Is the End in sight for the All-Volunteer Force


The latest example of what has been a long losing streak for military personnel is the recruitment shortfall.

Half a century after the completion of the draft, and the introduction of the All-Volunteer Forces (AVF), have the United States Armed Forces been in an existential crisis.

The Pentagon recently reported all its branches of service were failing or struggling to meet recruiting requirements for the current fiscal year. The Army alone has met just 40 percent of its annual goal and there are only two months left in the fiscal year. In the beginning of 2022, the U.S. military had 1.3 million active-duty service members–over a third of which were in the Army alone–making it the third-largest military in the world, plus a National Guard and Reserve component bigger than most countries’ entire forces.

The latest example of what has become a long losing streak for military personnel, dating back to last summer’s Afghanistan withdrawal disaster. After America’s second-longest war (Iraq is the longest) came to an ignominious end with the deaths of 13 service members, the military has suffered something of an image and identity crisis, battling accusations of incompetence and politicization.

The charge sticks largely because of the second. The military is undergoing a full-blown cultural revolution, now speaking the language of the woke left and seemingly becoming more aligned with the Democratic Party; it professes non-partisanship while very openly taking sides on loaded political issues, like abortion or the death of George Floyd. This politicization appears to have caused a backlash, with fewer Americans signing up for an institution once popular.

Where does the military move from here? Be aware that the military was never meant to be in this position.

Affected by “generational trauma”, many of the founders resisted the idea of creating a permanent professional standing army. They saw it as an instrument of tyranny. They would not rely on an army full-time for national defense in this country. Instead, citizens will be expected to protect their family and community as well as serve our juries. America’s warriors would not be soldiers but militiamen.

Not everyone believed this was the right way. In American mythology, the citizen-soldier is credited with securing the republic and defeating the professionals of the parliament. In truth, militias are ineffectual, inconsistent and unstable. George Washington was a great statesman. He praised militias publicly, but criticised them privately, saying they had done more damage than good. While more militiamen might have died and fought in America’s various wars, the real difference was made by full-time professionals.

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Two-and-a half centuries later, it seemed that the issue was settled. The last mass mobilization occurred during World War II and, aside from the suspension of conscription in 1973, America never fully de-mobilized. The professional military has become an article of faith for the country, an institution in which Americans place significant trust.

The majority of Americans oppose the reintroduction of the draft, except for a small minority. The viability and sustainability of an all-volunteer force is dependent on young men’s willingness to enlist in the military or take up commissions as officers. There are two choices if the military is unable to meet its manpower requirements. One option is to accept the reality and choose to reduce its size. However, it cannot take this decision by itself. The president’s national security policy and military force levels will be affected as they are governed by Congress. For example, if the U.S. still intends to defend Europe from Russian aggression, Taiwan from Chinese annexation, and South Korea from North Korean invasion, the military today is likely unable to meet all these commitments.

It would be at most a few more years before the forces are seriously reduced. It is impossible to reverse the decision to reduce force size once it has been made. All parties involved in the downsizing process, including the White House and Congress, would have to agree to it and follow through. Washington isn’t interested in reducing itself so be prepared for significant opposition from Congress to force drawsdowns, particularly from Republicans.

The other alternative is to return the draft. The Constitution requires that a state be able to create an armed force. This is the only way to ensure its legitimacy, regardless of its popularity. Even though the government may scream and kick along the way, the events over the past two years show that the American public is willing to follow the government’s orders. Protests against the draft will be limited to male-only men, so they will probably go unheard. Women would be required to sign up for Selective Service. This could raise questions about the legitimacy of conscription.

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Like downsizing, however, reinstituting conscription isn’t a straightforward affair:

A national emergency, exceeding the Department of Defense’s capability to recruit and retain its total force strength, requires Congress to amend the Military Selective Service Act to authorize the President to induct personnel into the Armed Forces.

What’s a “national crisis?” War in Europe, or the Asia-Pacific. An invasion by foreign forces? Although it is a question that can be answered, the implied conclusion is that this would be something so grave there wouldn’t be any doubt about the need for mass mobilization. Does meeting military manpower requirements in a period of relative peace constitute an emergency?

Selective Service makes it clear that conscription can only be implemented if both Congress and the president agree. Conscription is politically toxic, except in a case of national emergency. If there is a clear political benefit, it’s unlikely that either the president of Congress or any elected members will seriously consider applying for it. Former Representative Charles Rangel made multiple bids for universal service; though a career-long opponent of the AVF, he never made a serious effort to bring back the draft until opposition to the Iraq War in the 2000s made it easier to sell.

In theory, the taxpayer pays politicians to make difficult decisions. However, in reality politicians often take the easy route. They will continue to push the issue down, as they did with the debt. The problem may present a challenge for the Pentagon but not for President Obama. There is no political gain in trying to solve the issue today.

A society has lost the notion of national defense, which was a collective obligation imposed upon a militia made up of men of good health, although the Constitution recognizes it as vital. The AVF partly explains why service is not woven in the fabric of society. The military chooses the service members and used narrow criteria to judge applicants. Most people won’t choose to be a full-time soldier if they are given the option.

Currently, the military is attempting to maintain its ranks by increasingly opening service to as many people as possible, to the point of lowering physical standards. Although it is consistent with America’s liberal traditions this raises questions about how professional the institution is. Are armed forces more efficient when there are more people to represent the full spectrum of society? Or is the force more effective when a small number of individuals meet the most stringent requirements and have the mindset and character that will allow them to succeed in uniform?

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For example, the soldier who announced, on social media, she was questioning her loyalty to America after the overturning of Roe v. Wade may be “good at her job,” but military service isn’t just a job. This is the ultimate act of loyalty and love for the country. The soldier questioning her loyalty is exactly the kind of person on whom the Pentagon has focused its recruiting efforts for over a decade, but is she really someone Americans should trust with preserving and defending the Constitution?

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America seems to be stuck between two concepts: Not everyone should serve but everybody who wishes to should be allowed, regardless of whether they are suitable. What if there are fewer people who want to serve? The military has gone all-in on trying to diversify and make itself more politically “reliable,” as in, not overwhelmingly conservative and Republican. It may have learned the hard way that the vast majority of Americans, given the option, choose not to serve. Those who do, tend to be those whom the Pentagon is trying to reduce, or purge from its ranks.

Retired Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr of the Heritage Foundation said, “2022 is the year we question the sustainability of the all-volunteer force.” It seems, in the not-too-distant future, it’s not out of the question we’ll either see a smaller force supremely loyal to the American left, or a conscripted force representing the full diversity of America.

Neither is the best for our country’s requirements. However, beggars cannot be chosen.

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