Defense Secretary Ash Carter wants to open the door for more “lateral entry” into the military's upper ranks, clearing the way for lifelong civilians with vital skills and strong résumés to enter the officer corps as high as the O-6 paygrade.
The idea is controversial, to say the very least. For many in the rank-and-file military, it seems absurd, a bewildering cultural change that threatens to upend many assumptions about military life and traditional career paths. But while it's not universally embraced, there is interest in Congress and among some of the military's uniformed leaders — even, they say, in exploring how the services could apply this concept to the enlisted force.
This is a key piece of Carter’s “Force of the Future” personnel reform. Unveiled June 9, it aims to help the military bring in more top talent, especially for high-tech career fields focused on cyber warfare and space. Advocates say it will help the military fill important manpower shortfalls with highly skilled professionals and, more broadly, create greater “permeability” between the active-duty military and the civilian sector.
At the same time, it suggests eroding the military’s tradition of growing its own leaders and cultivating a force with a distinct culture and tight social fabric, which many believe to be the heart of military effectiveness. Critics worry it will create a new subcaste of military service members who are fundamentally disconnected from the traditional career force.
“They will enter a culture they don’t know, understand or potentially appreciate,” said Dakota Wood, a retired Marine officer and military expert at the Heritage Foundation. “The Marines around them will likely be challenged to appreciate them as they would a fellow Marine.”
If approved by Congress, the individual military services would be authorized — but not required — to expand lateral entry up to the rank of colonel, or in the case of the Navy a captain. It's part of a broader reform effort that may also include new rules for bringing enlisted troops in at the noncommissioned officer ranks, which does not require approval from Congress.