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Increase Military Professionalism: Extend the Voluntary Retirement Age
Recent budget debates have featured emotional discussions about reforming the military retirement system. This is not a new phenomenon; there have been more than a dozen official studies on reforming military retirement since 1948. Setting aside budget issues, I will argue in this article that the current system of allowing retirement after 20 years of service is an outdated, artificial construct. Furthermore, the current system can be improved with tremendous benefits to the servicemember, the military and the nation by extending the voluntary retirement eligibility age to 25 years of service (YOS). I will examine and disprove several myths about the current system’s emphasis on 20 YOS, and then explain several benefits that extending the voluntary eligibility age to 25 YOS will produce. Finally, I will address the challenges to implementing this plan. Though many of these issues are relevant for both enlisted personnel and officers, I will limit my discussions to the officer corps.
Myths about the Current System
Due to several acts of legislation aimed at reforming this system, there are currently three retirement systems in effect for servicemembers depending on when they entered the service. What all three systems have in common is that servicemembers are vested, that is eligible for their retirement pension, after 20 YOS. There are three commonly held beliefs about the retirement system that this paper aims to disprove. First, it is commonly understood that the current military pension system was implemented prior to World War II to help reduce the number of senior officers who were too old to be effective wartime commanders. In reality, the voluntary retirement age was 15 YOS in 1935 and it was only raised to 20 YOS after World War II, in 1946.
A second myth, which follows closely from the first, is that the current voluntary retirement age is necessary to maintain a younger force capable of withstanding the harsh physical demands of combat. There are several ways of disproving this myth. One could argue that if youth were necessary for combat, retirement after 20 years would be mandatory instead of voluntary. After all, every commander and command sergeant major at brigade and above have served longer than twenty years of service but no one so far has argued that their age made them unfit for combat duty. One could also point out that in 1861 the voluntary retirement age for officers was 40 YOS in order to maintain a “young and vigorous” officer corps. No matter how arduous living conditions are on remote posts in Afghanistan today, one would be hard pressed to prove that combat conditions today are as detrimental to one’s health as they were during the Civil War. The final rebuttal to this myth is that many senior officers are not engaged in combat. A recent study found that nearly 60% of billets for majors and lieutenant colonels and nearly 80% of billets for colonels and general officers are not at the operational level. Instead, they are involved in “the ‘business side’ of the Army: budgets, personnel, weapons systems, training, recruiting, marketing, civil-military relations, etc.”
A final myth is that increasing the retirement age will have a negative effect on retention. In other words, servicemembers will be less inclined to stay in the military for a career if that career requires an additional five years before they can receive a pension. There are two ways to counter this claim. First, research by the Army Research Institute shows that the most critical window for officer retention is the period following the initial active duty service obligation (ADSO), usually between four and six years of service. Officers at this point in their career are basing their decisions on experiences they have had in their first assignments, not on the distant promise of a pension. For this reason, I predict very little if any negative effect on retention rates from an extension of the voluntary retirement eligibility age to 25 YOS.
A second counter to this claim is that extending the retirement age will actually improve retention. One of the most common complaints of soldiers deals with perceived injustices in the promotion system. Servicemembers hold individual opinions about the competence of their leaders. As leaders who are held in low regard or considered “toxic” are retained or promoted, it erodes the confidence of others in the military as an institution. Several retirement reform studies have found that managers are reluctant to separate ineffective personnel who are approaching retirement eligibility, preferring to allow them to continue to serve until retirement rather than initiate separation actions. Extending the retirement age will also extend the window during which personnel managers will act professionally with regard to ineffective personnel. Such actions will increase the confidence of servicemembers in the institution and thereby increase retention rates for effective personnel.
Benefits of a Longer Career
Extending the voluntary retirement eligibility age to 25 years is provides benefits to the individual servicemember, the military, and the nation. First, it will increase opportunities for broadening assignments. Second, it will foster the development of more mature, adaptable leaders. Finally, it will result in a more professional force.
Discussions about broadening assignments are very much in vogue today. Senior military leaders acknowledge that many of the skills acquired at the tactical level are not necessarily the skills that the institution expects senior military personnel to have. Simply put, it is not enough to be tactically competent to succeed as a senior field grade officer or general officer. One must also demonstrate cross-cultural competence, negotiation and conflict resolution skills, foreign language proficiency, and an understanding of international relations and national strategy commensurate with a graduate degree. It is also highly desirable for these officers to have joint, interagency, or intergovernmental assignments. In discussions about increasing officer satisfaction and retention, there has even been talk of instituting a sabbatical program.
All of these initiatives have value, but at the moment they each serve to increase the strain on the personnel management system. This is because promotion guidelines require officers to complete key and developmental assignments as well in order to remain competitive for future promotion. We have to realize that the 20 year career is an artificial construct that limits the opportunities for broadening assignments.
By extending the retirement eligibility age to 25 years, we can extend the promotion timeline. We can spend less time “ticket-punching” and more time developing subordinates. As an example, this change could potentially result in an extra year as a captain, an extra year as a major, two years of graduate education or intergovernmental experience, and a sabbatical year. The result of this will be the more mature, adaptable leaders that the nation requires.
A final benefit of this change is an increase in professionalism, in keeping with the idea of the military profession as a lifelong calling. As they approach their twentieth year of service, officers are faced with a difficult decision. Should they continue to serve past the 20 year mark or retire? For many, issues such as family, promotion, and quality of life will factor into the decision. The military faces a different problem; how to provide incentives for highly desirable personnel to continue serving beyond 20 years. This is especially significant for officers in functional areas, who at the moment have fewer opportunities for promotion beyond lieutenant colonel or colonel. In many cases the military spends years training and educating officers for non-operational and joint staff assignments only to have them retire as soon as they are allowed. This communicates the wrong message to junior officers about what a “lifetime of service” entails.
Challenges to Implementation
There are several challenges to implementing this policy change, as well as second-order effects. A longer period of service could result in a military that is more disconnected from civil society than it is already, a frequent concern among those who study civil-military relations. Initially, I imagine there will be strong opposition both from veterans groups and from the contractors in the military-industrial complex who like to hire retiring veterans. Veterans groups and officers could attempt to frame this as a “betrayal” of our armed forces, particularly if it comes as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan come to a close.
A twenty-year career might have seemed appropriate in 1950, when the average life expectancy in the U.S. was 68 years. In the intervening years, average life expectancy has increased by a decade. It is time to rethink the canard that military service is a young man’s game and examine how the changing requirements the nation has for its military should impact the retirement age.
Edward Cox is the author of Grey Eminence: Fox Conner and the Art of Mentorship (New Forums Press, 2010). From 2008 to 2011, he was an assistant professor in the Department of Social Sciences at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, NY. He holds master’s degrees in public administration and international relations from Syracuse University.
 Rex Hudson, “A Summary of Major Military Reform Proposals 1976-2006,” Library of Congress, November 2007, pg. 4.
 John Christian, “An Overview of Past Proposals for Military Retirement Reform,” RAND, 2006, pg. 2.
 Christian, 2.
 Casey Wardynski et. al., “Towards a U.S. Army Officer Corps Strategy for Success: Developing Talent.” Strategic Studies Institute, March 2010, pg. 10.
 Robert Schneider, et. al, “Development and Evaluation of a Career Continuance Model for Company Grade Officers in the United States Army,” Army Research Institute, March 2011, pg. 8.
 Christian, 14.