Manpower Management 2030: Analog Technology in a Digital World

By Major Ryan W. Pallas

Disclaimer: The thoughts and views are that of the author and do not reflect the Department of Defense or any other governmental agency.

James Wesley Marsh Center (Headquarters Marine Corps, Manpower & Reserve Affairs-Image cleared for public release)

All of our investments in data science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence are designed to unleash the incredible talent of the individual Marine.
 –
38th Commandant’s Planning Guidance

The Commandant’s Planning Guidance (CPG) discusses manpower reductions generating funding for a modern force balancing rising technology costs, “If provided the opportunity to secure additional modernization dollars in exchange for force structure, I am prepared to do so. Extensive force modernization discussions exist, but little exists on how to modernize an antiquated manpower management system to unleash the full potential of this force. How does the Marine Corps manage the force of the future? More importantly, how does the Marine Corps compete within the manpower domain, both now and in the future, with analog technology in a digital world? 

Military service is a welcomed voluntary challenge for many, but ignoring current inefficiencies in the manpower system questions the importance the Marine Corps places on manpower and retention. The CPG dedicates an entire page to manpower with the Commandant stating, “I will communicate more on this idea in the near future.” Force Design 2030, the first guidance since the CPG, depicts drastic manpower reductions using the word “manpower” only once and absent from the document is the word “management”. The Commandant describes the current manpower system as lacking in the CPG, but never addresses how to improve this system in Force Design.

In December of 2019 Lieutenant General Michael Rocco, the Deputy Commandant for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, stated to the House Armed Services Committee, “As we look toward the future, we are focusing efforts on data collection and management and using predictive analytics to guide retention efforts and overall talent management,” with no timeline for completion. With manpower management absent from Force Design and no timeline for the above manpower objectives, the following recommendations look to improve the current manpower system to achieve the CPG in an era of great power competition.

Create and Publish ”Manpower Management 2030”

The Commandant’s immediate action requirements were made public via Twitter in February of this year. The priorities delineate specific manpower initiatives with no discussion on the outdated manpower system that will implement these changes. The Assistant Commandant (ACMC), the Talent Management Officer for the Marine Corps, must implement artificial intelligence (AI) into the assignments process by calendar year 2023 to facilitate funding, implementation, and achievement of the aforementioned goals. Until a fiscal year Program Objective Memorandum (POM) includes AI manpower programs, the process will operate at the limits of human-capacity. Force Design 2030 provides insight into “why” the Marine Corps is taking the steps it is, but fails to mention what system will manage those changes and when that system will be operational. A supplemental publication, Manpower Management 2030, must depict future manpower systems, timelines, and guidance to ensure the future force reaches full potential. The Army is leading this effort within the Department of Defense.

Major General Joseph McGee, the head of the Army Talent Management Task Force, is moving away from industrial age methods using data-based talent management:

“At the core, what we’re trying to do is to move the Army from a very industrial age approach to how we manage people. We’re trying to move from a data-poor to a data-rich environment so we can get the most out of every officer and then eventually out of every soldier and civilian.”

6,000 of the 14,500 eligible soldiers received their first assignment choice with many still receiving an assignment within their top three requests, a result that speaks for itself. If the Marine Corps requires a smaller, smarter, and more talented force, AI enabled technologies with the ability to laterally communicate amongst shared databases for career management is the first step. Outdated industrial manpower procedures and software systems fail to mitigate human-error relying solely on the talents of the assignments officer. The current system is unable to unleash the full potential and diverse talents of the Marine, unit, or service by ignoring large pools of data with the inability to synthesize a service wide solution. The current software system and the human brain interacting with it will never be able to process a quadrillion data points in a single second.

The Army manpower improvements reflect a service willing to make the necessary fiscal investments to an area typically ignored during budget planning and supported only with rhetoric. The Marine Corps, in the middle of implementing Force Design 2030, risks falling behind other DoD services and peer competitors. The stakes to get this right require the ability to compete with countries that do not have the statutory requirements that come with operating an all-volunteer force.

