This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of United States’ all-volunteer military force. It also coincides with one of the worst recruiting years for the U.S. military since 1973. The army missed its 2022 recruiting goal by fifteen thousand soldiers, and the army, air force, and navy all expect to miss their goals in 2023. The shortage is blamed on a confluence of domestic issues: a competitive job market, lack of in-person recruiting during the pandemic, and a population of young adults who are less informed, less interested, and less qualified for military service. The lack of qualified recruits has received a lot of attention, but the fact that our young population does not see the value of military service should also ignite great concern.
All current U.S. military personnel have one thing in common: they volunteered. But falling recruitment has raised questions of national security, military readiness, and the health of U.S. society. Can the all-volunteer force handle a changing international security landscape?
The Global War on Terror (GWOT) hurt the military’s brand and reputation, not just because some Americans did not support the wars, but because of the cost paid by service members who were repeatedly deployed to combat zones. The all-volunteer force has been called one of the United States’ greatest success stories, but it was not used as designed during GWOT, and today it is inadequate to meet current personnel needs. It is time to address the shortfalls of the all-volunteer force with a renewed Gates Commission, before the United States’ next long war.
Transition to an All-Volunteer Force
In 1973, the United States transitioned from a conscription-based military to an all-volunteer force after a comprehensive review by the presidentially directed Gates Commission. While there were calls to abandon the Selective Service system (the federal agency charged with matters concerning the draft), the commission recommended keeping it in case of a major conflict that would require the reinstatement of the draft. The new military structure was built to support a long war by utilizing a draft so that the active-duty volunteers could spend two years at home for every year in a combat zone (a “1:2 dwell time”) and the National Guard and Reserves could be home six years for every year mobilized (a “1:6 dwell time”). The dwell goal for the Guard and Reserves has since changed to a 1:4 dwell time, but this system established the Guard and Reserve Components as a temporary stopgap to relieve active-duty forces until the president and Congress reinstate a draft.
The Global War on Terror
Despite the length of the wars and substantial number of troops deployed, the Selective Service system was never activated for the GWOT. In 2002, the active-duty army was able to deploy 105,000 soldiers at a 1:1 dwell time and 70,000 soldiers at 1:2 dwell time. The army deployed soldiers at higher rates than could be sustained and operated at close to a 1:1 dwell until 2009. Additionally, the reserve component, which was designed to be a stopgap, operated at just over a 1:2 dwell time. By 2010, more than two million service members had deployed, with 43 percent serving multiple deployments. The impact of repeated deployments on the health of service members is well documented.
The workforce shortage drove the services, particularly the army, to extreme measures. The army implemented a stop-loss policy from 2001 until 2010. This policy was involuntary servitude and prevented troops from leaving the service despite having completed their voluntary commitment and often having completed at least one combat tour. The army also recalled thousands of separated soldiers back to active duty. It implemented internal personnel management policies shifting soldiers from units that returned from deployment to units preparing to leave, substituting a desired specialty for one that could or could not fit the unit mission, and pulling soldiers from training or force generation capabilities. Soldiers stationed in Korea and Europe were moved to units in the United States as those units prepared for combat tours. The army grew its end strength—the number of troops authorized by Congress—by more than 70,000 to a total of 561,979 soldiers, and increased deployment lengths to fifteen months. The Department of Defense surged contractors and civilians into war zones at unprecedented numbers in roles previously requiring legal combatants status, and shared traditional army missions, such as convoy operations and base defense, across the air force and navy. Despite the many manpower challenges and the toll of multiple deployments, moving back to a draft was never on the table.
The Draft Under Consideration
On December 31, 2002, a year after the start of Operation Enduring Freedom, the opinion page of the New York Times read, “Bring Back the Draft.” Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY), who voted against the Iraq War, warned that an all-volunteer force would lead to adventurism and thought a renewed draft would help citizens appreciate the cost of war. By 2004, despite sending 130,000 soldiers into Iraq during the invasion, any debate about enacting a draft was over. The House of Representatives held a vote to implement the draft, primarily to draw criticism to the Iraq War during an election year. The bill was summarily rejected by a vote of 402 to 2. Also, despite the large manpower shortages, the Defense Department wanted no part of a draft, preferring to grow its end strength and create more professional soldiers rather than train, deploy, and motivate draftees. The result was a small percentage of American citizens who sacrificed more than their fair share, an increase in the civil-military divide, and a future in which the activation of a draft is extremely unlikely.
A New Gates Commission
Congress has grappled with the future of the draft for years. In 2020, a national commission studied the Selective Service system and recommended keeping the draft and highlighted the need for “institutionalized exercises of national mobilization processes” and more public engagement to ensure awareness of the system. But a public awareness campaign is a tiny step to solve the growing civil-military divide, the unfair policies used to retain manpower during the GWOT, and general apathy that most Americans hold toward serving their country in the military. Moreover, the National Guard and Reserves, which were designed as a stopgap, have evolved into operational forces with missions critical to any war mobilization effort and day-to-day homeland defense. A future long war will not have the manpower available to relieve the all-volunteer active duty. Instead, the active and reserves will go to war together.
The United States needs innovative ideas and new forums to encourage young men and women to fill their obligations to public service, but it also needs a redesigned military to ensure timely access to the manpower needed to defend the nation and to increase the equity and fairness for the cost of war across our society. It is time for a new Gates Commission—a comprehensive review of the structure of our military and the development of specific guidelines on when and how conscription will be used in future conflict.
The views expressed in this article represent the personal views of the author and are not necessarily the views of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Air Force or The Air University.
This post was written for the Council on Foreign Relations’ Renewing America initiative—an effort established on the premise that for the United States to succeed, it must fortify the political, economic, and societal foundations fundamental to its national security and international influence. Renewing America evaluates nine critical domestic issues that shape the ability of the United States to navigate a demanding, competitive, and dangerous world. For more Renewing America resources, visit https://www.cfr.org/programs/renewing-america and follow the initiative on Twitter @RenewingAmerica.