Volunteers in a Time of War

Dec. 1, 2007

Despite 17 straight years on a wartime footing, the Air Force continues to post impressive recruiting and retention numbers. The same holds true for the other services, which have been constantly deployed for about six years. Each armed service either meets or comes very close to meeting its targets on a month-to-month basis.

The nation has heard years of doom-and-gloom predictions about the imminent demise of the all-volunteer military force. It is unsustainable, many have claimed, and can’t stand up to the pressure of a long war.

Those in charge of actually building the professional military, however, say the volunteer force is a success and there is no need to drastically lower troop standards or reinstate the draft in order to attract adequate numbers of high-quality men and women.

Preserving that success has not been easy, and won’t become any easier in years ahead.

Senior officials within the Air Force and the Office of the Secretary of Defense concede they face a wide range of challenges as they try to build tomorrow’s force while also maintaining the high standards that have become common across the military services.

The hurdles include the high operational demand on US forces, but the personnel picture is far more complex than that. The services are contending with a shrinking pool of eligible recruits and low unemployment rates in the civilian sector, to name just two factors causing problems.

The recruiting and retention picture is “one of those subjects that if you start sitting back and putting your feet up on your desk, thinking you got it all set, it’ll bite you,” said Maj. Gen. Anthony F. Przybyslawski, the commander of the Air Force Personnel Center at Randolph AFB, Tex. “It’s a living issue we’re always working on.”

And the Air Force is, indeed, working on the issue—for the first time in recent history, USAF is building a professional recruiting force. This is one of several efforts to ensure that the service attracts and retains large numbers of high-quality airmen.

Other personnel efforts include bonuses and the growing popularity of so-called Development Teams. These teams review career plans for officers, and are aimed at getting the right people in the right job.

As the military tries to build, shape, and mold its future force, the Air Force has its own unique challenge: It is decreasing its size by 40,000 troops in an effort to become a leaner, more efficient force.

That reduction in size does not belie any easing on the part of the mission. Air Force officials are working overtime to make sure that the skills in the smaller force are balanced to meet all operational needs.

“There is a bit of a misconception that the Air Force is on a bit of a recruiting holiday,” said Lt. Gen. Roger A. Brady, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for personnel. “When you’re getting smaller, your recruiting challenges don’t necessarily become less.”

At the macro level, the Air Force’s personnel efforts are keeping pace with their goals. Between 2001 and 2006, for instance, the recruiting force accessed 160,603 airmen, a 101 percent mission accomplishment rate.

The active duty Air Force and Air National Guard met their overall officer and enlisted retention goals in Fiscal 2006. Only the Air Force Reserve came up slightly short—but the Reserve still came within 0.8 percent of its goal.

A Service-Oriented Generation

However, a closer look at the situation shows some potential cracks in the dam both now and in the future.

Brady said that throughout the service, retention is starting to go “soft,” especially for Zone B and Zone C airmen—those who have served between six and 14 years. The Air Force, Brady said, is taking “a hard look at that.”

Officials are closely examining the highest demand specialties. Those include pararescuemen, combat controllers, and explosive ordnance disposal technicians.

Within the Air Force, slightly more than 50 percent of the force has deployed overseas over the last six-plus years, with 35,000 airmen in the US Central Command area of operations on any given day, Brady said.

While those numbers pale in comparison to the Army and Marine Corps, it is an unusually extended period of high operational tempo and a large number of deployments for an Air Force that prides itself on its ability to “deploy in place” for many missions.

Air Force and Pentagon officials acknowledge that the likelihood of deploying—particularly for members of some in-demand specialties—leaves many parents, teachers, and other “adult influencers” reluctant to recommend military service to potential recruits.

“For the military, the challenge is getting the accurate word out to not only the youngster, but also to parents, teachers, coaches, so they have the straight information,” said Bill Carr, acting deputy undersecretary of defense for military personnel policy.

Military surveys have indicated that those who know the most about military service are the most likely to enlist—a fact that makes spreading the word a top priority among recruiters, Carr said.

Web sites such as myfuture.com, an interactive site on military service, as well as word of mouth among soldiers, lawmakers, and other influencers, have helped get information out and keep recruiting numbers generally at their goal rates. Word of mouth will continue to be important as operations continue overseas and jobs in the civilian sector are plentiful.

