Small Wars Journal

Increase Military Professionalism: Extend the Voluntary Retirement Age

Fri, 12/23/2011 - 6:22am

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.[1] 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issues, I will argue in this article that the current system of allowing retirement after 20 years of service is an outdated, artificial construct.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.[2]

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.[3] 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.”[4]

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.[5] 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.[6] 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.

[1] Rex Hudson, “A Summary of Major Military Reform Proposals 1976-2006,” Library of Congress, November 2007, pg. 4.

[2] John Christian, “An Overview of Past Proposals for Military Retirement Reform,” RAND, 2006, pg. 2.

[3] Christian, 2.

[4] Casey Wardynski et. al., “Towards a U.S. Army Officer Corps Strategy for Success: Developing Talent.” Strategic Studies Institute, March 2010, pg. 10.

[5] 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.

[6] Christian, 14.


About the Author(s)

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.



Fri, 01/06/2012 - 6:05pm

Obviously Mr. Cox has never done enough time in the field to think that the physical burden is not heavy. Go live at a VSO site and hump the mountains in Afghanistan for 6mos to a year and then please tell me that youth is not important. Conventional guys are there too, all over the place. While many E9s may say they are not unfit for duty, they mostly stay on base and do not do much more than enforce reflector belt violations. Let's not act like the E9s and O5's and above are still operating outside of a VERY SMALL community in the military. The portion of the military population that has to actually haul things over long distances, then fire and maneuver might disagree with you a "little" that youth does not help or that someone in their 50's is of much use outside the TOC/JOC or school atmosphere.

As for an older and more professional community somehow emerging if we extend how many years you have to complete to be vested then I would have to ask what do you really base that on? Do you account for the hours worked overseas? Do you plan on paying the people in the service overtime then? Maybe comp time? If you are going to take away one of the few economic advantages of military work should you not make up for it another manner? What about personal and family stress due to deployment? What about being under the UCMJ as compared to the various state criminal codes? What about getting blown up or shot?

The problem with the author and many posters is that they look at the military in a business model, it does not apply to this group. The very nature of the job prevents many of the things that work in business from being well applied in the military. It is the classic example of far to many people who view "business management" as being better than actual "military leadership". It is a reason I think so many of our current leaders in the military are so poor, they are trained on the business model, sigma is neat but not what you need to lead an infantry or SOF unit. Leadership is needed more than management in the military, it's a different animal, management skills are important but a leader is what motivates a person when bad things around them are happening, like a complex ambush. I am shocked many are not in favor of active duty paying for their own medical treatment too, can you imagine the insurance company that will cover a triple amputee with eye and hearing damage? Yeah, me neither.

I'll tell you guys what, remove the UCMJ, tell me I can quit anytime I want or do not want to do the job anymore, that it won't effect me due to my discharge level then you will sell me on making us just like any civilian model. Then it does not matter if a war comes, I can just get out. Then it doesn't matter if I do not like the job or it is to hard on my family, I can get out and it won't effect me long term. The UCMJ is gone, so I cannot be punished for "conduct unbecoming" or other things the civilians never have to worry about, no more Article 15/Masts or other NJP. It will then be like a civilian model and your business out look will work. It will be a terrible military but isn't money what matters?

Don Bacon

Tue, 12/27/2011 - 8:50pm

Yes, extend voluntary retirement. Allowing people to retire at the peak of their expertise and productivity, and then having to pay them an equivalent amount in retirement, is stupid. Plus it might decrease the butt-kissing of those who have stars in their eyes.


Mon, 12/26/2011 - 10:14pm

As we look at facts vs. myths of the current and future retirement system, we may want to consider the context of the discussion...

Re Myth One: the transition from 15 to 20 yos was made before the current "Age of Entitlement." Reducing benfits or extending time in exchange for anything is interpreted differently. Few "serve" in the traditional sense today...most seek individual benefits. The most intelligent are watching change in the pay and benefits of the currently retired...

