From the Director’s Chair

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From the Director’s Chair
By: Kathleen Hicks

The graduation of two female officers from the U.S. Army’s elite Ranger School is very much in the news this August. By the end of 2015, the secretary of defense will decide whether any exceptions of women from combat roles are warranted. Odds are strong that all military occupations will be opened to women, certainly within the next few years if not the next few months. This opening to women comes on the heels of the Defense Department’s 2011 decision to lift the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding gay and lesbian service members. These members are now afforded the right to serve openly.

In both of these cases, decisions that increase military inclusion reflect significant attitudinal shifts across the American public. At least as important, however, is that these decisions make sound national security sense. While maintaining standards, they better position the military to attract and retain the high-quality workforce it needs for the future. More than 1 in 3 American workers today is a Millennial, aged 18 to 34. This generation and the one behind it—sometimes called Generation Z—are the near- and mid-term source of U.S. military personnel, and their views on both women and gays serving in the military are significantly more positive than most of their predecessors.

Make no mistake: the demographic challenges facing the military over the next half-century are daunting. Through at least 2020, the U.S. labor force will continue to grow slowly, but almost entirely due to an increase in the size of the age 55 and older cohort. The percent of the 2020 workforce composed of 16 to 24 year olds is actually projected to decline by more than 12 percent. Moreover, the Army estimates that in five years, as much as 50 percent of the individuals attempting to join the service will be disqualified from consideration due to obesity. And, whereas almost 80 percent of today’s service members come from existing military families, the fastest-growing segment of the population under age 18 will be foreign born, few of whom are likely to have had a family member serve in the U.S. military. Also notable, some critical skill sets of the future, such as cyber and data analytics, are already difficult to recruit and retain in the active force. The inflexibility of current personnel approaches are impeding the military’s ability to close these skill gaps.

The U.S. military will need to adapt to this environment if it is to maintain the quality of its armed forces. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s Force of the Future effort and similar ongoing military service initiatives (for example, the U.S. Navy’s recent decision to increase maternity leave in a bid to retain more women in its ranks) are important signals that the Defense Department’s leadership knows it needs to adapt. Many of these efforts will come with significant challenges, including cost, regulatory, and statutory hurdles. If they are to succeed, it’s time we see them as investments in our most valuable military advantage—the All-Volunteer Force—and to prioritize them accordingly in our national defense debate.

Kathleen Hicks is senior vice president, Henry A. Kissinger Chair, and director of the International Security Program at CSIS. Other posts by .


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