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How the Army plans to thin the ranks

Mar. 10, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
The Army wants to keep the 'best and brightest' in the ranks, so there are no plans to offer voluntary separation incentives as it continues to shed thousands of soldiers.
The Army wants to keep the 'best and brightest' in the ranks, so there are no plans to offer voluntary separation incentives as it continues to shed thousands of soldiers. (Justin Connaher/Air Force)
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If you’ve been hoping for a chance to voluntarily end your contract and collect a payout, don’t hold your breath.

Even as the Army braces for a potential drop to 420,000 soldiers, leadership is intent on avoiding the use of voluntary separation incentives that the service has offered in the past.

“The mandate that we’ve been given from leadership is, to the maximum extent possible, the Army will keep the best and brightest,” said Roy Wallace, the assistant deputy chief of staff for the G-1 (personnel), in a sit-down with reporters at the Pentagon on March 5.

The latest budget plan calls for the Army to drop to 440,000 to 450,000 soldiers by about 2017. If Congress forces more cuts through sequestration, that number could drop to 420,000.

Officials are confident, if they have until about 2019 to hit 420,000, that the Army can meet these force limits through attrition, adjusting its recruiting mission and the force-shaping measures already in effect:

■ The Qualitative Management Program, which forces out retirement-eligible senior NCOs with blemished records — for example, soldiers with a letter of reprimand, a relief for cause or a substandard NCO evaluation report.

■ The Qualitative Service Program boards, which target senior NCOs in over-strength specialties and can trigger an involuntary separation or early retirement.

■ Separation and selective early retirements for officers ranked captain through colonel.

The Army has no plans to expand its 15-year retirement option, known as Temporary Early Retirement Authority, beyond those soldiers flagged for involuntary separation, said Lt. Col. Justin Platt, director of public affairs for the G-1 office.

The Army also has no plans to reduce the three-year service obligation required for all officers and soldiers promoted to colonel, lieutenant colonel and the senior NCO ranks.

The 36-month requirement for NCOs was established in 2012 and “intended to provide for NCO leader development,” Platt said in an emailed response to questions. Officer obligations are dictated by law.

“It’s important to note,” Platt added. “The Army considers requests for waiver of Active Duty Service Obligation regularly on a case-by-case basis, in accordance with both the needs of the Army and of the soldier. That is the intent for the future as well.”

The key to the Army’s force-shaping measures is that leadership has a say in who gets to leave early. The decision comes directly from Army Secretary John McHugh and Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, Wallace said, and it’s based on lessons learned.

“We are a learning organization. And some of us were around here in the ’90s during the last drawdown,” said Wallace, a retired colonel. “We learned quite a few lessons there.”

In the 1990s, incentives such as voluntary separation pay and voluntary early retirements were offered. These enabled soldiers to earn big bucks for bailing out and convinced plenty of high-quality soldiers to trade in their uniform for a civilian job. This time, the Army is seeking to retain as many of the best as possible.

Cost is another huge factor in deciding against voluntary incentives, Wallace said.

Voluntary incentives in the 1990s cost the Army about $4 billion, Wallace said, and he’s still paying off some of it today. In 2014 dollars, Wallace estimated it could cost about $11 billion.

“I can’t afford [that expense] inside the United States Army right now,” he said.

The Army is still tweaking its recruiting goals, Platt said, so he could not provide projected goals as the service continues to reduce its end strength.

“The Army is developing recruiting and retention missions based upon future manpower requirements, budgetary constraints, and historical trends in order to construct a force capable of conducting the wide array of operations required of it,” he said.

Staff writer Jim Tice contributed to this report.

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