Re Myth Two: The conventional military was once treated as "the National Treasure." Politicians only rarely committed the force to battles and wars they were not intended to win. We now are several generations into a sophisticated body politic that has figured out we're not supposed to. The one's who hang around to do the "other jobs" probably are not the ones we want to keep.

Re Myth Three: Force demographics are very different "family-wise" than ever before...keeping a spouse happy is often more important than a career. Military families get war-weary, and divorce rates climb relative to time-inservice and deployments. The spousal factor is most important to the best of our military who actually honor their commitments. First tour inputs matter, but especially with the heavy and long deployment commitments the force will maintain now and for the next thirty years...spousal mid-tour assessment will include evaluation of benefits.

Peter J. Munson

Sat, 12/24/2011 - 9:52pm

Again, it starts and ends with a more honest accounting of those who are truly at their prime and those who would best serve the nation processing travel claims and doing my TPS reports. Until you stop making real executive types work for janitors, any effort to keep people on for longer will be a waste. Our personnel system protects morons


Sat, 12/24/2011 - 1:00pm

Increasing the voluntary retirement age probably won't hurt - but that's only a partial solution. The 401k/TSP model isn't sustainable any more than the current system is; in fact it’s way worse.

On the 401k model, it would be one more obstacle to overcome in attracting and keeping talent. If, for example, the retirement system were a TSP/401k model, and given that I keep deploying to random places (usually with an angry populace and horrible weather), I would have to ask why I was going to remain in the military when I could get the same retirement benefits doing something else. For many - why even join and assume the additional risk or even stay past 4 or 5 years (enough to pay for college) if there is no difference between the job I have now and the job I could have on the outside - save for at the outside job, no one is shooting at me. The kind of leader who would do the "math" and leave the force under a 401k system is probably the kind of leader we want to retain - someone who thinks through second and third order effects and considers the quality of life those who depend on him will have.

I admit we need to fix the system, but we need to do it in a way that preserves the retention value while simultaneously reducing costs. So the answer is actually pretty simple:

You figure out the average retirement age for an officer and an NCO at 20 years. For this example let’s say for an officer that 42 and for an NCO, 38. If an officer retires at 20 years, he has to wait until he is 62 to being drawing pay and health benefits. Every year he serves past 20 drops that year by one, so if he serves 30 years he becomes immediately vested at retirement. You create a board and every officer is boarded one or two years before they hit the 20 mark to determine if they will be retained past 20. After 20, promotion and retention boards are used to "control" how many people reach the 30 year mark.

For NCO's you do the same thing except they get their pay immediately and wait for healthcare.

Medical retirees vest immediately.

This makes alot more sense given that most people who retire between ages 38 and 42 or so find other work, work that includes health care options. This program will save a boat load of money and still help increase quality of life for retirees when they actually retire from the workforce. Further, we'll incentivize people to compete to stay past 20 - which is one of the complaints that have been made about the system - wasn't it SEC Gates who said we need to consider why we are paying people to leave in the prime of their careers - right when we want to keep them?

Even more money could be saved by increasing the VRA - but I am not entirely convinced that what could be saved would be worth the cost... maybe, I haven't thought about it much. This article got me thinking on it though.

Any system we create is bound to not be perfect, some will game the system and it won't answer all of the mail - but its a helluva lot better than any of the other money saving options being floated around and probably won't affect retention, and if it does only marginally. It doesn't have to be either/or - we can save money and protect the system.


Sat, 12/24/2011 - 8:35am

I would have to disagree with much of this article.

First, the entire concept of a pension system must change and evolve into something akin to the federal TSP or civilian 401 (k) . The current pension model, cash deferred compensation, is not sustainable. It didn’t work for the US auto industry nor state and local governments, and it is not an affordable option for the future military. You also failed to include life expectancy statistics into your analysis – this is a key problem that is bankrupting pension models created after WWII.

“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.”

