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Blue Model Pentagon
USAF Asks: Why Can't a Drone Operator Be More Like a Bassoonist?

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.

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  • Andrew Allison

    The nonsensical thinking behind the opening paragraph is illustrated by “Blue-collar workers don’t usually receive such generous pensions”. The military is no more “blue collar” that the other public employees against whose even more generous pensions WRM inveighs almost daily.

  • PKCasimir

    Would the powers to be who control this website please ensure that whoever wrote this insulting nonsense is never allowed to write about the US military ever again? He hasn’t the foggiest idea about the subject. Infuriatingly ignorant and, even more infuriating, even isn’t aware of his ignorance.
    In a just world, this author would be sent into combat, get wounded, and find that the military doesn’t have any doctors or chaplains to treat his body or his soul.. After all, they’re like bassoonists, aren’t they?

    • Andrew Allison

      Agreed except that it’s asking a bit much to expect an ignoramus to be aware if his ignorance. Adult supervision is clearly called for.

  • FriendlyGoat

    All the dissing of the “blue model” is both unnecessary and rather disrespectful of most of this nation’s young people. Of course no modern kids actually NEED any job security, health care or pension plans——merely because tax cuts have now permitted the employers to all get away with skipping out on the whole concept of loyalty down. The millennials know they are “Generation Screwed” but they don’t know how they got that way, and they don’t yet know how really mad they ought to be about it,

  • Fat_Man

    Some time ago I suggested in a comment on this blog that I thought the armed services should treat the hiring and retention of professionals and technical personnel in a separate hierarchy from line commanders.

    The air force needs however to confront a a more important question. Why do we need to have an air force as separate branch of the services. We need airplanes an pilots to be sure, but in a separate command structure. I think that is far more debatable.


  • Pave Low John

    This article is a waste of electrons. The personnel system of the DoD isn’t wrecked because it offers pensions after twenty years or because there is a shortage of non-combat personnel (believe me, the USAF is full of non-warfighters.) The problem is that the best people are leaving and not looking back, while the worst, in terms of competence and attitude, are sticking around as long as possible. You want to read about a broken personnel system? Go over to CDR Salamander’s blog and read the full report on the leadership debacle involving the USS COWPENS (yes, the same ship that CPT “Horrible” Holly Graf was fired from.) How the hell did we start assigning people like that to a warship? America is going to pay a steep price for letting idiots and cowards lead our military forces and I just hope I’m dead and gone before it all happens…

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