WHAT THE HELL: Defense Secretary Wants to Hire People Off the Streets to Fill Our MOST Elite Military Offices

Screen Shot 2016-06-19 at 9.40.59 AMSomething tells me this isn’t going to go well for our nation if this plan goes through. A lot like Obama’s admin. Someone with little to no experience, holding a job they should not have to begin with.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter wants to open the door for more “lateral entry” into the military’s upper ranks, clearing the way for lifelong civilians with vital skills and strong résumés to enter the officer corps as high as the O-6 paygrade.

The idea is controversial, to say the very least. For many in the rank-and-file military, it seems absurd, a bewildering cultural change that threatens to upend many assumptions about military life and traditional career paths. But while it’s not universally embraced, there is interest in Congress and among some of the military’s uniformed leaders — even, they say, in exploring how the services could apply this concept to the enlisted force.

This is a key piece of Carter’s “Force of the Future” personnel reform. Unveiled June 9, it aims to help the military bring in more top talent, especially for high-tech career fields focused on cyber warfare and space. Advocates say it will help the military fill important manpower shortfalls with highly skilled professionals and, more broadly, create greater “permeability” between the active-duty military and the civilian sector.

At the same time, it suggests eroding the military’s tradition of growing its own leaders and cultivating a force with a distinct culture and tight social fabric, which many believe to be the heart of military effectiveness. Critics worry it will create a new subcaste of military service members who are fundamentally disconnected from the traditional career force.

“They will enter a culture they don’t know, understand or potentially appreciate,” said Dakota Wood, a retired Marine officer and military expert at the Heritage Foundation. “The Marines around them will likely be challenged to appreciate them as they would a fellow Marine.”

If approved by Congress, the individual military services would be authorized — but not required — to expand lateral entry up to the rank of colonel, or in the case of the Navy a captain. It’s part of a broader reform effort that may also include new rules for bringing enlisted troops in at the noncommissioned officer ranks, which does not require approval from Congress.

Yet the proposed change raises many cultural concerns and could result in a host of second-order effects. The services would have to tackle a range of questions. For instance, what kind of initial training will those officers undergo? Will lateral entry officers be eligible for promotion? Will junior officer retention be affected by the prospect of potentially leaving and returning years later at a higher rank?

Cyber, principally, is driving the call for change, but lateral entry could extend to any high-demand career field with a robust civilian counterpart — logistics, for example, and military policing or public affairs. Those who work in such technical jobs often are lured away from the military’s officer and enlisted ranks by high-paying jobs in the private sector. Offering personnel the opportunity to earn an O-6 salary — plus benefits — might alleviate that.

However, this raises another set of issues that’ll need to be addressed. For instance, the military’s current pay structure would offer significantly less to a colonel or a captain with one year of service versus one with 20 or more. And the military retirement system does not offer much in exchange for only short-term service.

The Navy is the most enthusiastic about Carter’s proposal. The Army and Air Force say they will consider high-level lateral entries if the change is approved. And the Marine Corps appears to be the most skeptical.

Carter acknowledged some concerns, saying it’s unlikely that lateral entry would affect the operational career fields that have little if any civilian counterpart, like the infantry, surface warfare or combat aviation. “Now, I have to say we can’t do this for every career field — far from it. It will probably never apply to line officers, as they’ll always need to begin their military careers as second lieutenants and ensigns,” he said. “But allowing the military services to commission a wider segment of specialized outside talent … will make us more effective.”

The individual military services would hammer out the details for themselves, which would involve more than just identifying the high-demand career fields and high-skilled recruits. They would have to consider how candidates for lateral entry will adapt to service-specific military life.

“There are some cultural issues,” said Brad Carson, the Pentagon’s former personnel chief who helped draw up the ambitious slate of personnel reforms. “People who come in won’t just have to have the skills. They’ll have to have a military bearing and understand the military ethic. You don’t just get that by walking in off the street.”

But what if Mark Zuckerberg, the inventor and CEO of Facebook, wanted to join the military? Carson cites this hypothetical to illustrate the rigidity of today’s personnel system.