Still, recruiting “has been tough work all the way through,” Carr said, because parents are now less likely to recommend military service to their children, and the competition with the private sector is fierce.

Aside from get-out-the-word efforts, there is another factor that has kept recruiting rates high: a propensity to serve.

“Demographers say this generation, the millennial generation, is more interested in service, whether it is to community or to nation,” Carr said. “They ‘get it’ with respect to civil opportunities, and we’re fortunate [this generation] came along” when it did.

For those already in the military, two of the biggest decision-making factors are loyalty to the institution and loyalty to each other. In wartime, a desire to remain during the crisis carries much weight.

“We knew that was a feature of those who entered the military,” Carr said. “I didn’t realize how strong of a feature it would turn out to be.”

Adds Przybyslawski, “They want to be part of the war. They feel that being in the Air Force is important and they can contribute.”

There are concerns that ongoing demands are forcing the military to lower its standards for new recruits. The heavily deployed Army, in particular, has had to lower recruiting standards to attract enough new soldiers to fill its growing ranks.

The Pentagon contends that the military’s latest crop of new recruits is among the highest quality in the country’s history.

Roughly four percent of the Army’s recruits rank in the bottom third in aptitude—compared to two percent just a few years ago. (While the ratio has doubled, those numbers were roughly 50 percent for the Army in the post-Vietnam era.)

“The military is like Lake Woebegon, where everybody is above average,” Carr said. This factors large in the Pentagon’s universal rejection of a draft, a move that is not even on the table for consideration.

When asked whether there were any discussions to move away from the all-volunteer force, both Carr and Brady responded with a quick and resounding, “No.” Even if recruiting and retention becomes a heavy problem down the road, personnel officials do not see a draft as a viable or attractive alternative.

No Draft, No Way

“We have spent approximately zero time discussing that,” Brady said. “Not even in [the] deepest, darkest [part] of our soul have we discussed” reinstating the draft. “The professional force, the all-volunteer force, as far we’re concerned, is a huge success for us.”

For starters, a draft would result in a force that is top-heavy in new troops—with a projected 75 percent of the military serving just a two-year term, estimated Carr. That contrasts sharply with today’s volunteer force, where half of the military has been serving for more than two years.

Meanwhile, it is difficult in today’s environment, where complex weapons systems dominate the battlefield, to train soldiers to run the high-tech equipment.

With a draftee force, the military would be forced to create “instant sergeants,” promoted after just 18 months instead of the customary four years. These junior NCOs would be charged with running systems that need a far more experienced hand, Carr said. Maintenance, system, and unit performance would undoubtedly “fall off,” he added.

But perhaps the biggest selling point of the all-volunteer force is just that—it’s made up of volunteers who have chosen to report for service. That fact alone contributes to what military officials say is sustained high morale among troops, despite the ongoing pressures of deployments.

“If you want to go to see high morale in people who are proud of what they’re doing, you need to visit a deployed Air Force unit,” Brady said.

Overall retention rates may have more to do with collective family experiences than the individual soldier, sailor, airman, or marine. Officials acknowledge that in wartime the relationship between the family and the service clearly can become strained.

“Separations are tough on families,” said Przybyslawski. “Retention decisions are made by families, more so than by individuals.”

Przybyslawski said the service has no way to solidly measure the influence of families on re-enlistment decisions. But he always talks to separating airmen in his organization to learn the root cause of their decision. And when the family decides it wants a more stable lifestyle, the airman typically does not waver from that.

Somewhat surprisingly, however, informal surveys indicate that support from spouses for military service has remained almost flat. The level of support coming from families whose spouses have deployed is only slightly lower than in those who have not, Carr said.

To keep support intact, it is incumbent on the military to “honor, request, and value their sacrifices,” Carr said. “Then they’ll identify with the military and remain in the military.”

Many—both within the military and on Capitol Hill—believe the best way to keep the faith with families is to ensure as predictable a deployment schedule as possible. Senate Democrats tried, and failed, in September to pass language mandating that active duty troops receive as much time home as deployed, while reservists would spend three years at home for every year deployed.

The measure, introduced by Sen. James Webb, D-Va., as an amendment to the FY08 defense authorization bill, fell four votes short of the 60 needed for passage amid White House concerns that the language would tie the military’s hands and greatly impede future deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Filling Out the Air National Guard

Despite recent successes, the Air National Guard is beginning to see its recruiting slip a bit, and it remains an area of concern. In August, both the Air Force and Air Force Reserve met their accessions goals—but the Air Guard fell four percent short.

