If the U.S. military were starting fresh, I would begin by designing a new personnel system. I would put more money into the forms of compensation service members value most, such as basic pay, while promising less in deferred benefits, such as pensions and health care. I would also rethink the antiquated officer-enlisted divide, allow for mid-career hires at ranks commensurate with skills and not require service members to relocate as often since many have spouses with careers of their own.
Put more money in basic pay and less in pensions and health care.
Starting anew, the military would not be burdened with the legacy bases and facilities it finds so difficult to close today. I would create as few bases as possible in the United States, knowing they will be nearly impossible to close in the future. Overseas bases should be built for scalability so they can grow when a region becomes a priority and rapidly shrink to a minimal caretaker staff when priorities shift.
Lastly, I would build combat forces that leverage our advantages and are mindful of the threats we are likely to face in the future. I would raise the share of resources and the institutional stature of enabling forces within the military, such as space, cyber and logistics. These forces are key to helping our allies and partners better defend themselves, and our alliances are one of our great competitive advantages. I would also place a higher priority on forces designed to operate in more contested environments and over longer ranges and invest in unmanned systems to the maximum extent feasible.
While this is merely a thought exercise, none of the things listed here require starting over. Each of these things can be accomplished through incremental change. All that is required are open minds in Congress and in the military — and an electorate that holds both institutions responsible for better stewardship of the nation’s resources.
Todd Harrison is the senior fellow for defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.