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‘Lateral entry’: Direct commissioning of civilians, a pro and con

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, August 3, 2016



Jeffrey E. Phillips, Maj. Gen., USA (Ret.)
ROA Executive Director

Defense Secretary Ash Carter in June announced a second “tranche” of initiatives in his Force of the Future program designed to position the department for, well, the future.  Among those initiatives was the reliably controversial “lateral entry” proposal.  Secretary Carter recognizes that the military doesn’t always produce every type of expert it needs.  He wants the ability to “laterally” bring volunteers with the needed skills into uniformed service at an appropriate rank (and subject to the UCMJ and rigor of military command).

“In situations where, for example, a network defense or encryption expert from a tech company feels a call to serve and is willing to contribute to the DoD mission as a reservist or on active duty, the department needs a way to harness their expertise and put it to use,” Carter said, according to a June 2016 DoD release. “Allowing the military services to commission a wider segment of specialized outside talent … who can meet our standards, who provide unique skills we need and who are willing to serve in uniform will help fill critical gaps in our force and will make us more effective.”

I specifically advocated this innovation to Secretary Carter in an early 2016 meeting, noting that the idea of lateral entry is not new.  Just months after Pearl Harbor, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall made film director Frank Capra a major.  Marshall needed a skilled filmmaker to help the war effort and the Army had no such expertise. Major Capra produced the Why We Fight series showing troops why America was going to war and why they were being called on to risk their necks. 


“Now, Capra, I want to nail down with you a plan to make a series of documented, factual-information films – the first in our history – that will explain to our boys in the Army why we are fighting, and the principles for which we are fighting,” Marshall told the filmmaker. “You have an opportunity to contribute enormously to your country and the cause of freedom. Are you aware of that, sir?”


The 1943 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Capra an Academy Award (later the “Oscar”) for Best Documentary film of 1942 for the Why We Fight film Prelude to War. 

It is worth noting that in 1942, conscription gave the nation access to any able-bodied adult, yet the Army still had to “reach out” for a specific expert – and recognized that such an expert needed significant commissioned rank.

In his book, Bleeding Talent, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Tim Kane explores the military’s centralized personnel systems and what he sees as their corrosive effect on retention.  Kane criticizes the inability of the military to accommodate lateral entry from outside, as it has done before with good effect.

One obvious objection (one I considered in helping develop ROA’s position on the matter) involves the integrity of the culture.  The concern is that a civilian injected into the military, especially as a field grade officer, without acculturation and years of training, will weaken the integrity of the military culture.  After all, being an officer is more than learning how to salute (and what to salute) and so forth . . .

And yet, and yet, we already do this: our doctors come in as officers with less military training and seasoning than a “line” officer of equivalent rank; the same might be said of our lawyers.  Yet their performance – or effect on military culture – is rarely the subject of serious criticism.

Consider the United States Marine Band, “The President’s Own.”  By all accounts, it is an integral and even beloved component of the Corps.  But Marine bandsmen don’t go through “Parris Island” basic training; they are expert musicians recruited directly into the Marine Corps.  With minimal training, they don the uniform and perform to the adulation and respect of all, including their Corps brethren. 

The Reserve could be home to a revival of this enlightened way of selectively accessing specialized expertise; the Reserve could even be responsible for identifying capabilities needed and candidates for accession. For example, in addition to cyber and with the evolving nature of military operations, experts in macroeconomics and advanced finance may well be critical to a combatant commander; there is no military occupational specialty for these skills. 


The implementation of this proposal would dramatically expand both the expertise available to the military and the types of people potentially amenable to service.  Lateral entry would be a solid move toward enhancing civil-military relations; and most important, would increase the readiness of the total force.


Who knows, maybe we’d get another Oscar . . .



Dennis Laich, Maj. Gen., USA (Ret.)
Author of
Skin in the Game

I fully understand that the Department of Defense has a major problem attracting and retaining cyber talent.  I also understand that the problem is the result of the failure of senior civilian and uniformed bureaucrats at the Pentagon to anticipate and address the problem in a timely manner.  Globalization, the Internet, and social media did not suddenly appear.  Furthermore, this problem is a reflection of the limitations and failure of the All-Volunteer Force model of manning our military which gives an exemption from service to every citizen.


The   proposed “fix” by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to allow more “lateral entry” of lifelong civilians with “cyber skills” into the officer corps at ranks as high as O-6 is a monumental mistake with negative secondary and tertiary effects.  First, it weakens the military’s longstanding tradition of growing its own force, which is the foundation of its culture and social fabric, and the source of its effectiveness.  Lateral entry creates a tribe of outsiders disconnected from the career force.


Second, this initiative opens the door to a slippery slope that threatens the longstanding rank structure and organization of the military.  The “cyber-logic” could be applied to logistics, military police, and civil affairs, thereby demoralizing traditional careerists in these fields.  Third, a quick internet search reveals that the average annual salary of an undergraduate computer science or software engineering major is $86,000 per year (Monster.com).  The base pay of an O-6 with 10 years of service is $88,000 per year. 


“Financial patriotism” is not a factor in this situation.  If the lifelong civilian was not motivated to “volunteer” as an E-4 why would he or she be motivated to volunteer as an O-6?  Is the Pentagon selling rank and cheapening it at the same time?  It is unrealistic to think that a civilian with these skill sets would surrender his or her personal and professional autonomy for this tradeoff.


I suspect that very few would respond to this trumpet’s call, but the Pentagon would invite the unintended consequences of placing two centuries of tradition, culture, and effectiveness at risk.


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Tags:  Direct commission Civilians  Pro/Con 

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