A Free-Market Military

JD Roger wonders whether the United States armed forces and their advancement structure could be more meritocratic.

The American military has historically prided itself on its officers’ ability to take advantage of momentary situations in the field, to be creative in the execution of their duties, and to solve problems that inevitably occur in utterly unpredictable combat situations. Now, however, many of the highly creative and talented officers that attend West Point, Annapolis, or OCS leave before completing their careers.

In his recent piece in The Atlantic, Tim Kane examines why the American military loses many of its most talented and, as he puts it, “entrepreneurial” officers. The most important factor, Kane determines, is what he calls the “rigid promotion ladder” in the military. Indeed, the career paths in the military are traditional and very fixed in their requirements for promotion. According to the Army Times,

Title 10 of the US Code requires officers to have a bachelor’s degree and complete a branch basic course for advancement to captain; have three years time in grade for promotion to major and lieutenant colonel, and complete Phases 1 and 2 of Joint Professional Military Education to attend a senior service college as a colonel and for promotion to brigadier general.

The Army sets other milestones for promotion, such as company command; Intermediate Level Education; S3 and executive officer assignments; battalion command and branch specific developmental assignments, and these are extremely time sensitive.

The inflexibility inherent in the promotion system forces many soldiers who are willing to take risks out of the service and promotes a culture of risk averse officers who can be unwilling to try new things. Other reasons examined by Kane include the lack of influence suffered by “entrepreneurial” officers who are not promoted, compensation issues and the call of the private sector to retired generals and officers. Indeed, the private sector certainly pays better and involves far less danger with a higher chance for promotion.

Kane proposes an alternative to the current military promotion system, which he terms simply “chaos.” His proposal is actually a free market alternative (an internal jobs market) to the command and control model currently applied by the American armed services.

In Kane’s system, commanding officers would have hiring decisions for their own commands; officers could apply for any job at any pay grade and commanders could choose officers of alternative ranks to fill their billets. For example, a colonel could fill his XO’s position with a major instead of a lieutenant colonel if he felt that the major was a better candidate; commanders would be held accountable for their hiring decisions. Alternatively, an officer could choose to remain in their current billet and specialize in their career track, passing over promotion. Kane determines that this form of system would do a far better job of matching talent with jobs and with promoting a culture of meritocracy within the armed services.

But can the military turn to a chaotic system? There are a number of problems with Kane’s proposal. For example, in corporate America, if a corporation’s organization fails, or if a CEO fails, the market will replace that corporation with a competitor, the corporation will replace the CEO; there are no competing armies or armed services and precious few people with enough training to hold down a chief of staff’s position. If a culture of patronage and nepotism arise within the armed services, the United States cannot simply raise another army.

Another problem with Kane’s proposed system is the idea of letting certain officers remain in their positions for as long as they would like, passing over promotions in favor of doing their lower level jobs for the rest of their careers. Talented at their jobs they may be, this has the potential of keeping fresh blood out of some positions and may hurt advancement of some even more talented young officers. Many colonels, for example, truly enjoy commanding their brigades and a glut of older brigade commanders could hold a group of talented majors and LTCs back.

A final problem is the inevitable disorganization that comes with any free-market solution, as well as with a major change in structure to a group as large as the American armed forces. With troops involved in conflicts in the Middle East as well as commitments around the globe, the American military is ill equipped to deal with a major institutional shakeup at the moment.

So what can be done to reform the system? Should anything be done? A lifting of strict timeline restrictions in the promotion ladder would go a long way toward promoting talented officers into positions of influence faster. It would also create more of a structure of meritocracy, allowing officers who have demonstrated more talent or intelligence faster promotion and thereby pay increases.

Further, increasing incentive pay for continuing education and/or professional development as well as specifically targeting incentive pay instead of simply “throwing money at key areas” as the Pentagon currently does would help to keep talented and entrepreneurial officers in the service. Overall, the career path of officers in the armed services is in need of an overhaul to promote creative and daring officers, rather than risk averse ones who cannot be expected to be creative after years of following every regulation to a “t.”