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Carter pushes retirement, other changes for military

Lolita C. Baldor
Associated Press

Washington — Defense Secretary Ash Carter is pushing major changes to the Pentagon’s personnel systems that are intended to attract the next generation of service members and drag the often-antiquated bureaucracy into the 21st century.

Many of the moves that Carter planned to outline in a speech Wednesday focus on how the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps recruit and retain troops.

For example, members of the military can begin investing in a 401(k)-type retirement plan beginning in January 2018. Sabbatical programs will expand, and service members more easily can move from active duty to the reserves. That will give them a chance to take a break, seek advanced schooling, internships or other work and eventually bring that experience back to the Pentagon.

Officials said the personnel changes are the most significant since the all-volunteer force was implemented.

The plans reflect Carter’s goal of modernizing the bureaucracy and encouraging more young people to consider the military as a career. Many of the changes would align the Pentagon with the corporate world, as Carter tries to strengthen ties with high-tech companies and bring the best from that field into the his department.

Defense officials who provided details of the changes spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly ahead of Carter’s speech.

More than 1.3 million men and women are on active military duty, about 826,000 serve in the National Guard and Reserve, and there are 742,000 civilian personnel, according to the department.

Among the nearly two dozen initiatives are some that can easily be put in place. Military leaders are studying and debating more complex or controversial changes to the promotion system and expansion of benefits for women.

The retirement change, long discussed and recommended by independent commissions, would allow service members to participate in a 401(k)-type plan, so that if they serve fewer than 20 years they can leave with a small nest egg. According to officials, more than 80 percent of the people who enlist in the military leave before they reach 20 years — receiving no retirement payout.

Critics have suggested that providing some retirement plan for those who stay five years or 10 years might encourage more people to leave early, draining the department of key personnel. But one senior official said the change would get the department to a place where deciding to stay in the service would not be dictated solely by financial concerns.

It also would let the services better choose who should stay and who should go, rather than allowing someone with 15 years in service stay on only because they needed five more years to get the retirement pay.

Anyone joining the military after Jan. 1, 2018, would have a defined retirement benefit plan as well as a 401(k)-type plan. The department would begin matching contributions, up to 5 percent, after three years. No one now in the military would have to participate in the contribution plan, but those with fewer than 12 years in the service could choose to join.

The sabbatical plan would expand and make permanent a pilot program that allows service members to leave their job for a year or two to have a child, go to school or get an internship, and then return without affecting their career. Although the program has gotten good reviews from those who used it, many service members are reluctant to participate because they are afraid it will delay or derail promotions or shuttle them into less favorable jobs.

This expansion would require congressional approval.

A new study will focus on how to better provide incentives to recruiters that take into account whether recruits finish their initial service commitment. Carter also wants to look at ways to expand the pool of young people who consider the military as a career.

More than 60 percent of current recruits come from the South, and many of them are from families with military backgrounds.

Among the other initiatives:

— expanded internships and fellowships.

— a study on basic and specialty pay.

— requiring exit interviews for service members to get a better understanding of why people leave the military.

The first changes will be followed by more in the coming weeks, along with proposals designed to make the department more attractive as the military faces escalating conflicts in Iraq and Syria, and challenges from China, Russia, North Korea and Iran.

Carter has said he needs a military armed with the best, high-tech weapons that can compete in the air, on the ground, at sea, in space and in the cybersphere.