Steady Under Fire

All-Volunteer Force Proves Its Resilience, So Far

By Bernard D. Rostker

Bernard Rostker is a senior RAND fellow who has held many senior government posts. In 1979, he was appointed director of the Selective Service System by President Jimmy Carter. From 1994 to 1998, Rostker served as assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy for manpower and reserve affairs, and from 1998 to 2000 as the 25th undersecretary of the U.S. Army. From 2000 to 2001, he served as undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, the official who is the U.S. Secretary of Defense’s senior policy adviser on recruitment, career development, pay, and benefits for 1.4 million active-duty military personnel, 1.3 million National Guard and National Reserve personnel, and 725,000 civilian employees of the U.S. Department of Defense.

America’s all-volunteer military has been an overwhelming success since its inception in 1973, but the force faces an unprecedented challenge posed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The all-volunteer military has become the world’s strongest fighting force, attracting recruits who are better educated and more skilled than those who served under the U.S. military draft. However, after four years of war with mounting casualties in Iraq, continuing insurgent attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, and multiple additional deployments throughout the world, the all-volunteer force has experienced recruiting shortfalls for the first time since the late 1970s.

To date, the all-volunteer force has done the job. Under the draft, people served because we in America 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. Short of a total collapse of the system, there is no better way to, in the words of the U.S. Constitution, “raise and support armies” and “provide and maintain a navy.”

The all-volunteer force has shown it can be successful during periods of conflict as well as during peacetime. Nevertheless, the sustained conflicts in the Middle East pose obstacles not faced before. Reenlistment rates have remained high in spite of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, sustaining the overall size of the force. But the U.S. Army, Army National Guard, and Army Reserve have faced difficulty recruiting new personnel. There are no guarantees with a volunteer force. Only time will tell if the current level of operations can be sustained into the future.

The volunteer force has proven much more resilient than we had any reason to hope it would be and has far exceeded the early estimates of those who put it into place. But logic tells us there is a limit. Just because we have not yet broken the force does not mean it cannot be broken.

Figure 1 —

Today’s Enlistees Are Better Educated Than They Were at the End of the Draft

Figure 1 -- Today's Enlistees Are Better Educated Than They Were at the End of the Draft
SOURCE: Quality by Fiscal Year from 1973, Curt L. Gilroy, Washington, D.C.: Office of Accession Policy, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Personnel and Readiness), 2006.

Figure 2 —

Moving to a Volunteer Military Has Dramatically Increased the Professionalism of the Force

Figure 2 -- Moving to a Volunteer Military Has Dramatically Increased the Professionalism of the Force
SOURCE: I Want You! 2006.

Figure 3 —

Today’s Military Personnel Score Well Above Average on Standard Tests of Intelligence

Figure 3 -- Today's Military Personnel Score Well Above Average on Standard Tests of Intelligence
SOURCE: I Want You! 2006.

Figure 4 —

Racial and Ethnic Composition of U.S. Military Enlistees Is Fairly Representative of the Nation at Large

Figure 4 -- Racial and Ethnic Composition of U.S. Military Enlistees Is Fairly Representative of the Nation at Large
SOURCE: Population Representation in the Military Services — Fiscal Year 2002, David S. C. Chu, Washington, D.C.: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Personnel and Readiness), 2004.

Figure 5 —

The South Continues to Be Overrepresented in Comparison with Other Regions of the United States

Figure 5 -- The South Continues to Be Overrepresented in Comparison with Other Regions of the United States
SOURCE: Population Representation in the Military Services — Fiscal Year 2002, David S. C. Chu, Washington, D.C.: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Personnel and Readiness), 2004.
NOTES: South includes AL, AR, DC, DE, FL, GA, KY, LA, MD, MS, NC, OK, SC, TN, TX, VA, WV. West includes AK, AZ, CA, CO, HI, ID, MT, NM, NV, OR, UT, WA, WY. North central includes IA, IL, IN, KS, MI, MN, MO, ND, NE, OH, SD, WI. Northeast includes CT, MA, ME, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI, VT. Territories or possessions include American Samoa, Federated States of Micronesia, Guam, Marshall Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Puerto Rico, U.S. minor outlying islands, Virgin Islands.
*2002 statistics were the most recent data available at the time of publication.

