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Written by: Christopher Plein, Ph.D.  West Virginia University


A few weeks ago, I decided that a blog about the new Department of Defense act would be worth offering.  While quite detailed and lengthy, through this recently passed legislation Congress authorizes, but has not yet appropriated, approximately $717 billion for defense matters contains important provisions relating to military personnel and families.

The official name of the legislation, is the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019.  The late Senator McCain was chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee.  Driving across rural West Virginia and listening to National Public Radio this past weekend, I learned of his dedication to ensuring that annual National Defense Authorization Acts (NDAAs) were passed every year.  This was no small accomplishment in a time of political gridlock.  After passage by Congress in late July, President Trump signed this year’s legislation into law on August 14.

The final bill is over 1,350 pages in length.  While much of the content focuses on weapons and defense systems, there is also considerable attention given to personnel and family well-being issues.  Because one of the fundamental building blocks in military family readiness relates to a service member’s career and work, this blog focuses on some important personnel policy changes that have been authorized. We also consider efforts to accommodate spousal employment interests and needs.

First, some basics.  The new legislation authorizes that the size of the overall active duty military be increased by 15,600 to about 1.3 million active duty personnel.  This reflects a continuing a trend of focused adjustments to force size in recent years.  In last month’s blog, I reviewed active duty assignment patterns from 2016.  The act also provides for an across the board 2.6% pay raise.  While this may seem small, it is the largest raise in 9 years according to the House Armed Services Committee.

The new law offers greater flexibility for both command and personnel in regard to career paths and opportunities.  Promotion in the officer ranks will rely less on years of service and instead offer flexibility based on job performance and position needs.  While rewarding meritorious service, this will also give the service branches more options in recruiting and retaining needed personnel.  Through the “career intermission program,” there are also options for service members to step away from active duty status to pursue professional education, attend to family needs, or to pursue temporary career opportunities outside of the military.  As summarized by the Senate Armed Services committee, there is need for consistency and reform in “talent management principles” to better adapt to changing needs in the military and to adjust to competition for skilled professionals in the civilian world.

Active duty personnel are often part of dual income families where both partners seek career opportunity and growth.  Work and career opportunities for non-active duty spouses is a real and practical concern.  For this reason, the new NDDA establishes provisions to assess and promote opportunities for spousal employment.  Under Subtitle H, Section 575 of the Act, DOD is mandated to assess the impact that permanent changes of station (PCS) might have on spousal employment. There are concerns that a frequent pace or tempo of transfer between installations or assignments creates further employment and career difficulties for military spouses.  There are also provisions for non-competitive appointments to facilitate hiring spouses at installations and with other federal departments and agencies.  The new law also calls for improvements in the My Career Advancement Account program that provides educational and training support for spouses.  The act also encourages service branches to explore opportunities to promote small business enterprises at installations that might be owned and operated by spouses.

When any new law or policy is enacted, it is in our best interest to take context into account. This a point that I have made before in a previous blog.  The new NDAA sends a clear message.  Congress and the Department of Defense recognize the importance of attracting and retaining a highly skilled military workforce.  While the overall size of the active duty military remains relatively stable, the roles and responsibilities of those who are serving are expanding and are ever more demanding. Ours is an increasingly complex world of security threats, defense needs, and technological innovation.  For those involved in efforts to support military families, these heightened priorities need to be considered.  They create both opportunity and challenge in ensuring that military and family readiness are addressed and sustained in a balanced and effective manner.  In future blogs, we will look more closely at some of the caregiving, healthcare, and family well-being issues that have been emphasized in the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act.