October 08, 2020

Harnessing Military Talent to Compete in the 21st Century

The Bottom Line

  • The lack of clear definition of what talent the military wants leads to an incoherent approach to recruiting, developing, and retaining highly skilled personnel. To maintain the U.S. competitive military advantage, the next National Defense Strategy (NDS) should direct the services to overhaul their recruiting outreach and human resource management processes.
  • This overhaul should be specific in revamping the varied components of talent management, from evaluation metrics to career trajectories to professional military education. It should address structural factors and messaging opportunities to attract those with varied expertise through sustained action, rather than temporary pilot programs.
  • The Department of Defense (DoD) must commit to investing in and completing upgrades to information technology (IT) infrastructure, creating competitive opportunities to foster work-life balance and modernizing personnel processes to better recognize civilian and enlisted talent.


Policymakers and researchers alike have put significant thought into the technological and strategic changes needed to keep the U.S. military combat-credible in new contested spaces. However, military and civilian leadership often take the quality of U.S. military personnel for granted. In order to maintain the high caliber of the force, the next National Defense Strategy (NDS) should direct an overhaul of how the services can bring in a variety of skill sets, offer a workplace in which individuals wish to continue serving, and leverage extant expertise throughout the force. As others have noted, the United States needs to start changing how it fights, an approach that must also extend to its people.

Military and civilian leadership often take the quality of U.S. military personnel for granted.

The pivot to great power competition described in the 2018 NDS identified the cultivation of workforce talent as a key component to building a more lethal force and as a key enabler for competitive military advantage. However, the NDS provided little definition of what that talent is, how to find it, or how to slot recruits into the appropriate positions for an agile force. The resulting “war for talent” mischaracterizes the military’s unique opportunities and value proposition, while also narrowing the conversation to immediate manpower needs rather than sustained strategy. The next NDS must continue to push the services outside of their comfort zone to critically examine entrenched views on personnel and readiness, as well as assumptions, such as how medical and fitness standards are met and who has access to growth opportunities.

The lack of clear definition of talent has boiled recruiting down to a need for technical and cyber skills, and this risks overcorrecting in one direction the ways in which competence is managed, while ignoring inefficiencies in the recruiting pipeline. For decades the military has relied upon the increasing educational attainment and professionalism of the American public to contribute to a highly qualified force, leading to complacency regarding personnel policies. To create the backbone of workforce talent, the U.S. military must significantly rethink who it recruits, what the recruitment process looks like, and how to manage expertise once in service. To truly remain competitive against adversaries, the U.S. military must be willing to challenge norms and structures regarding what service looks like and incorporate personnel policy into all guidance and planning documents. The military should include short-term contracts and lateral entry, and it should reconsider who is elevated into leadership billets. The next NDS must compel the services to use existing authorities to review processes that address real concerns about work-life balance, career goals, and lost manpower hours. Not to take advantage of such opportunities risks continued brain drain.

The War for Talent is Not Just Monetary

Talented service members will not remain with the military for monetary incentives alone, though compensation has dominated the conversation. The value proposition of military service compared to civilian positions can fall short, given restrictive work-life balance, rigid career structures, and little control over domicile. The relatively generous military total compensation package for enlisted personnel can be insufficient when weighed against other personal goals. The next NDS should direct the services to more critically review and address these structural challenges that inhibit recruiting and retaining talent, and to leverage the authorities they already possess.

Talented service members will not remain with the military for monetary incentives alone.

To develop high competence, two challenges must be met: getting new talent in the door, while keeping existing talent. Each service has recurringly hiked bonuses to attract specific skill sets, but this is a patch over larger issues. Shifting societal trends—including drug use, increasing diversity among the youth population, disproportionate interactions with law enforcement among minority youth, and growth in disqualifying medical conditions—continue to create tension with military entry standards. The NDS can demand a review of current standards for relevancy in the competitive environment. Individuals with the aptitude and skills that the military wants may not have the set qualifications it demands. For years the military has recruited from easy markets but expanding outreach geographically and demographically will bolster access to highly developed skills. The services should redesign recruiting so that it is no longer a blunt instrument, but better aligns skills, interests, and behaviors to overall mission requirements.

Recruitment in the context of declining youth propensity to serve is a primary concern for the services, but the already trained, service-minded talent that the military loses annually should be considered. The second part of strengthening readiness is to address the root causes for a service member’s departure in order to keep skilled talent in the force. As personnel develop their proficiencies and advance in rank, the reasons for retention challenges include rigid career progressions that constrain investments in family life, restrictions on the ability to gain and apply skills outside the military, geographic instability, and disproportionate burdens on female service members. Similarly, many service members decide to leave the military because of a lack of employment options for dual-professional couples and the associated family stress. It is in part because of these challenges combined with other structural barriers for minority groups that senior leader ranks reflect neither the American public nor the military itself. The NDS should prompt the services to improve readiness and decision-making by fostering a culture of inclusion. The way to do this is to address structural barriers that inhibit retention, including those that negatively impact minority groups across the force.

