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Reinvigorating the Field of National Security: A Call to the Next Generation

I’ve had the opportunity to serve in government, industry, public policy, higher education and the military during my career in Washington. I’ve reflected frequently of late on what led me to Washington and away from from the west coast.  I’ve enjoyed every minute of  my time in a national security — the excitement of  working defense issues as a young man on Capitol Hill, being in the Pentagon from 2001-04 (including on 9/11), working in industry, and my current service on the faculty of the Institute of World Politics.  I couldn’t have done all of these things had I stayed on the west coast, so there’s no doubt that a career dedicated to national security at some point meant a transition to Washington. 

I found the field of national security absolutely fascinating — its policy, technical, economic, industrial and international dimensions interact one with another in a most complex and interconnected way.  Knowledge in all of these areas became essential if one was to stay current about new developments across an ever-changing national security landscape.  I’ve always found the complexity of national security both challenging and satisfying — you have to always be willing to learn.  

At the time I came of career age during the late 1960s and early 1970s — the height of the Cold War — one could clearly see what was nothing less than an existential threat posed to the US by the conventional and nuclear capabilities of the former Soviet Union.  The Cold War dynamic was decidedly bipolar, one quite different from today’s multipolar world that is coupled with the threat of radical Islamic terrorism.  The technical and analytical problem set was not separate and apart from the broader security environment — rather, it flowed directly from it.  To progress as an analyst in the field of national security in Washington, DC in the 70s and early 80s, you had to know and understand US-Soviet relations, nuclear weapons strategy and policy, technology and arms control.  The Cold War policy debates in Washington demanded that of you.  

The analytical problem set I was exposed to upon coming to Washington in 1979 was, of course, unique to that time.  The national security community was involved in a series of multidisciplinary, hard security problems that would keep it constantly busy analytically.  For some groups of analysts, something akin to “cottage industries” sprung up to deal with unique security problems requiring specialized skill sets.  This was the model by which the so-called “Beltway Bandits” emerged during the 1960s and 1970s.  Think of all of the sweat equity that went into attempting to solve the ICBM survivability and MX basing problems of the late 1970s and early 1980s, dealing with the Revolution in Military Affairs, or assessing the arms control implications and “cost to attack” dynamics associated with the debate over MIRVed v. single warhead ICBMs prior to the conclusion of the START Treaty. Of course, SDI and missile defense also came to the for by the mid-1980s.  

Today’s 21st century national security community is only beginning  the process of maturing a new set of analysts and institutions to address what is a far different problem set in what is an incredibly complex and dynamic global security environment. From my perspective, I see several problems on the horizon and want to raise them and offer a call to action.     

An Aging Workforce

Much of the national security talent base that emerged during the Cold War period is aging, and there is a need for a reinvigoration.  I don’t know how many times I’ve gone to public meetings, trade association conventions, or think tank events recently and seen men and women in attendance who are in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and yes, 80s. Of course, younger men and women are coming into the field.  But there is a need not just for more of them, there is a need to keep them intellectually engaged in the problem set so that they will stay in national security as a career.  

Too many of the younger generation are checking out of national security after a three, five or seven year trial period, and then move on into other fields, especially fields where their technical skills that are in high demand.  Why would a highly talented young man or woman choose to stay in national security as a career today?  Aside from those on a dedicated military career path, national security is not seen as the place to be.  Other professions — IT, biotech, finance, management, and healthcare — are much more lucrative, with faster paths to positions of wealth, power and influence.  

If that’s the decision set for the younger generation, national security will stay at a disadvantage for years to come.  This needs to change, and our national leadership needs to be involved.

Attracting the Best and the Brightest

For “the best and the brightest” young minds to be moved to come into the national security field and stay in it for a career, I believe significant changes need to occur in how the US explains its national security needs and priorities.  To attract the best and the brightest, the younger generation needs to be given a clear and coherent reason as to why their presence in the field can make a difference.  

Industry has made regular appeals to reinvigorate the aerospace and defense workforce based on the need to maintain US preeminence in the scientific, technical engineering and mathematics, or STEM, disciplines (see AIA and AIAA’s publications on STEM and the workforce).  The Department of Defense has also made known publicly the aging of its workforce, much of which is currently retirement eligible.  This is altogether appropriate and those messages from government and industry should continue to get out with regularity. However, recruitment into defense and security is in the final analysis has broad national ramifications.  In many ways, it is a choice that is more of a “calling” than a job path. 

