February 9, 2004

Pentagon People Person

From National Journal

When the Army recently announced that it would exceed its authorized "end strength," or personnel levels, by more than 30,000 for as many as five years, the Pentagon got temporary relief from demands that it ease strains from constant deployments by permanently increasing the size of U.S. military forces. In the meantime, Defense Department officials are gambling that the most fundamental restructuring of U.S. military and civilian manpower since the 1973 establishment of the all-volunteer force will eliminate inefficiencies and help the Defense workforce adapt to new needs. National Journal staff correspondent James Kitfield spoke on January 28 with Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness David Chu, the man responsible for the reforms. Edited excerpts of that interview follow.

NJ: Was the announcement about 30,000 more troops the Pentagon's answer to complaints that the Army is being asked to do a 12-division mission with only 10 divisions?

Chu: Well, the president's declaration of a national emergency trumped those ceilings on Army end strength, which is why the Army will exceed them by over 30,000 troops. That's also why we have roughly 200,000 reservists on active duty. The real question I'm trying to answer is whether we can find adequate forces for Iraq and elsewhere out of our present force of 2.7 million active and reserve service members. I think we can, but it's going to require changing how we do business. The Army in particular has proved a leader in that regard.

NJ: Does that fall under necessity being the mother of innovation?

Chu: Well, to take one example, the Army has recognized that with advancements in modern airpower, it doesn't need the same number of field artillery units that were left at the end of the Cold War. So now the Army is reconfiguring and retraining many of those units to become military police. Some political leaders have reacted irritably to the change. [Rep.] Ike Skelton [D-Mo.] kind of berated me for turning Harry Truman's proud artillery unit into military police. Some of those troops might also quit, but that's fine. The truth is, right now we need more military police than artillery units. [Army Chief of Staff] Gen. Peter Schoomaker has gone on record saying that in the next five years he intends to reassign as many as 100,000 troops. Frankly, we were probably slow to initiate that kind of adjustment.

NJ: A number of defense experts are predicting a retention "train wreck" when forces that have already served in Iraq are ordered to return to Iraq.

Chu: There may well be some adverse effects on retention, but I don't think it will be a train wreck. Certainly, sending people back to Iraq will be a burden, and that will be particularly stressful for the families involved. We're watching very closely for signs of stress in our military families, because that's the key point of vulnerability. That's why, for instance, after we announced the one-year tours in Iraq, we were so quick to implement a program to bring troops back from Iraq for an R&R break. We're using a variety of other methods to counteract the negative impacts people are anticipating. Keep in mind, however, that a lot of these young people joined the military because they wanted to do something meaningful. In many cases, they're excited by these real-world missions.

NJ: Even when they entail successive deployments to dangerous war zones in a matter of a few years?

Chu: I guess the bottom line is that sending troops back to Iraq will be a burden and stressful on families, and there probably will be some erosion in retention. But we think the situation is manageable. Remember that retention is at historic highs right now, and we've built those margins up so we can respond to the nation's needs.

NJ: If not by increasing end strength, how do you propose relieving the very high operations tempo of the active-duty force?

Chu: As a rule, we would like to keep people in their jobs and posts longer. Longer tenure has real payoffs in all sorts of dimensions. It results in greater expertise in the force, better unit cohesion, and greater family stability. The majority of our force is now married, for instance, and a big issue in attracting married people is spousal employment. The Rand Corporation did a study that showed that over a career, the impact of being a military spouse is that you will have lower earnings and fewer employment opportunities than nonmilitary spouses. Longer tenure helps get at that problem.

NJ: With more than 40,000 reservists and National Guard troops scheduled to deploy to Iraq for one-year tours, how do you intend to cope with the strains on citizen-soldiers who have other lives and careers?

Chu: Partly by being more forthright with reservists. We expect to call them up more frequently than has been the case in recent national history. At the same time, we want to be reasonable. We're going to try and call up a reservist only once every five or six years for a one-year tour of duty. The idea is to set a realistic expectation in the minds of reservists in terms of call-ups.

We'd also like to facilitate more movement back and forth between our active and reserve forces. In the past, the reservists have inhabited a different world from the active force. We tended to recruit reservists from the ranks of those leaving active duty with the promise of attractive pensions. We think this is the wrong paradigm. We'd rather position the reserve component as a way to offer people a continuum of military service throughout their lives, enticing them to serve when their needs and our needs intersect.

