Leadership: March 19, 2004

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The U.S. Army getting young men and women to join up in record numbers, and getting people already in to re-enlist. But there are serious problems with some key personnel who are being attracted to higher paying, and less dangerous, jobs in the civilian world. Special Forces troops, helicopter pilots, linguists and computer specialists are among the key people who are being recruited heavily by civilian firms. Offers of higher pay, less dangerous working conditions, and less time overseas, are proving attractive. 

The army won't release numbers, but the losses of Special Forces "operators" to civilian security firms has been serious enough that a special task force has been set up to determine what it would take to compete with the civilian recruiters. Right now, the army only has about 5,000 Special Forces soldiers, plus a few hundred in training positions and another two thousand in the reserves. The four hundred Delta Force troops are also at risk. The most vulnerable Special Forces troops are those with twenty years service, and thus eligible to retire on half pay. These troops make about $60,000 a year in pay and benefits, and it's common for civilian firms to offer double or triple that amount (for a guy who's also collecting his pension). This is not the first time the army has had to deal with this problem. When the draft ended in the early 1970s, the army also lost the medical doctors it had, for decades, been able to draft. So large bonuses and other benefits were offered to get newly minted doctors to join the army. 

The army is considering extra pay, especially for overseas service, plus additional civilian education and higher rank to keep Special Forces troops in uniform. Over the last two decades, about ten percent of the enlisted Special Forces troops were promoted to Warrant Officer rank. The five levels of Warrant Officer ranks parallel the first five officer ranks (2nd Lieutenant through Lieutenant Colonel) in pay and benefits, but not authority. Warrant Officers are addressed as "Mister Smith" by officers and troops (rather than as "Warrant Officer Smith") and are treated as officers, although they are basically senior NCOs. Some armies simply call their senior rank of NCOs "Warrant Officer." It would require Congressional action to allow the army to add hundreds, or thousands, of new Warrant Officer positions for senior Special Forces troops. This move would increase the pay of senior Special Forces operators by about a third. Other bonuses could increase the bump to 50 or 100 percent. SOCOM commanders will have to calculate how much they can afford to pay. But given the fact that a Special Forces operator with twenty years service has cost the army several million dollars in pay and training expenses, and two decades of effort, there is an incentive to do a whole lot to hang onto these guys.

Helicopter pilots are in a similar situation. Most of these men and women are warrant officers, and the army only produces about 500 new ones a year (for a force of 4,500 pilots). It costs about a million dollars to just get a newly minted pilot (most of the cost is the expense of using real, and expensive, aircraft.) It takes another million dollars, and two or three years, to get a really skilled pilot. Once a pilot gets married and starts raising a family, the idea of getting twice the pay for staying in one place, and not getting shot at, seem very attractive. The army has paid annual bonuses of over $10,000 in the past to try and halt the outflow of experienced pilots. What with all the overseas duty army pilots have been seeing of late, more, and larger, bonuses are probably on the way.

Linguists, especially if they can speak much needed languages like Arabic and Pushto, are also in great demand by civilian firms. The army is looking into cash bonuses and warrant ranks to keep these specialists as well. A new, and growing problem, if keeping computer and network specialists. This has actually been a problem for over half a century, but it has become more critical with the growing importance of the battlefield Internet and the proliferation of computers throughout the army. There's a special problem with linguists and computer specialists, as many of the valuable ones are still young (in their twenties) when they are tempted to go for higher civilian pay, and less dangerous working conditions. 

The brass know that these experienced and highly skilled people are critical in the recent successes of the army. Its going to take some exceptional leadership to get the money, and additional warrant officer slots, out of Congress, and then apply these benefits in such a way that the losses to civilian careers will be significantly reduced. At the moment, the civilian recruiters are causing much higher losses for the army than are terrorists or Iraqis and Afghans with guns. 

 


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