While Zuckerberg’s skills would likely be profoundly valuable to U.S. Cyber Command, the 32-year-old computer programmer dropped out of Harvard and has no bachelor’s degree, making him ineligible for commission as an officer. A military recruiter could probably find some ways to grant him credit for the skills and experience evident in his self-made fortune — estimated to be $51 billion — but not much.

“If Mark Zuckerberg decided that he wants to serve his county in the military, we could probably make him an E-4 at cyber command,” Carson said. “Corporal Zuckerberg. We think we should have the ability to bring him in at whatever rank the military service thinks he’d be effective.”

First cyber. Then what?

Even the suggestion of directly commissioning civilians as full-bird colonels or Navy captains — a rank many career officers never attain — reflects the degree of concern surrounding efforts to build out CYBERCOM. Created in 2010, the command is trying to stand up a force of 6,200 active-duty specialists organized in 133 teams.

But progress has been slower than hoped. The target date for standing up those teams was the end of 2016, but that deadline has been pushed out to 2018. So far, about half of those teams, 68, have reached what the military calls “initial operational capability,” and as many as 100 teams are currently conducting missions to meet the demand for offensive and defensive cyber capabilities, defense officials say.

Some military officials fear that the demand for cyber operations is such that there’s not enough time for the services to grow their own cyber force from the ground up. Under the military’s traditional personnel system, it might take more than a decade to cultivate the cyber capability that the Pentagon needs, some officials say.

Currently, by law the Pentagon is limited to use lateral entry for chaplains, lawyers, doctors and dentists, and even for those career specialties, lateral entry is capped at the O-4 paygrade, or the rank of major and, in the case of the Navy, lieutenant commander.

A Senate proposal would give the defense secretary authority to expand lateral entry to any career field and raise the rank cap to the O-6 paygrade.  The law already allows the services to grant lateral entry to enlisted troops, and some in the Pentagon want to expand that authority.

Critics question the need for high-level lateral entry and suggest civilians or contractors could fill gaps in those high-tech fields. But officials say there are key reasons why pinning a full bird the collar of a lifelong civilian is a good idea.

For starters, it bestows legal protections as a full-fledged combatant, which has implications that range from ensuring prisoner-of-war status under international law to immunity from prosecution in court. “You’d want them to have ‘Law of War’ protection if you know what they are doing is having a kinetic effect,” Carson said.

Another concern is the level of interest among civilians. Many successful midcareer professionals have families and earning potential beyond what the military could offer.

“I really question who is going to do it,” said Richard Bejtlich, a 44-year-old Air Force Academy graduate who separated when he was a junior officer and is now a cyber-security expert with FireEye and the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington. “I don’t see a lot of people I know of saying, ‘Hey, I want to go abandon my current position and go be in the military.’ ”

Ultimately, those with prior military experience might be the best candidates because they are familiar with military culture, and would acclimate and find acceptance far more quickly.

“Can you imagine someone coming in as an O-5 or O-6 and not knowing who salutes who? Or how to wear a uniform?” Bejtlich said. “The traditional military’s worst nightmare is to bring in some long-haired hippie and make him a colonel. The way I think you could make it palatable to the rank and file is, you would limit it to bringing in former military.”

Whether the authority for lateral entry is widely used will likely vary — significantly — by service.

The Navy

The Navy, more than any of the other services, has pushed aggressively to expand lateral entry. Navy officials say it will help fill critical needs in existing career fields — but also to build new capability quickly  in the event of a full-scale war.

“Right now the one we’re focused on is the cyber [community] because that’s the immediate need,” said Vice Adm. Robert Burke, the chief of naval personnel. “But we want this authority in place … because we want to be responsive when the need comes — we don’t want to start writing policy the minute we discover we need it.”

The Navy has no detailed plans for lateral entry at the moment. Should Congress give its approval, sources tell Military Times that the service could begin commissioning civilians into the upper ranks sometime in fiscal 2017, which begins in October.

“Today, cyber is where we need it; tomorrow we might need it in 10 other places,” he said “I just can’t foresee what those might be right now.”

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