NJ: How do you maintain entry and exit points on that "continuum of service"?

Chu: We need to get away from this cookie-cutter approach where reservists expect to train 29 days a year and be called up once in a generation. We're looking at the possibility of offering a richer selection of choices for reserve service. Some might train less, while others would train more. Some might serve less, while others serve more.

NJ: Give us an example.

Chu: An example would be the very difficult time we have training and keeping on active duty sufficient numbers of linguists. Right now, we have a pilot program to sign up American citizens who speak Arabic into the Ready Reserves. We are putting the first 150 volunteers through a crash program, and we're going to deploy them to Iraq in March. It's very heartening to see so many people who want to contribute, but many of them can't sign up for a 20-year commitment. So we're trying to be thoughtful in terms of what other inducements we can offer, and how we manage these people.

NJ: How does that alleviate the present strains on the reserve force?

Chu: What is fascinating is the fact that even with all the mobilizations we have seen, going back to the Persian Gulf War of 1991, we are only now edging toward the point where we have called up 40 percent of reserve units in that timeframe. That period includes the first Gulf War, the Balkans [conflict], and now Iraq and Afghanistan. During that period, only approximately 3 percent of reservists have been called up more than once. That's a small fraction of the 800,000 people in our selective reserves.

NJ: Do you believe we are asking too much of our reservists?

Chu: Well, it's important to remind the nation that for a reservist who completes 20 years in service, the value of his or her pension annuity at age 60 is about $500,000 for an enlisted person, and $1 million for an officer. And that doesn't count the value of having Tri-Care health insurance for life, which is a federally guaranteed health insurance policy more generous than Medicare. So we pay a significant retainer for our reservists. Beyond the pay, many of our reservists serve because they want to contribute to our country's security. Even though we have made a number of procedural mistakes in the Reserve mobilizations since 9/11, which I freely admit, the reservists themselves have been very responsive and uncomplaining. More often, it's the family members, and not the reservists themselves, who complain.

NJ: In the defense authorization bill, Congress also gave you authority to fundamentally reform management of Defense civilian personnel.

Chu: In fact, our most fully formed proposals are in the area of managing the civilian workforce. It's fitting that Congress approved that authority on the 30th anniversary of the all-volunteer force, because our goal is to make an already good civilian workforce into a great one that reflects the flexibility and agility that we see in the volunteer military force.

NJ: That sounds like a pretty fundamental change for a venerable civil service system.

Chu: I told the federal unions that the old system was becoming so outdated that an unwillingness to change could sound the death knell for the civil service.

NJ: You've also stressed the need for more flexibility in setting salary levels.

Chu: The old system is very constrained and based on an inflexible salary table. The Defense Department has had chronic problems, for instance, in adequately staffing our scientific and medical departments. The salaries were simply inadequate. The old system of basing salary almost entirely on longevity had some strengths, but also serious weaknesses. Many excellent people felt their efforts were just not well rewarded.

NJ: Is that a particular problem in attracting younger workers into government service?

Chu: Yes. Right now, half of our workforce is over the age of 45, so within the next 10 to 15 years, we will have to replace half our civil servants. The new generation, however, doesn't look to government jobs as their first choice for public service. So, much like the problems we had in the early years of the all-volunteer military force, if we're not attractive to high-quality young people, we're going to run into problems. I've had military commanders tell me that they can't get good people to take their civilian jobs.

NJ: Will the new personnel system facilitate the shift of uniformed jobs into the civilian workforce, to alleviate some of the strains on the uniformed force?

Chu: Yes, because one of the reasons we can't use more civilians in ongoing operations is that current rules make it very difficult to reassign civilian workers. That forces us to turn instead to outside contractors in many instances. One of the reasons we assign military people to so many jobs is not because those jobs entail the controlled use of violence, but rather because the military personnel system is so flexible and the civil service system is so inflexible. Secretary Rumsfeld has made it clear he wants to reverse that trend, and we have identified as many as 300,000 slots that are now being filled by uniformed personnel but could eventually migrate to the civilian workforce.