One of the last bastions of the Blue Model is the military. For soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen, a long career consisting of promotions on a fixed schedule and culminating in a pension is the reward for dedicated service. But outside the military, you’d be hard pressed to find a company operating that way. Blue-collar workers don’t usually receive such generous pensions, and many white-collar workers would balk at such rigid, time-based requirements for promotion. As 21st century warfare becomes more complex, can the military attract the talent it needs under this model?The Air Force, at least, has started asking the right questions. Last week, it released a thirty-year strategic plan entitled “A Call to the Future.” The Washington Post reports:
[The report] described today’s traditional military personnel model of 20 years of continual service as “a 20th century construct that is not widely replicated in the private sector.”It talked of a possible new approach noting that “breaks in service — or transitions between full and part-time — need not be punitive in the advancement of our future airmen.”Maj. Gen. David W. Allvin, director of strategic planning in the office of the Air Force deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and programs, expanded on that in a New York Times interview.“What if you entered the Air Force knowing you could serve for a few years, then go to work for an innovative tech company, and then return to the Air Force?” he said. “We could enter into partnerships with cutting-edge companies and allow our workforce the opportunity of a more flexible retirement system that allows you to do two different jobs and still get to a 20-year retirement. It might take 35 years, but you would get here.”
There is precedent for allowing certain members of the military leeway in their terms of enlistment, combat training requirements, and so on. For the most part, though, these have been servicemen and women in non-core-mission, specialized roles, whom the military is ill-equipped to train and does not need in combat, such as doctors, chaplains, band members.As tech experts, from cyber-warfare operators to drone pilots, become increasingly critical to the military, it will put the services in a bind, particularly the Air Force. These are not skills the armed forces are well set-up to teach, but they are more mission-critical than those of bassoonists or radiologists. Will the Air Force really let an experienced drone operator slip away for more exciting opportunities in the private sector but then return at a promoted level? And if not, what would lure him back from his management position at a new start-up?The USAF is right to ask how to recruit and retain programmers, linguists, and technical specialists; these are exactly the personnel the military will need in the (not-too-distant) future. The answer, however, might not be as simple as tweaking an old blue model by substituting a 35-year pension for a 20-year one, for instance. That service above all others is being transformed by the tech revolution, and is soon approaching a crisis of mission over the need for human pilots. “A Call to the Future” is indeed needed, but the answer might require more soul-searching than has so far been suggested.