Why The Pentagon Can't Keep it's Best and Brightest

An Atlantic Magazine article written by Tim Kane suggests that the military is having more and more trouble retaining its officers following the mandatory five year service requirement after academy graduation. When the US Military Academy class of 1999 hit its five year mark in 2004, 72 percent of graduates continued with their service, while the remaining 28 percent resigned. 75-80 percent retention is a more typical rate. A year later, the retention rate dropped to 66 percent, a 16 year low.

And the problem goes deeper than just the loss of very young officers. Kane conducted a survey of 250 West Point graduates from the classes of 1989, 1991, 1995, 2000, 2001, and 2004, in which he discovered that 93% of them believed that half or more of “the best officers leave the military early rather than serving a full career.” The majority of the respondents also agreed that this early exit served as a detriment to the military as a whole.

Why a Mass Exodus of Officers

Given that the military has no trouble attracting the best and the brightest, and even excels at training and teaching them, why does it have so much trouble keeping them? According to Kane, veterans and active-duty servicemen alike agree on the primary reason for the mass exodus of officers from the military: its entrenched personnel system’s blindness to merit-based advancement. 9 out of 10 of Kane’s survey respondents indicated that many of the best officers would not have left if the military was more of a meritocracy and less of a blind bureaucracy.

Because the military adheres strictly to the policies and traditions it has held to for decades, it is not able to reward enterprising and entrepreneurial individuals. Kane points specifically to the mandatory time-in-service requirement for promotions. In order for officers to realize the goal of top ranks in the military, they must serve past the mandatory 22 year service requirement. Long before that, many such officers realize that they can exert more influence and realize their potential sooner outside of the military; hence, they leave.

Reasons for leaving the Military

A 2011 Foreign Policy piece also looked at the question of military officer retention, specifically as it applies to young officers. In this piece, the investigators surveyed 250 former junior military officers who left the service in the first decade of the 21st century. The two primary reasons for the leaving the military cited by this group correlate with the reasons cited by officers who had served even longer: lack of organizational flexibility and a lack of commitment to innovation. Thus, the problems within the military are systemic, whether an officer has served for five years or for 20 years.

A US Military That Needs to Adapt

The full impact of the military’s increasing inability to retain its officers has yet to be seen, but the cards
are on the table. Unless the military can adapt to the needs of its officers, it may just find itself without
enough officers to whom to adapt.

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