RAND Book Calls All-Volunteer U.S. Military a Success, But Warns Current Wars Pose Challenge to Future Recruiting

For Release

September 14, 2006

America's all-volunteer military has been an overwhelming success, but faces an unprecedented challenge posed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a new RAND Corporation book that is the most detailed examination ever conducted of the force.

The book — titled “I Want You! The Evolution of the All-Volunteer Force” — concludes that the all-volunteer military has emerged as the world's strongest fighting force, attracting recruits who are better educated and more skilled than those who served in the U.S. armed forces during the military draft.

However, after four years of war with mounting casualties in Iraq, continuing insurgency attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, and multiple deployments throughout the world, the all-volunteer military has experienced recruiting shortfalls for the first time since the late 1970s, the book notes.

“By any measurement, the all-volunteer military has proven to be a tremendous success,” said Bernard Rostker, the author of the book and a RAND senior fellow who served in key Pentagon manpower posts on four occasions. “The all-volunteer force has shown it can be successful during periods of conflict as well as during peacetime, but the sustained conflicts in the Middle East pose obstacles not faced before.”

“The all-volunteer force has been doing the job and short of a total collapse of the system, there is no better way to, in the words of the Constitution, ‘raise an army, and support a navy',” Rostker added. “Under the draft, people served because we made them serve. Under the all-volunteer force, people serve because they want to serve, and they are serving very well in the most trying of circumstances.”

In “I Want You,” Rostker highlights the recruiting difficulties created by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He notes that “reenlistment rates have remained high, sustaining the overall size of the force, but there are no guarantees with a volunteer force and only time will tell if the current level of operations can be sustained into the future.”

Rostker recounts the 40-year history of the all-volunteer force from the early discussions about ending the draft, through the decision by President Richard Nixon to create an all-voluntary force, followed by many years of creating policies needed to sustain the effort.

Rostker's book covers events leading to end of the draft in 1973 and the first three decades of the all-volunteer force, and is supplemented by a unique collection of 2,300 related documents.

Copies of government memos, letters and reports — including many documents unclassified for use in Rostker's book — are included on a DVD available for purchase along with the book. More than 1,700 of the documents are directly linked to the text of the book.

The additional materials — collected from the personal papers of key participants as well as from government document centers — add to the depth of Rostker's analysis and will aid future scholars who explore the history of the nation's move to an all-volunteer fighting force.

Commenting on the book, former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, who directed America's transition to the all-volunteer military, said the study is “a virtual archive of the many events, issues, facets, and fundamentals constituting the all-volunteer force. The research and documentation exceed by far, in my judgment, any prior attempts to explore this subject.”

The book, which was started in 2001 when Rostker left the Pentagon and returned to RAND, has become more timely and relevant with the sustained conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The volunteer force concept has proven much more resilient than we had any reason to hope it would be and far exceeds the early estimates of those who put it into place,” Rostker said. “We have extensively used bonuses and they have worked, but logic tells us there is a limit. Just because we have not yet broken the force does not mean the force cannot be broken.”

Rostker outlines the many advances fostered by the all-volunteer military, including improvements in the quality of soldiers as measured by standard intelligence tests and educational attainment. The number of career soldiers has increased sharply as well, helping to improve the proficiency and professionalism of the force.

“I Want You!” points out that the United States has conscripted its armed forces for only 35 of its 230 years — nearly all in the 20th century.

“It has only been during the times of the big wars — including the Cold War — that we have had a draft,” Rostker said.

The history of the all-volunteer force begins in the 1960s, when the credibility of the draft was called into question and as opposition grew to the Vietnam War. Many people viewed the draft as unfair because men from underprivileged groups were less likely to receive deferments that allowed them to avoid military service. In addition, the U.S. Army lost confidence in the draft as discipline problems grew among conscripted troops in Vietnam.

President Nixon created the Gates Commission in 1969 to provide advice on setting up an all-volunteer military. Despite persistent concerns that ending conscription would weaken the nation's defense, President Nixon in 1971 signed legislation creating the all-volunteer force and in January 1973 the end of the draft was formally announced.

Rostker highlights four factors that he credits with playing a key role in the development and continuing success of the all-volunteer military. They include:

  • The leadership of President Nixon to embrace the idea of the all-volunteer military and the efforts of former secretaries of defense Laird and Caspar Weinberger as the military made the change. Gen. Maxwell Thurman is considered by many as the single most important person in the development of the all-volunteer military because he taught the Pentagon how to recruit.
  • The high-quality research programs undertaken to test and adjust the policies of the all-volunteer military, not just at the start but throughout the past 40 years.
  • The development of programs to recruit the correct number of soldiers, sailors and marines and attract recruits with a wide variety of skills. Different marketing strategies were formed to attract and retain young people with different skills. This included differing educational bonuses and making the military more family-friendly to attract career-minded recruits.
  • Creating a defense budget large enough to sustain the all-volunteer force. The budget must be large enough to support military pay that keeps pace with inflation and civilian sector salaries, and maintain the system that attracts new recruits.

“It's been hard. We've made mistakes and we've learned lessons,” Rostker said. “But the all-volunteer military has given us a force that has shown resiliency during times of conflict.”

As an all-volunteer force, the U.S. military is now more representative of the nation as a whole than it was at the end of the draft, becoming the most racially integrated institution in the nation, according to the book. Highlights from the latest Pentagon statistics for 2004 show:

  • About 15 percent of active-duty enlisted members are women, compared with 2 percent at the end of the draft.
  • About 49 percent of enlisted personnel are married, compared with 40 percent at the end of the draft.
  • African-Americans comprise 16 percent of enlisted personnel, compared with 28 percent at the end of the draft. African-Americans make up 14 percent of the nation's population. Hispanics are underrepresented in the military, making up 11 percent of enlisted personnel, compared with 16 percent of the nation's overall population.

While few military recruits come from upper-income families, leading some to criticize the all-voluntary military, Rostker points out that historically few people from “elite” backgrounds have ever served in the U.S. military except during times of mass mobilization such as occurred during World War II.

Some critics say a solution would be to reinstate the draft as a part of a universal system that would require all young people to commit time to national service of some type. But Rostker notes that it would be very costly to create a system to employ all of the approximately 4 million young people who reach adulthood each year if such a system were to be universal.

“If not everyone were to serve, we would be in the same dilemma we found ourselves in during the 1960s when a blue ribbon panel issued a prophetic report, ‘Who Serves, When Not All Serve',” Rostker said. “It was that problem that doomed the draft in the late 1960s.”

Moreover, countries like France that have a tradition of universal service have recently given up conscription as too expensive and not compatible with the needs of a modern technical military.

Rostker is an economist who has held many senior government posts, including serving as Director of the Selective Service in 1979 when President Carter decided to reinstate registration for the draft. From 1994 to 1998, he served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, and from 1998 to 2000 as the 25th Under Secretary of the Army.

From 2000 to 2001, Rostker served as Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. This is the Secretary of Defense's senior policy advisor on recruitment, career development, pay and benefits for 1.4 million active duty military personnel, 1.3 million Guard and Reserve personnel, and 725,000 civilian Department of Defense employees.

Rostker's book was made possible by funds generated through RAND's contracts with the Department of Defense for the operation of three federally funded research and development centers. Additional support for the final preparation of the book was provided by the Office of Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness.

Copies of the “I Want You! The Evolution of the All-Volunteer Force” (ISBN: 0-8330-3896-6) can be ordered from RAND's Distribution Services (order@rand.org or call toll-free in the United States 1-877-584-8642).

About RAND

RAND is a research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges to help make communities throughout the world safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous.