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Pentagon proposals seek to retain critical talent. What's up for discussion?

The latest efforts by US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to modernize the military bureaucracy focus on the promotion system, which currently has strict requirements for the attainment of higher rank within given timeframes.

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    Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks during an August news conference at the Pentagon. Secretary Carter is expected to roll out sweeping new proposals aimed at keeping high-tech experts or other specialists on the job on Thursday.
    Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
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Defense Secretary Ashton Carter is to announce Thursday the most groundbreaking installment yet in his campaign to address the military’s antiquated bureaucracy.

Sweeping new proposals will attack the entrenched “up or out” promotion system whereby employees are often forced out of the organization if they fail to achieve a higher rank within a given timeframe.

The fundamental aim behind this particular reform is to provide more flexibility, allowing such rules to be bypassed when necessary, rather than abolishing the traditional structure. In particular, it targets specialists and high-tech experts, seeking to retain them rather than require them to leave at the behest of an arcane system, when their services could still be valuable.

While there is general support for the provision of greater flexibility, some military leaders emphasized that there are situations where the old rules make sense, such as for fighter pilots or certain combat command positions.

Many of the proposals will need congressional approval, and one idea likely to encounter opposition is the suggestion of giving civilian employees six weeks’ paid paternal leave to cover the birth or adoption of a child. Carving out a special arrangement such as this just for the Defense Department could prove challenging, but harder still would be winning approval for a change across all federal departments.

The proposed promotion amendments, which would also need a change in the law, would permit a major or captain to retain their rank for years, even an entire career, should they possess a sufficiently critical skill-set in a field such as cyberwarfare.

The current system grants senior leaders little flexibility. It lays down requirements, including schooling and command responsibilities, that must be met before promotion, but it also demands they be achieved in a given timeframe.

Under the new proposals, troops would have the right to have their promotion review postponed, if they have yet to meet all the requirements and wish to pursue other opportunities in the meantime, such as higher education or an internship.

In addition to boosting the number of pathways open to current employees, the revamped approach would provide the military with more options when seeking to recruit outside talent. Already, doctors, lawyers and chaplains can be recruited and started at higher ranks, rather than starting them at the bottom of the officer ladder; that would be extended to other critical skills.

Other changes would permit promotion based on merit, instead of seniority, as well as making it easier for those who leave the service on medical grounds to find employment with the defense department as a civilian.

Changes already implemented by Mr. Carter include a doubling of paid maternity leave and the expansion of military child care facilities.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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