Evolution of the All-Volunteer Force

The United States has conscripted its armed forces for only 35 of its 230 years — nearly all in the 20th century — and the American people have been generally willing to accept the practice of conscription when service has been perceived to be universal. That acceptance began to erode in the 1960s. There were five major reasons:

  • Demographics. The size of the eligible population of young men reaching draft age each year was so large and the needs of the military so small in comparison that, in practice, the draft was no longer universal.
  • Cost. Obtaining enough volunteers was possible at acceptable budget levels.
  • Moral and economic rationale. Conservatives and libertarians argued that the state had no right to impose military service on young men without their consent. Liberals asserted that the draft placed unfair burdens on the underprivileged members of society, who were less likely to get deferments.
  • Opposition to the war in Vietnam. The growing unpopularity of the Vietnam War meant the country was ripe for a change to a volunteer force.
  • The U.S. Army’s desire for change. The army had lost confidence in the draft as discipline problems among draftees mounted in Vietnam.

In 1969, President Richard Nixon created the President’s Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force, also known as the Gates Commission. It considered key military-manpower issues, including personnel supply and demand, attrition and retention, and the ideal mix of career and noncareer members in the context of management efficiency and personal equity.

The commission concluded that the nation’s interests would be better served by an all-volunteer force rather than by a combination of volunteers and conscripts. In 1971, Nixon signed a law to end the draft and to put the selective service structure on standby. After a two-year extension of induction authority, the end of the draft was formally announced in January 1973.

Changes for the Better

The quality of military personnel has improved since the end of the draft, as measured by scores on intelligence tests. The percentage of new recruits with high school diplomas has surged (see Figure 1). The proportion of career personnel and the proficiency and professionalism of the force have also dramatically increased (see Figure 2). A largely unexpected consequence of moving to a professional military with better pay was a higher rate of reenlistment and a sharp rise in the size of the career force relative to the overall force. At the same time, the all-volunteer force has made the military more representative of the nation as a whole.

For 26 years, the U.S. Department of Defense has reported annually on social representation in the U.S. military. The 2004 report noted the following:

  • Education level. The most recent statistics show that 92 percent of new enlistees to the active-duty force are high school graduates. The figure for the reserve components is 87 percent. This compares favorably with both the 1973 goal of 45 percent and the 2002 civilian graduation rate of 79 percent. In addition, 95 percent of active-duty officers have baccalaureate degrees, and 38 percent have advanced degrees.
  • Mental aptitude. Today’s American military scores well above the civilian population on standard tests of intelligence (see Figure 3).
  • Marital status. The larger career force means that the number of service members who are married has increased. Today, 49 percent of enlisted personnel are married, compared with 40 percent in 1973. Among active-duty officers, 68 percent are married.
  • Gender. Today, 15 percent of the active-duty enlisted force is female, compared with less than 2 percent when the draft ended. Sixteen percent of the officer corps is female. Despite these improvements, women are still underrepresented in the military.
  • Race and ethnicity. In fiscal year 2002, African Americans were slightly overrepresented among new enlistees relative to the civilian population: 16 percent compared with 14 percent. However, this is considerably more equitable than was the 1973 level of 28 percent. Latinos are currently underrepresented, making up 16 percent of all civilians but only 11 percent of new enlistees (see Figure 4).
  • Socioeconomic status. Recruits come primarily from families in the middle or lower middle classes. Few recruits come from upper-income families, leading some to criticize the all-volunteer military. But historically, few people from elite backgrounds have ever served in the military except during times of mass mobilization such as occurred during World War II.
  • Geographic representation. The South continues to be overrepresented, with more than 41 percent of enlistments compared with 35 percent of the civilian population (see Figure 5).

Pillars of Success

America’s experience with the all-volunteer force suggests four principal reasons for its success: leadership, analysis, targeted programs, and adequate budgets. Whenever one of these factors has been missing over the past 30 years, the force has faltered.

The first factor is leadership from top management. The all-volunteer force would not have come into being when it did without the leadership of President Nixon, who began the planning process and announced the formation of the Gates Commission within weeks of taking office in 1969.

