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Operations Tempo Remains Retention Challenge

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 17, 1999 – The proposed pay raise, pay table reform and changes to the retirement system will have a positive influence on military retention rates, but officials are still concerned about the effects of operations tempo, said Vice Adm. Patricia A. Tracey.

Tracey, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military personnel policy, also said DoD must better understand how members' concerns about their families may be causing mid-level officers and NCOs to leave the services. DoD must do more to address these quality of life issues, she said.

The mid-year report on retention in the military is mixed, she said. "The Army has a great year going, the Navy is doing OK -- they'd like to be better. The Air Force is struggling and the Marines are doing well," she said during an interview.

Tracey said the congressionally-proposed 4.8 percent across-the- board pay hike, targeted pay and repeal of the Redux retirement system will encourage more service members to stay on active duty. "Yet, a very robust economy out there means these men and women believe they can get out and have more personal time with their families," she said.

Tracey said visiting and talking with people in the field reveals members' attempts to balance family and service demands have a lot to do with retention problems. "Young officers and enlisted personnel see time as the most important commodity. They are the 'latchkey kids' and they will not do the same thing to their children," she said. "We must address this concern."

DoD is doing more than just promoting pay raises and retirement reform, she said. The department is working with Congress to increase the amounts of special pays and incentives available as retention tools. It has proposed new special pays for Navy special operations warfare officers and surface warfare officers and an enlisted aviation career incentive pay.

Another initiative will raise the ceiling for selective re- enlistment bonuses from the current $45,000 to $60,000. Although only a few people will qualify for the maximum amount, Tracey said, the initiative will give service planners more flexibility and make crucial military specialties more attractive. (See related story on special pays and bonuses.)

"The most important signal of all is that everyone in Washington has been talking about the importance of retaining experience in the military," Tracey said. "After 10 years of downsizing, that's the right kind of dialogue to have going."

Optempo remains a problem. Optempo is the pace of operations experienced by units, especially in terms of deployments and training. Since the end of the Cold War, more U.S. service members have been deploying to hotspots around the world. Tracey said the services are looking at ways to make military life "more predictable."

She said the Navy and Marine Corps have for years deployed crews and ships on a set cycle. She cited the Air Force's aerospace expeditionary force as a promising step toward making Air Force life more predictable. The Army, too, is looking at deployment rates and how to ensure no unit is overstressed.

Some personnel tempo problems result from the turbulence created by downsizing and consolidation, she said. Perstempo refers to the degree of turbulence or turnover in individual jobs, how hard and how long individuals work and how frequently they are being deployed. Optempo generally drives perstempo, but so does how well a unit is manned. "In some cases, we have the right number of people, but they may still be in training," she said.

Of course, the careful operations tempo and personnel tempo planning go by the wayside when an operation like Allied Force comes along, she said.

Another problem with retention is a mindset, Tracey said. "Some commanders have been asked for half their careers to help downsize the force, and now they have to help retain an experienced force," she said. The active duty military shrank from 2.13 million service members in 1989 to 1.36 million today. Retention is not a commander's first concern when the military shrinks that amount, she said.

The services must make some systemic changes, she said. One of these is to reverse the time-in-grade changes made during the height of the drawdown. The services shortened the time people could stay in grade as part of the drawdown strategy. "It takes more than a stroke of a pen to make these changes," she said. "You have to think your way through the changes to reverse that process. There are innumerable things like that. But the biggest issue is what the field's focus is -- drawdown or retention."

Bringing back re-enlistment NCOs is another aspect the military should consider, she said. Re-up NCOs helped "sell" those in the service on making the military a career. The military eliminated many of those positions during downsizing. Now, commanders must rethink whether it is time to bring them back.

Tracey said DoD also must examine quality of life considerations.

What exit surveys show as the most important considerations may vary by service, but taking care of the families is important to all. "This is a very married force," Tracey said. "Not only is it very married, but among the more junior people it is a very family-focused force."

With that in mind, DoD will survey service members to determine, in part, what importance service members attach to quality of life issues when making their decisions to stay or leave. The survey is expected out in September, DoD officials said.

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