Avenues should be found by government, industry and the public policy community to attract younger talent into national security fields, and then enable them to progress more rapidly into positions of responsibility and authority.  By 2020 it’s estimated that Millennials will constitute close to 46% of the US workforce. Millennials simply won’t stay around if they don’t see a career path forward that involves interesting and meaningful work where they have an opportunity for growth and responsibility, and achieve a sense of accomplishment.  They will not respond well to a business model that keeps them on as observers going through a 10-15 year apprenticeship.  In general, they prefer to work collaboratively and in a community environment that is collegial, not hierarchical.  

That may mean not only new approaches to workforce management by both government and industry, but also the development of new institutions, both public and private, to provide that kind of focus for national security research and analysis. Failing to develop such approaches and strategies could risk an aging workforce less attuned to the technology needs and capabilities of the future.  

For those skeptics who think I’m overstating the case, and that the younger generation cannot make important contributions, remember that many of the “whiz kids” of Robert McNamara’s Department of Defense in the early 1960s — Harold Brown, Johnny Foster and others — were actually in their 30s when they came to Washington.  Throughout the Cold War, national security experts were advanced at considerably younger ages than is the case today — especially those with the requisite technical and analytical skill set.  That generation, inspired by the mission and the complexity of the task at hand, made seminal contributions to our country’s defense posture.  We need vehicles to enable the cream to rise to the top, before it’s skimmed off by other industries and communities of interest. 

The Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall, Sputnik, the Cuban Missile crisis, and the race to the moon clearly gave the Cold War generation an understanding of what was at stake if the country failed to compete with the Soviet Union.  Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy spoke and acted frequently during their presidencies on the need to compete with the Soviets over the long haul, as well as the need for the US to stay engaged in the world.  Their messages and actions highlighted the significance of this competition to the country as a whole — and also to future world peace and international security.  Can our current and future national political leadership provide similar clarity of purpose? A good place to start would be addressing the issue in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Nuclear weapons, and the proliferation problem, are still primary concerns, as they have been since 1945.  But disruptive new technologies such as cyber, autonomous and unmanned systems, hypersonics, jam-proof communications, space weaponry and many others as highlighted in DoD’s Third Offset Strategy promise to grow in significance as Russia and China seek to close the technology gap with the US.  Additionally, much of the technology path in the world today is driven by global commercial technologies. So the technological dynamic is far different from that of the Cold War era — one in which security solutions were driven by government-based technology requirements. Maintenance of US technological superiority is absolutely essential, and the Department 0f Defense is clearly focused on achieving that goal.  However, technology will not solve the broader problem discussed here — how to attract new talent into the field of national security, most of whom will have to deal with the complexities and interactions of the military-technical problem set now emerging before us.  

What remains to be seen is if the political will exists to conduct what is in essence a “long war” strategy, one that will require new forms of defense planning, new institutions and adaptable resource strategies, as opposed to tactical fixes that address only today’s problem set.  My generation understood the strategy at work —  containment of the Soviet Union.  The younger generation needs a sense of purpose that it can readily understand, and a compelling framework for being called to enter the field of national security. 

The current national security environment is far more dynamic than the one during the Cold War. Then we knew the primary opponent, developed a strategy and institutional framework to defeat it, and sustained the political will to do so for several decades.  Today’s policy and technical challenges, and the analytical problem sets emerging from them,  are far more complicated, involving multiple regions of potential conflict, failed states, growing terrorist threats, weapons proliferation, refugee migration, and increasing resource scarcity.  There is a need for greater clarity of purpose and a clearer discussion of what the end outcome of our national security strategy should be that will provide that “calling” to the current generation of Americans. 

I hope to be thinking more about this subject in the future, to discussing the role that education can play in the process of developing a new generation of national security professionals.

Copyright © 2016 Schroeder Defense Group, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
This article has also been published on Dr. Schroeder’s LinkedIn page

Wayne A. Schroeder is President of Schroeder Defense Group. At IWP, he teaches courses on Defense Strategy, Planning and Budgeting and International Organizations and Multilateral Diplomacy.