- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 11, 2001

The tragic events of Sept. 11 are causing us to rethink the means necessary to prevail in a protracted war against terrorism. Strong leadership, especially by young officers leading small units, is essential. To ensure strong leadership at this level, we need to stop the exodus of young officers from the military. Over the past five years the overall level of experience of the young officer corps has diminished as the retention rate has fallen. Today, fully 50 percent of newly commissioned officers leave the military after completing their obligated tours of four or five years.

A main cause of this shocking state of affairs is Section 501 of Public Law 102-190, which passed nearly 10 years ago. Although there were no requests from the services or pressure from reserve officers, the Senate Armed Services Committee tacked an obscure rider onto the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal years 1992 and 1993. It requires all newly commissioned officers to initially serve as reservists. No hearings were held, and there was no public debate. The services strenuously objected. In giving his rationale for the law, the chairman argued in an op-ed in The Washington Post that the playing field was not level for regulars and reservists. He said that the overwhelming number of regular commissions went to graduates of the academies and that they did not have to compete with graduates of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and Officer Candidate School (OCS). He was wrong on both counts.

The overwhelming number of regular commissions did not go to graduates of the service academies. Regular commissions had been almost equally divided between graduates of the service academies and Distinguished Military Graduates of ROTC and OCS programs. ROTC and OCS candidates could compete for regular commissions by ranking in the top 25 percent of their classes and becoming Distinguished Military Graduates.

As for competition, cadets and midshipmen compete vigorously before they even enter the academies; only one of 10 applicants is accepted. Once enrolled, they must compete daily for their entire four years. Under such intensive competition, roughly one-quarter fail to graduate. Claims to the contrary, the playing field was already level and Section 501 of Public Law 102-190 only served to lower it.

A long and multifaceted war, different from any we have fought before, will require not only regular units but reserve units as well. In fact, the current war on terrorism will rely heavily on the use of reservists. The relationship between regulars and reserves is little understood. Regulars and reservists are equally proud of their titles. Regulars, by definition, provide the permanent core and base of professionals needed for expansion during emergencies. Reserve and National Guard units augment the regular establishment in times of crisis. A regular commission has been a two-way contract: commitment to a career by the officer and a reciprocal guarantee of employment by the government. A reserve commission carries the obligation to serve on active duty during emergencies. Most serve short tours and return to civilian life, but some opt for careers in the military and are integrated into the regular service.

Believing that Section 501 of Public Law 102-190 would cause irreparable harm to our national defense, the House voted to repeal it in 1992. The measure died in conference with the Senate.

In 1996, the House again voted to repeal Section 501 of Public Law 102-190 stating that "this legislation is insensitive to the total immersion programs of the service academies and the competitive selection process of the Distinguished Military Graduates within the ROTC program." Once again, the repeal failed in conference.

In 2000, the prestigious Defense Science Advisory Board concluded the law should be modified as quickly as possible. "This provision is adding to the pressure to leave active service immediately on completion of obligated tours. It works against the sense of commitment and devotion to a calling that are central to commissioned officer service and have characterized America's career officer corps throughout its history. All active duty officers should be commissioned as regular officers regardless of the source of their commission." This objective is clear and concise. It is eminently fair for all concerned, and is a no-cost item.

In August, the House Armed Services Committee moved a step closer toward implementing the recommendations of the Defense Science Advisory Board. Rep. Heather Wilson and Reps. John McHugh and Rob Simmons sponsored a resolution in the House Armed Services Committee that "would require that graduates of the service academies as well as Reserve Officer Training Corps distinguished graduates, and distinguished graduates of other officer commissioning programs like Officer Candidate Schools, be given an initial appointment as an officer in the Regular Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force" When the resolution goes into conference, the Senate should seize the opportunity and join the House in adopting it. This will act to stem the exit of young officers from active duty, strengthen the armed forces of the United States and remove an impediment to winning the war against terrorism.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Edward L. Rowny is a former special adviser on arms control to to Presidents Reagan and Bush.

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