Invest in People

Not only do the services need to invest in broadening the pool of recruits, they also need to improve processes to ensure that people are placed in the best jobs for their skills, from new recruits to service members with developed proficiencies. Talent management needs to be less tied to current performance metrics, so that it instead encompasses many ways of training people and enabling prowess. In addition to identifying and recruiting highly skilled individuals, the services should consider ways to train and upskill those already serving, thus fostering personnel-driven innovation. The services must address a pervasive anti-intellectual bias that limits potential inclusion of highly skilled individuals, and they must instead support opportunities for service members to build knowledge both inside and outside the military.

The services could, for example, support those who wish to broaden their skill sets through civilian education, training opportunities with industry, or time off to rest and recuperate. Some programs do exist, but they are the exception, and opportunities need to be offered not only to top performers. Recent modernization of the up-or-out promotion system has begun to address career flexibility, but this is just one component of an inflexible industrial-age construct based on outdated social norms and career progression. Along the same lines, the services should change instruction to become more holistic for struggling service members; as things stand now, significant time and resources are invested into personnel, yet individuals are still separated on technicalities.

Not only do the services need to invest in broadening the pool of recruits, they also need to improve processes to ensure that people are placed in the best jobs for their skills.

The services hold an immense ability to leverage existing training and education pipelines to upskill the force, and the next NDS could elevate professional military education as a way to better build strategic knowledge and be responsive to the changing demands of warfare. Strengthening training and education opportunities for in-demand skills could mitigate the difficulty of recruiting people who already have them, for example in coding, technical computer knowledge, and machine learning. The Army’s AIM 2.0 and Air Force’s Talent Marketplace seek to provide service members and commanders with some agency to align skill sets to jobs. But the launch of both programs was limited to officers—a minority of the force. Talent also lives in the enlisted ranks, yet it is consistently underserved and untapped. The NDS should push the services to recruit into enlisted ranks people who already hold academic degrees, who may be older, or who have prior experience. However, the responsibilities and career trajectories of enlisted ranks must be updated. Professional development opportunities for enlisted ranks will make the career field more attractive to retain such talent. Similarly, using and increasing lateral-entry authorities will provide opportunities for former service members or highly skilled civilians to serve at levels that leverage their expertise.


Harnessing the talent needed to remain competitive in future operating environments requires the DoD and military services to challenge existing processes and go outside their comfort zones. Change should include a total overhaul: of recruitment practices, processes for support, and services that affect quality of life. To effect such major change, it is essential to recognize that culture is created in many ways, and a one-size-fits-all approach to personnel management is unsustainable for maintaining military superiority in the coming decades. To improve personnel processes, the next NDS should:

  • Upskill extant talent. Make enlisted careers more attractive by offering opportunities to pursue professional military education, civilian undergraduate and graduate degrees, and other broadening initiatives. Expand education opportunities beyond schooling while keeping service members on track for promotion. Offer service-sponsored or in-service training for key skills that are difficult to recruit, regardless of current occupational specialty.
  • Hold the services accountable for personnel policy change. Congress has granted the services immense authorities to bring in talent; it is time to implement changes such as direct commission programs, lateral entry, short contract terms of enlistment, compressed or accelerated entry training timelines, and remote work.
  • Overhaul recruiting practices. A competitive force starts at entry. Recruiting efforts must take a dual-track approach: continue general recruiting to fill the wide array of military jobs and increase recruiting for specific job categories. New processes must expand how an applicant is assessed, to include specialties and skill sets beyond baseline standards, while not holding to overly restrictive qualifications for trainable jobs. This process must be backed by oversight and accountability from senior military leadership and Congress.
  • Set diversity goals. Setting goals for geographic, cognitive, demographic, and skill-based diversity is the best way to bolster readiness, because it invests in and cultivates new markets. Furthermore, diverse teams contribute to better decision-making and more efficient solutions, while also reducing disciplinary problems. All of this will maintain U.S. military competitiveness.
  • Invest in IT infrastructure and human resources. More than manpower efficacy is at stake in the platforms that service members use. People, especially the young, expect functional IT systems and human resource processes. Although inefficient systems may not be the sole reason for separation from service, they undermine talent management and are contrary to expectations of the modern workforce. Multinational corporations have managed to update and secure their IT; to retain a quality force, the military must jettison antiquated processes for managing paperwork, reimbursements, and more.


As the military adapts to “rapid technological advancements and the changing character of war,” service members will continue to be at the forefront of imagining and implementing these changes. Developments in technology mean that the DoD must update its processes to attract, recruit, and harness talent to apply skill sets where they are most needed.