Complicating Air Guard recruiting is the 2005 round of Base Realignment and Closure actions, which stripped airframes from a number of states and ordered a large number of mission changes. In many cases, ANG units are now or will soon be controlling unmanned aerial vehicles—not manned fighters.

However, this realignment may only produce a brief blip in Guard recruiting and retention, and may be something that will soon correct itself.

“You’re talking about taking pilots out of a cockpit and going into a pilotless, nonflying UAV mission, so there may be some short-term hiccups there,” said Army Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau. “But long term, I don’t see any adverse effect. In fact, I see positive long-term” effects.

Indeed, interest is so high in the emerging UAV mission that classes are quickly filling up at the Air Force’s UAV “schoolhouse” at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nev.

“As requirements increase for UAVs, we’ve been filling the schoolhouse,” said Maj. Gen. Anthony F. Przybyslawski. “We’ve got that place going. On occasion, the schoolhouse isn’t big enough.”

Intensive Care for the Medical Service

The Air Force Medical Service has chronic recruiting and retention problems, despite efforts for years to turn around the lagging rates.

Indeed, the Air Force personnel and recruiting communities recently re-created the Recruiting and Retention Investment Strategy Council, which is aimed at better meeting the service’s future medical requirements by ensuring proper investment in both recruiting and retention.

Across the board, recruiting statistics for fully qualified health care professionals average 56.5 percent of the goal, according to Air Force testimony before the House Armed Services personnel subcommittee this year. Recruiting rates for physicians are just 9.4 percent of the goal, while dentists are at 24.1 percent.

The nurse recruiting average was far better, at 90.2 percent, while biomedical sciences and medical administrators met recruiting targets.

On the retention side, retention at the 10-year point is around 27 percent for physicians, down from 32 percent historically, and 37 percent for nurses, down from the 44 percent historical average.

Other specialties have seen some small retention increases, with dentists at 26 percent compared to a 21 percent historical average and biomedical services officers now at 45 percent, five percentage points higher than the historical average.

Bonus Boosts

But earlier this year, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced that it would be his goal to have active duty troops at home twice as long as they are deployed overseas. Reservists, meanwhile, would spend five times as much time at home as deployed.

While that goal remains far less than a reality, given current operational demands, military officials see it as a move toward a more stable deployment schedule.

Bonuses are a key tool to incentivize new recruits and troops who re-enlist. House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee Chairman John P. Murtha, D-Pa., estimates that budgets for bonuses have grown from $180 million to $2 billion this year.

The Air Force is currently reviewing its bonus structure and weighing it against the service’s other financial demands. Brady noted that it is “not unrealistic” that the service will increase bonuses over time.

“We may have a smaller force, but it becomes even more critical than ever that we have the right skill sets,” he added. “We’ll take a hard business look at that and see what needs to be done.”

But bonuses aren’t the only option the Air Force is pursuing.

Perhaps most notably, it is making recruiting a specialty—enabling part of the force to remain in recruiting far longer than the short duty that has been customary for recruiters.

The Career Recruiting Force program, which began in 2006, will allow some more senior recruiters to remain on the job. This will create far more experienced officials to reach out to potential recruits—and train the new corps of Air Force recruiters.

Officials say the goal is to provide consistency and leadership in USAF’s recruiting force.

To be eligible, recruiters must be a technical sergeant or an E-6 select with five years of recruiting experience, or a highly qualified master sergeant with two years’ experience. The so-called professional recruiters now number 432 airmen out of the Air Force’s 2,571-person recruiting force.

The program is still in its infancy, but Brady said he believes it will “work to our advantage.”

Meanwhile, the Air Force is also focusing heavily on Development Teams to match airmen to specialties. Przybyslawski recalled that, just a few years ago, Development Teams were somewhat ignored. “Now every person I know knows when the [Development Team] meets,” he said.

In September, the Air Force Personnel Center announced the Airmen Development Plan, a Web-based program that integrates electronic records, duty histories, and assignment preferences into one platform. The goal is to better manage and nominate personnel for command, leadership, and developmental education opportunities.

Megan Scully is the defense reporter for National Journal’s CongressDaily in Washington, D.C., and a contributor to National Journal and Goverment Executive. Her most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Worse Than the Hollow Force,” appeared in the July issue.