen duty assignments to bring more stability to military units and families.

Officers complain they don't get enough time in command before having to move so other officers get a turn. "That's the kind of issue, in contemplating alternative career paths and patterns, we will need to deal with," Chu said.

Harry Thie, a senior analyst with RAND, a defense think tank, has been studying ways to reform officer management for years. Lengthening careers, he said, offers two types of opportunity: longer assignments that can deepen an officer's experience in a job, or extra assignments that can broaden experience with new challenges. Neither will happen under the current up-or-out promotion system, which requires members to advance or face early retirement or separation.

But today's military, Thie said, operates in a world needing "much more selectivity — particular technical experts to do particular technical things."

The great challenge to a more flexible management system, Thie said, is 20-year retirement. The "cliff vesting" feature of it — no benefits before 20 years — encourages the services to keep more people than they need until retirement, and then encourages top performers to leave at the top of their game.

Twenty-year retirement is "going to be the hardest thing to try to unwind," said Thie.

How receptive Congress will be to changing retirement is unknown, but signs favor the status quo. Only two years ago, lawmakers raised the value of 20-year retirement for members who entered service after July 1986, giving them the same 50-percent-of-basic-pay formula enjoyed by older members.

While Rumsfeld can expect stiff resistance to changing retirement, his desire to reduce frequency of reassignments will be embraced by military families, said Linda Rothleder, a relocation consultant for industry who also works at smoothing military moves.

In a recent survey, active duty personnel ranked loss of spouse income as the number one problem they faced during their last move, followed by changes in cost of living, waits for permanent housing, difficulty finding spouse employment and settling of damage claims for household goods.

Questions, comments and suggestions are welcome. Write to Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA 20120-1111, or send e-mail to: milupdate@aol.com.