But whether the services can recruit talent will be a moot question if it cannot keep the expertise it has. The military must improve its value proposition to new recruits and service members by first addressing known structural barriers and conditions that made sense for the military 40 years ago but are less relevant today. These include swim tests for certain occupations, height requirements for aviation, and height and weight standards for women, among others. To comprehensively expand interest in military service, the DoD must take a force-wide approach to increasing outreach while at the same time instituting stated goals to build cognitive, geographic, demographic, and skill diversity. The annual budget outlay for military personnel reflects what it takes to maintain a quality force; working within these guidelines, the next NDS should prioritize and continue allocating resources that update military human resource processes, modernize back-end IT infrastructure, and provide educational opportunities. The technological advantage that the U.S. military currently enjoys risks erosion from near-peer competitors without significant investment in and restructuring of personnel processes—from recruitment through retirement.

About the Author

Emma Moore is Research Associate for the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at CNAS and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University.

Learn More

From July to December 2020, CNAS will release new papers every week on the tough issues the next NDS should tackle. The goal of this project is to provide intellectual capital to the drafters of the 2022 NDS, focusing specifically on unfinished business from the past several defense strategies and areas where change is necessary but difficult.


The Next Defense Strategy

About this commentary series By statute, the Department of Defense (DoD) must deliver a new National Defense Strategy (NDS) to Congress in 2022. And CNAS is here to help. From...

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  1. Paul Scharre, “Esper’s Convenient Lie,” Defense One, September 18, 2020, https://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2020/09/espers-convenient-lie/168596/.
  2. Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America, https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf.
  3. The Army defines talent as “the intersection of three dimensions—knowledge, skills, and behaviors in every person . . . [that] represent more than the education, experiences and training provided by the Army.” U.S. Army, “U.S. Army Talent Management,” Stand-To! October 10, 2018, https://www.army.mil/standto/archive/2018/10/10/index.html.
  4. Elsa Kania and Emma Moore, “Great Power Rivalry Is Also a War for Talent,” Defense One, May 19, 2019, https://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2019/05/great-power-rivalry-also-war-talent/157103/.
  5. John Swisher, “By the Numbers: U.S. Military Brain Drain,” RealClear Defense, September 7, 2014, https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2014/09/08/by_the_numbers_us_military_brain_drain_107422.html.
  6. Todd Helmus, Rebecca Zimmerman, Marek Posard, et al., “Life as a Private: A Study of the Motivations and Experiences of Junior Enlisted Personnel in the U.S. Army” (Rand Corporation, 2018), https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2252.html.
  7. Government Accountability Office, Female Active Duty Personnel: Guidance and Plans Needed for Recruitment and Retention Efforts, GAO-20-61 (May 2020), https://www.gao.gov/assets/710/707037.pdf.
  8. Rosemary Williams, Joe Mariani, and Adam Routh, “Military Spouse Unemployment: Exploring Solutions to a Local Problem of National Importance,” deloitte.com, July 22, 2020, https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/industry/public-sector/military-spouse-unemployment.html?id=us:2sm:3tw:4di6601:5awa:6di:MMDDYY:HANDLE::author&pkid=1006981. Tom Barron, “To Retain Today’s Talent, the DoD Must Support Dual-Professional Couples” (Center for a New American Security, January 7, 2019), https://www.cnas.org/publications/commentary/to-retain-todays-talent-the-dod-must-support-dual-professional-couples.
  9. David Rock and Heidi Grant, “Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter,” Harvard Business Review, November 4, 2016, https://hbr.org/2016/11/why-diverse-teams-are-smarter.
  10. James Joyner, “Soldier-Scholar (Pick One): Anti-Intellectualism in the American Military,” War on the Rocks, August 25, 2020, https://warontherocks.com/2020/08/soldier-scholar-pick-one-anti-intellectualism-in-the-american-military/.
  11. Mark Conversino, Joan Johnson-Freese, and Ryan Evans, “Airmen, Sailors, and the Schoolhouse,” War on the Rocks, August 24, 2020, https://warontherocks.com/2020/08/airmen-sailors-and-the-schoolhouse/.
  12. Government Accountability Office, DoD Advertising: Better Coordination, Performance Measurement, and Oversight Needed to Help Meet Recruitment Goals, GAO-16-396 (May 2016), https://www.gao.gov/assets/680/677062.pdf.
  13. John Kroger, “Office Life at the Pentagon Is Disconcertingly Retrograde,” Wired, August 20, 2020, https://www.wired.com/story/opinion-office-life-at-the-pentagon-is-disconcertingly-retrograde/.
  14. Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, 3.
  15. For discussion of some noted barriers, see Jessica Ruttenber’s blog “Hidden Barriers,” https://hidden-barriers.org/; and the CNAS commentary series “Supporting the Military Community,” https://www.cnas.org/supporting-the-military-community-a-commentary-series.
  16. Emma Moore and Mike Martinez, “It’s Only Going to Get Harder to Recruit and Retain Troops in a Post-Pandemic World,” Defense One, May 21, 2020, https://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2020/05/its-only-going-get-harder-recruit-and-retain-troops-post-pandemic-world/165555/. Todd Harrison and Seamus P. Daniels, “Analysis of the FY 2021 Defense Budget” (Center for Strategic and International Studies, August 2020), http://defense360.csis.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Analysis-of-the-FY-2021-Defense-Budget.pdf.

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