June 03, 2021

The Way Ahead for the Next Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness

By Katherine L. Kuzminski and Nathalie Grogan

Some of the most powerful national security positions in Washington are ones you’ve never heard of. The under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness is one of those positions. The appointee in the position sets personnel policy for the Department of Defense, standardizing practices across the military services affecting the recruitment, retention, and management of the nation’s uniformed human capital. The decisions the under secretary makes today will have implications for uniformed military leadership 30 to 40 years in the future.

In April, the Biden administration nominated former California congressman and Navy veteran Gil Cisneros as the country’s next under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness. If confirmed, Cisneros will fill a pivotal position in the Department of Defense. In order to capitalize on this moment, the under secretary should take a proactive approach to leading the Defense Department and inspire service-level leadership to consider how to build, maintain, and utilize the force to protect the nation against a range of adversaries.

There are few things in the Pentagon more consequential than military personnel policy

The defense community tends to overlook the importance of military personnel management as an area of strategic investment. Instead, it focuses on current operations, logistics and sustainment, and the development, acquisition, and fielding of high-end platforms. While these elements are crucial for the execution of U.S. national security strategy, the successful implementation of each element hinges on the services being fully manned with the kinds of high-quality officers and enlisted personnel necessary for managing complex systems and processes. High-end platforms tend to garner a lot more attention due to the magnitude of their cost. However, the Defense Department spends roughly one-quarter of its total budget on military personnel — more than what it spends on the procurement of weapons systems or their research and development.

In addition, there are few things in the Pentagon more consequential than military personnel policy. The military personnel system is a closed promotion system, meaning that the future leadership of the services (both flag and general officers and senior non-commissioned officers) is selected from within the service. Unlike corporations or federal departments, which can recruit talent laterally at the most senior levels, military leadership is selected from a limited pool of candidates who are filtered through a promotion process that culls that pool at regular intervals. As a result of this closed system, officers commissioned this year will provide the talent pool from which the future joint chiefs of staff will be selected in the year 2058.

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