Defense Secretary Ash Carter
Defense Secretary Ash Carter | Wikimedia, the Commons

Defense Secretary proposes flexibility in hiring, promotions

In a speech Thursday at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Ash Carter rolled out the next two planks in his "Force of the Future" initiative, proposing greater flexibility in how the service branches promote officers, and broadening the department's efforts to recruit and retain civilian employees.

The Force of the Future initiative seeks to make sweeping changes to the Defense Department's pay and promotion practices.

Carter said the current "up-or-out" promotion system used for military officers, first adopted nearly a century ago, can at times be "too rigid, providing little incentive for our officers to focus or specialize, even when [it] would enhance military readiness." 

Carter said he intends to ask Congress for the authority to allow "experts and specialists in critical, high-demand skills" to join the armed forces "at a mid-career level," as is currently used to recruit medical officers.

Carter also wants officers to be able to spend more time developing expertise in their preferred specialties, without harming their chances for promotion.

In addition, he wants officers showing "particular merit" to be promoted first, regardless of the number of slots available at higher grades, and asked the service secretaries to waive some requirements for promotion "with respect to a critical career field."

Carter wants to expand civilian workforce opportunities as well, saying he wants to "streamline the path" for hiring.

Carter will ask Congress for the authority to hire recent college graduates "on-the-spot," while also providing more Defense Department scholarships to "attract individuals to mission-critical science, technology, engineering and mathematics occupations."

For existing employees, Carter proposes giving them six weeks of paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child, plus allowing them to work "part-time after the birth or adoption of a child," or after they become foster parents.

The aim, Carter said, is to "evolve our personnel management processes to ensure we optimize and retain our best talent."

Not everyone has been happy with Carter's Force of the Future initiative.

Earlier in the year, Carter proposed the military provide 12 weeks of maternity leave, in addition to expanded child care services, and so-called “mothers’ rooms” for female service members who are nursing.

The service branches would also see a change in the kind of health care they provide military personnel, including paying for egg and sperm freezing in case a service member was injured and could no longer become a parent.

Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called those proposals "outrageous."

The prime mover of Carter's Force of the Future initiative, former Oklahoma Rep. Brad Carson, resigned as acting Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness in April, after a stormy Senate confirmation hearing, in which McCain called Carson unfit for the post.

Carson had earned the ire of many conservatives for pushing women to be eligible for combat service and to allow transgendered individuals to serve openly in the armed forces.

In June 2015, Carson wrote an opinion piece for the Defense One website, in which he said the Force of the Future concept would help the Defense Department "learn from our partners in private industry," and encouraged the department to develop "a new talent management system which honors the best gifts of Americans in service and guarantees the department’s share of talent in a future labor market."

Despite congressional pushback and Carson's resignation, Secretary Carter said to this day he remains "committed to pursuing additional reforms going forward."