The All-Volunteer Bargain

Oct. 1, 1985
The military draft was put on the shelf in 1973, and there it is likely to stay. The continuing requirement for eighteen-year-old men to register with Selective Service has met only moderate resistance. Resumption of draft calls, though, would almost certainly set off a firestorm of negative public reaction.

It would be a political impossibility to reactivate the draft except in the most dire and immediate national emergency. Furthermore, it would take months for the first draftees to be ready for action. Given an emergency dire and immediate enough to reactivate the draft, a drawn-out mobilization might not help much.

The composition of available forces has changed significantly in the all-volunteer era. A big difference is expanded reliance on reserve forces. From 1973 to 1985, for example, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve manning grew by thirty-five percent while the active force declined by twelve percent. The air Reserve Forces are projected to grow by another 13.6 percent over the next five years. They are now equipped with modern weapon systems and fully integrated into all major Air Force missions.

Another change has been the increasing percentage of women in the force. Whereas women in the Air Force were once limited to a short list of career fields, they are excluded today only from those specialties directly related to combat and closed to them by law.

Thus the best options for restructuring the force have already been exercised. From here on, it gets down to straight recruiting and retention, and that is about to become appreciable more difficult. By 1990, the military age population of the United States will be fifteen percent smaller than it was in 1980. Military recruiting and retention will have to compete even more fiercely with private sector employment.

Fifteen years ago, the American public welcomed the shift to an All-Volunteer Force with great relief and bold promises. Better military compensation was a cheap price to pay if that would spare the sons of middle America from the draft. Once that threat of conscription was removed, though, Mr. and Mrs. Middle America looked at the bargain with different eyes. They began to begrudge the new level of benefits going to those who joined and served voluntarily.

A lesson was learned — but apparently not remembered — in the late 1970s, when repeated pay caps led to recruiting shortfalls and devastating losses of mid-career veterans. A slow recovery began with restoration of benefits in the 1980s. It was slow because the services have not provision for lateral entry. Seasoned middle-graders have to be raised from second lieutenants and airmen basic. When readiness is lost, it cannot be rebuilt overnight.

As with Pharaoh of the Bible, who was unable to learn from the series of punitive plagues visited upon him, the public is again clamoring for cutbacks in military compensation. Even more damaging than actual cuts has been the deepening fear among the troops that no benefit is secure and that the military retirement system, especially, might e swept away at any time.

Seen from a distance, the All-Volunteer Force is standing strong, but up close, the cracks are beginning to show. Air force retention rates peaked three years ago and since then have been in gradual decline. Pilot retention is particularly troubling. The Air Force projects that it will have an aggregate pilot shortfall beginning in FY ’87.

A good argument can be made that it was unwise to end the draft, but the times for that argument was in 1973. The issue now is how to recruit and retain a volunteer force. If military members lose confidence in the fairness of their compensation system, the probability of a military manpower crisis in the near future is roughly 100 percent. If that happens, Congress will bear the major responsibility — but can share the blame with a fickle public that wanted a volunteer force but didn’t want to pay for it.

The military establishment itself must make sure it has done all it can do. The Defense Department cannot control compensation, but it is consulted on priorities. It must speak up for its people with sufficient volume. The individual services govern many factors that determine the overall quality of military life. They must be absolutely certain that people have as much say as possible in matters that affect them personally and that when people bump up against the “exigencies of the service,” he resulting actions are indeed necessary and not merely convenient. It is good news that tour lengths are getting longer. Frequent reassignments — and the out-of-pocket expenses that go with them — have traditionally been among the worst of the aforementioned exigencies.

It might be worth remembering, too, that part of the all-volunteer frenzy in 1973 was a competition among the services to see which could outdo the others in reducing irritants, petty restrictions, and thoughtless inconveniences. The phrase then in vogue was “eliminating the Mickey Mouse.” The services have done pretty well in this regard, but there are still some sightings of mouse tracks here and thee.

Mickey Mouse, like the draft and draftee wages, belongs to another era.