All-volunteer Army: An ongoing experiment
By Leonard Wong and Stephen Gerras
In 1973, the military draft ended, and our nation began the experiment of manning an Army exclusively with volunteers.
A decade later, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger proclaimed, "To all the American people, I would say that the experiment is over. We know that an all-volunteer force can succeed, and we know what it takes to make it succeed."
And yet, perhaps today we really don't know all it takes to make the all-volunteer force succeed. Five years of war have turned recruiting for the Army into a continuous struggle. The challenge, however, is not merely recruiting enough soldiers, but "quality" soldiers.
A "quality" soldier is motivated to serve, learns quickly and flourishes in the Spartan conditions of military life. To assess "quality," the Army relies on a high school diploma as an indicator of motivation, higher aptitude test scores as a marker of trainability, and the absence of a criminal record.
Because more recruits lack high school diplomas or require waivers for misconduct, the Army developed plans for programs such as a prep school to attain a GED or more focused training to compensate for lower aptitudes. These recruits have proved very competent.
But the Army is more than enlisted soldiers. There is also the officer corps. Unlike the enlisted force where re-enlistment rates have been high, officer retention continues to be a problem.
The Army's recent incentives, including a $35,000 bonus, have failed to persuade enough captains to stay in uniform, especially officers from top-tier ROTC schools or West Point. These officers, who eventually account for the majority of Army senior leaders, are critical in providing the future direction of the military. These officers are also extremely marketable, even in a tight job market.
What should be done? One option is to mimic the enlistee-recruitment approach. The Army can lower standards to bring in more lieutenants, bypassing the requirement to attend ROTC, West Point or even college. Good training can compensate at the tactical level for the lack of an ROTC or West Point experience in the short term.
As officers progress through their careers, they are called on more for their ability to handle the unknown. But unlike corporations, the Army cannot hire external senior leaders. Bringing in lower-quality lieutenants today will result in lower-quality generals tomorrow.
Another option is a significant drawdown in Iraq, thereby giving our warriors a break from multiple deployments. Besides being a political rather than a military decision, however, this alternative is only a short-term fix that sidesteps the real issue.
The real issue confronting today's Army derives from three aversions held by Americans:
* We are skeptical of a sizable military. "The spirit of this country," Thomas Jefferson noted, "is totally adverse to a large military force."
* While many Americans yearn for some form of national service, few are eager to revisit the inequities of conscription.
* Americans have a low tolerance for long wars.
When the all-volunteer Army was envisioned 35 years ago, few predicted that it would be downsized from a force of 800,000 then to 547,000 today. It was assumed that the all-volunteer force would be supported by a standby draft and that long wars would not be measured in decades, but in years. The result is an Army struggling to maintain quality — especially in its officer corps — in an environment unforeseen by its architects.
Even after we eventually leave Iraq, the Army will still have to attract and retain quality people. Considering the circumstances, it appears this experiment called the all-volunteer Army is not over.
Retired lieutenant colonel Leonard Wong and retired colonel Stephen Gerras are faculty members at the Army War College. Their views are not necessarily those of the Army.