This is a disgrace and it is prevalent in all Services. $54B per year spent on military officers doing commercial work. I don’t see this improving by increasing the size of the pool of officers committing this fraud. A recent CBO study pointed out the difference in federal employee vs civilian cash compensation – military officers were nearly 25 % higher than civilian equivalents with the same skills and experience and this disparity does not include the cost of education, deferred compensation and tax breaks. Other studies have shown, military officers are not as effective doing civilian work as their civilian counterparts – yet receive more compensation.

First, it will increase opportunities for broadening assignments.

These are known as boondoggles and are no longer affordable – please see my earlier post on the LCE. Every time a COL is sent on a “career broadening assignment” will result in end strength being cut to facilitate the tour. The budget is shrinking and the fiscal trade space is clear.

Second, it will foster the development of more mature, adaptable leaders.

Senior leaders cost more and increased maturity doesn’t generally support increased adaptability. Having officers serve at grades longer will have many undesirable consequences. Eventually promotions will become a problem and the answer is not to create more senior billets. (see the pogo report on star creep).

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.

Are you proposing to eliminate Goldwater Nichols? There is no greater drain on the Services than purple ticket punching.

I see nothing in your argument that will improve our current manpower situation and many of your suggestions will only make problems worse.


Fri, 12/23/2011 - 11:39am

Previous comments addressing the promotion system and the personnel system overall, first, are spot on. Anything else is akin to applying a bandaid when a pressure bandage is necessary.

Once those are fixed, the other tweaks will have a real impact.

Scott Kinner

Fri, 12/23/2011 - 11:12am

I think aging the force is a viable option that needs to be examined in light of personnel cuts. I agree with Pete Munson that "solving" personnel issues is certainly best undertaken holistically. But I also acknowledge that most change and reform comes incrementally over a few years rather than all at once. It is better to begin the process somewhere rather than nowhere at all.

The key vulnerability of aging the force is retention - if hope for promotion is low, than retention is low. However, merely using promotion as an incentive to retention has the unhappy effect of diluting rank. So, perhaps the incentive to remain a corporal for six years is regular, substantial pay increases for time in service, increased educational opportunities (how about an internship program for our NCOs?), increased billet opporunities and pay raises associated with those billets.

Some examples...why can we not have SNCOs as platoon commanders and leaders? The WWII German model placed two lieutenants in a rifle company - the senior lieutenant as the company commander and the junior as XO/platoon commander. The rest of the billets were SNCOs and NCOs.

Why not have the strategic corporal as squad leaders possessing their own residential professional military education track? The chance to go to recruiting or the drill field?

What you gain by "aging" the force is increased responsibility at lower ranks coupled with greater experience at lower ranks. Military service still remains attractive due to pay, benefits, increased responsibility, and real, long-term investment in people.

Peter J. Munson

Fri, 12/23/2011 - 10:41am

Raising the retirement obligation to 25 years will not have any positive effects until our personnel management, fitness reporting, and promotion/assignment policies are significantly revamped. We already have more than enough marginally competent to incompetent people hanging on until 20 years in positions and ranks beyond their capability due to our up or out system, the dangling carrot of the retirement, and our inability to separate wheat from chaff. Keeping these people on for longer will only further burden our system with poor performers, long past their utility. If we could keep some of these people in junior ranks and billets stamping papers somewhere and freeing up others to rise to positions where their talents could best be used, longer retirement commitments might make sense, but our current system is a jobs program in which we feel obligated to promote everyone at the same pace, etc. It does not optimize the benefit we receive from our people.

As to the retention effect of the 20 year retirement, I think you'd find a lot of majors fed up and getting out at about the 10-15 year mark if they didn't feel like they were already past the halfway mark.

I do think that the 20 year retirement is a bit profligate, but even its allure might not keep me all the way to 20. Reform our personnel, promotion, and assignment system first. That would do more than the retirement benefit to keep people in. Extending the retirement requirement without doing a better job of getting rid of or not promoting the worthless will only further the race of competent people for the doors and a more promising civilian career. Even with the economic woes, high performers can do far better with less frustration on the outside than on the inside today.