Within the military, U.S. Army General Maxwell Thurman is considered by many as the single most important person in the history of the all-volunteer force, because he taught the Pentagon how to recruit. He often said that it may be called an all-volunteer force, but it is really an “all-recruited force.” More than any other uniformed leader, Thurman recognized throughout the 1980s that the military had to compete aggressively in the civilian labor market for American youth — and had to do so with the right tools based on market research and statistical analysis.

The second factor, then, is the use of quantitative analysis to test, adjust, and evaluate policies. Almost every change to the all-volunteer force has been made only after research demonstrated its likely effect. The research of the 1960s and early 1970s reassured decisionmakers that such a force might be possible at acceptable budget outlays. In the 1970s and 1980s, test programs demonstrated the value of advertising, educational incentives, and bonuses in encouraging enlistment. Analytical evidence later helped reform the compensation system.

Studies of enlistee test scores and job performance proved what now seems logical but was once very controversial: People who score higher on standardized tests do better on the job than do those who score lower. The resulting emphasis on quality attracted capable people and led to the increasing professionalism of the military. And ever since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, which eliminated the threat that had dominated national security strategy for four decades, personnel research has helped defense managers make the adjustments necessary to transform the post–Cold War force into a smaller, more agile, and more engaged one.

The third factor is the implementation of targeted programs to attract the required types and numbers of recruits. To appeal to high-quality youths, the services had to craft marketing strategies and advertising campaigns that conveyed the benefits of military service; offer money for education, bonuses for enlisting in certain occupations, and enlistment tours of different lengths; and provide career opportunities that had civilian relevance. The services also had to train a professional and motivated recruiting staff. Finally, the key to creating a truly outstanding force was persuading the most capable members to reenlist. Careerists demanded not just good pay but also quality-of-life benefits, such as good housing, child care, health benefits, family advocacy programs, and military stores. It was crucial that the services become “family friendly.”

The fourth factor required for success is adequate financial resources. The defense budget must be large enough to accomplish three things at once: support pay raises that keep pace with both inflation and civilian-sector pay increases; provide resources for advertising, recruiters, bonuses, and educational benefits; and fund the military retirement program and quality-of-life initiatives.

Old Questions Resurface

In 1969, Crawford Greenewalt, a member of the Gates Commission, shared his misgivings in a memorandum to the chairman, former Secretary of Defense Thomas Gates, Jr. “While there is a reasonable possibility that a peacetime armed force could be entirely voluntary,” wrote Greenewalt, “I am certain that an armed force involved in a major conflict could not be voluntary.” So far, Greenewalt’s reservations have not been borne out.

But given the ongoing war in Iraq — with casualties rising, enlistments dropping, deployments being extended, the situation on the ground deteriorating, and a majority of the American public no longer believing that the war is worth fighting — the issue of recruiting enough volunteers to maintain the U.S. military at required levels is again relevant. With nearly 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan today, military commanders point to the outstanding job being done in these nontraditional conflicts. Remarkably, while enlistments have fallen off, retention remains at historically high levels. There were initial fears that soldiers would not reenlist if they had to deploy twice into combat zones. Yet some soldiers are now completing their third and fourth tours. U.S. troops have demonstrated their continuing commitment and willingness to serve.

Some critics say that one solution to the current dilemma would be to reinstate the draft as part of a universal system requiring all young people to commit time to national service of some type. But creating a system to employ all four million young people who reach adulthood every year would be very costly, if such a system were to be universal. And if not everyone were to serve, we would be in the same quandary in which we found ourselves during the 1960s.

A final judgment on the all-volunteer force has not been made. The 40-year partnership between policymakers and policy analysts has produced not only the finest fighting force the United States has ever fielded but also one that is broadly representative of the American people. The past 30 years — particularly the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan — have proven that an all-volunteer force can be sustained in peace and during the initial periods of military conflict. Whether or not an all-volunteer force can be sustained over longer periods of ongoing conflicts and recurring deployments, as in the current situation, has yet to be determined. square

Related Reading

I Want You! The Evolution of the All-Volunteer Force, Bernard Rostker, RAND/MG-265-RC, 2006, 832 pp., ISBN 978-0-8330-3895-1 (hardcover with DVD), 978-0-8330-3896-8 (hardcover).