Increase Education Opportunities

“And that is what a rapidly changing, wicked world demands—conceptual reasoning skills that can connect new ideas and work across contexts.”
David Epstein, “Range”

David Epstein, an investigative reporter for Sports Illustrated and ProPublica, captures educational requirements for the modern world in his work “Range”. Epstein explores specialists and generalists in sports, medicine, music, and the military focusing on the utility of breadth, or “range”, within hyper-specialized systems.

Business Executives for National Security illustrate education requirements, or breadth of knowledge, continuing to increase in the military during great power competition:

“Great power competition coupled with rapid technological innovation is forcing national security organizations to rethink the way they execute their missions. Foreign adversary efforts to gain advantage over the United States cut across all sectors of society. The complexity of today’s threats require national security leaders to build a workforce with the skills suited for the dynamics of the modern threat environment, as articulated in the National Defense Strategy.”

Marines must understand and implement new technologies through evolving domains of warfare such as cyber and space in the face of peer competitors. In future operating concepts, a single Marine, regardless of occupational specialty, will replace 5-10 personnel in garrison and combat increasing the demand for generalists. The education of this individual Marine must be diverse with a level of mastery that exceeds novice just short of preceptor. A Marine must connect new ideas across contexts working in small autonomous teams—the level of education they deploy with is the level of education they will fight with. A plan to optimize continuous education throughout each career ensures this capability in the future Marine Corps. The necessity to improve manpower management seeks to maximize all 31,536,000 seconds in a year to increase retention, breadth of knowledge, and avoid burnout. The Marine Corps must incorporate AI into the assignments process to retain talented service members as requirements continue to increase with time remaining constant. 

The importance of education continues to increase as the rate of technology change accelerates. Eric Teller, a scientist at Stanford and Google X, working in the field of intelligent technologies, provides a visual depiction of human adaptability when compared to the rate technology changes in the graph below. The Marine Corps must ensure education remains persistent and tailorable throughout a career to continually close the gap between human adaptability and technology creating man-machine teaming competitive overmatch. China and Russia look to compete in this space, with China looking to rule the AI domain by 2030. This is not a matter of change for change sake, but a national security requirement to revolutionize manpower systems and career progression to compete both now and in the future.

The Marine Corps must invest in improved manpower systems to maximize educational opportunities throughout a career balancing personal and professional lives. The current model of sending a Marine to school with the possibility of two changes in duty station within a calendar year is outdated. The population reference bureau reveals a new complex family environment with shared living arrangements, same sex couples, increased divorce rates, and two in five children not living with both biological parents. The Marine Corps is operating with an analog family model in a digital world.

Competition with civilian markets and other DoD services will continue to strain recruitment and retention. Cyber and aviation, high-demand military occupational specialties, will continue to remain civilian recruiting targets. The shortage in Marine aviation and the idea of direct hiring senior officers into the cyber corps illustrates the necessity to immediately improve manpower management.

(Timeline adapted by the author from career-timing charts from Headquarters Marine Corps)

The current career model usually allows for two, with a maximum of three, career professional military school opportunities for officers. The Marine Corps provides distance education for Expeditionary Warfare School (EWS) and Command and Staff College (CSC) with no distance education capability for Top Level School (TLS). The Army and Air Force provide the only TLS options for distance education which Marines, O5 and above, may attend.

Comparing PME schools, TLS has a lower selection rate which would seem to be a force shaping tool at Lieutenant Colonel and beyond (26% selection rate from Manpower & Reserve Affairs Manpower Assignments Road Show Presentation 2019). Sacrificing education for force shaping is counterintuitive to the Commandant’s goal of being, “committed to ensuring each of you is provided the best educational opportunity available…” when those opportunities are only made available to a quarter of the specified demographic. Greater TLS distance education opportunities create stability, career flexibility, and a higher level of collective intelligence amongst senior officers.

During a recent conversation with peers and education professionals currently working at resident programs, the common justification expressed for resident education was “experience.” A year discussing ideas and building relationships with peers, partners, and allies is valuable for the future operating environment but is not sound justification for resident only programs. Exercises, deployments, and training build partnerships and do so in simulated or real combat environments. Critical thinking must remain the goal of PME which the mission statement for the Marine Corps War College reinforces, “educates selected military and civilian professionals in order to develop critical thinkers, military strategists, joint warfighters and strategic leaders who are prepared to meet the challenges of a complex and dynamic security environment.”

Recent COVID impacts to education illustrate technological advances enabling distance education for any level of schooling questioning resident only programs. Dr. James Wirtz, the dean of International Graduate Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School, suggests if time is allocated toward distance education, the programs become feasible. “Therein lies the rub. Distance learning can eliminate the time and expense involved in PCS moves, but cannot address the need for time to actually complete a curriculum.” The solution, Marines attend full-time non-resident programs without leaving their current duty station. 

Marines and their families may endure multiple changes in duty station within a condensed time period at the twenty year mark where the decision to serve or retire looms. The Marine Corps can mitigate the requirement to move multiple times by providing distance education for TLS. The Marine Corps can increase education opportunities while remaining fiscally conservative by providing augment instructors to current non-resident programs with the Army and Air Force. Adding augment instructors to existing programs and requesting an increased quota for Marine officers to attend is a fiscally sound and timely solution. A long-term objective should be broadening civilian education opportunities co-located near prominent Marine bases resulting in JPME II credit and satisfying Congressional requirements. For example, A Lieutenant Colonel selected for top level school may attend a full-time master’s program in San Diego or North Carolina. The military is a benefactor from civilian education producing leaders such as: Stockdale (Stanford), Dunford (Tufts), Milley (Columbia), Brown (Embry-Riddle) and Berger (SAIS)—all with master’s degrees from civilian institutions.

Promotion and Command Precepts

Manpower management improvements will result in new career paths conflicting with historical, or “traditional” ones. Board rooms, for promotion and command, will find senior officers with traditional career timelines using their best judgment to evaluate junior officers with various career paths often conflicting with a traditional timeline. Guidance to boards via precept, must focus on selecting the next leader or commander to a higher grade or command billet regardless of career path or occupational specialty. The Marine Corps slates Marine Expeditionary Units interchangeably between aviators and ground officers with great success. This interoperability must permeate to the lowest levels for the future Marine Corps to succeed.

Force Design will leave high performing officers outside of their primary occupational specialty looking to contribute to the Marine Corps in new ways. If guidance does not delineate the important roles these officers will play in 2030 and beyond, high performing individuals with desirable experiences and talents will leave prematurely.

Promotion and command boards using outdated software programs bolster the case for AI implementation. AI programs will facilitate bias removal by providing data-rich analysis for each candidate—regardless of career path. The art and science of boards will remain a delicate balance, but the lack in technology for board members makes the current process more art than science. This does not advocate for removing human board members, but providing a more thorough data analysis for each candidate creating a more efficient and effective selection process maximizing man-machine teaming. 

Conclusion

A failure to correct the current shortfalls in manpower management accepts risk in future conflicts sourcing individuals and units that never reach full potential. If the Marine Corps is serious about removing incremental change and pursing, “transformational capabilities that will provide naval fleets and joint force commanders with a competitive advantage in the gray zone and during contingency” it must recognize a modern manpower management system is a far more significant and long-term impactful example of defense innovation than any missile or weapons platform.

The Marine Corps must create and publish a manpower strategy to communicate to the total force the changes Manpower and Reserve Affairs is undertaking in achievement of the CPG. This strategy will serve as an external dialogue for Lieutenant General Ottignon, the current Deputy Commandant for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, to communicate to the Commandant and Congress the requisite funds to support updating the Marine Corps manpower systems. Without the monetary support this plan will remain aspirational with no ability to progress in achievement of the NDS, Commandant’s Planning Guidance, or Force Design 2030 leaving the Marine Corps to compete, both home and abroad, with analog technology in a digital world.

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