Trouble With the All-Volunteer Force

In The Economist, 24 October 2015 (US print edition), an article asks "Who will fight the next war?" and goes on to describe how the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) is becoming more and more difficult to field as well as growing ever more distant from the people from whom it comes and for whom it fights. It is a disturbing scene. That the scene is painted by a British magazine of such solid reputation in the field of economics is ironic in a sense but not inexplicable. After all, it is the fiscal aspect of the AVF that is most immediate and pressing. The AVF is simply too costly.

When the Gates Commission set up the rationale for the AVF in 1970, it did so at the behest of a president, Richard Nixon, who had come to see the conscript military as a political dagger aimed at his own political heart. One could argue that the decision to abolish conscription was a foregone conclusion; the Commission simply provided a rationale for doing it and a totally voluntary military to replace it.

But whatever we might think of the Commission's work and Nixon's motivation, what has happened in the last 15 years -- interminable war -- was never on the Commission's radar screen. Like most crises, as Colin Powell used to lament when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this one was unexpected, not planned for, and begs denial as a first reaction.

That said, after 15 years of war it is plain to all but the most recalcitrant that the US cannot afford the AVF. Indeed, it is going to break the bank. Even with lowered standards, substituting women for men (from 1.6% of the AVF in 1973 to 14.8% today), recruitment and reenlistment bonuses totaling tens of millions of dollars, advertising campaigns costing billions, massive recruitment of non-citizens, use of psychotropic drugs to recycle unfit soldiers and Marines to combat zones, and overall pay and allowances that are, for the first time in the military's history, comparable to civilian rates, the land forces in particular are still having difficulties fielding adequate numbers.

Moreover, the high costs thus generated have those forces on a trajectory of spending almost their entire budget shares on people in the not too distant future, leaving no funds for operations and maintenance, acquisition of new systems, or other important budget priorities.

More serious than this fiscal challenge, however, is the ethical one. Presently, 330 million Americans lay claim to rights, liberties, and security that not a single one of them is obligated to protect and defend. Only one percent of the total population is so obligated. That less-than-one-percent is bleeding and dying for the other 99 per cent. Moreover, that less-than-one-percent does not come primarily or even secondarily from the families of the Ivy Leagues, of Wall Street, of the corporate leadership of America, from the Congress or from affluent America; it comes from the poverty-stricken areas of West Virginia, Maine, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and elsewhere. As one of us has documented in his book, Skin in the Game: Poor Kids and Patriots, this is an ethically poisonous situation. And as the article in The Economist concludes, dangerous as well.

The last 15 years have also generated, as wars tend to do, millions of veterans. The costs of taking care of these men and women are astronomical. This is one significant reason these men and women are being inadequately cared for today. Without the political will to shift funds, there simply is not enough money to do so.

In fact, when one calculates today's U.S. national security budget -- not simply the Pentagon's budget -- the total expenditure approaches 1.2 trillion dollars annually, or more than twice what most Americans believe they are paying for national security. This total figure includes the costs of nuclear weapons (Energy Department), of homeland security (Homeland Security Department), of veteran care (Veterans Department), of intelligence needs (the CIA and Defense Department), of international relations (the State Department), and of the military and its operations (the Pentagon and its slush fund, the Overseas Contingency Operations account). The Pentagon budget alone is larger than that of the next fourteen nations in the world combined.

Most Americans are completely ignorant of the facts outlined above, or understand only partial truths about them. The media is unhelpful in this regard because in the main journalists and TV personalities are as unknowing as the people. Few in the military leadership have the courage to speak up about these realities, or are themselves so brainwashed that they are incapable of doing so.

But if the country does not wake up soon and demand action, we will be looking at another crisis and asking the question posed by The Economist: "Who will fight the next war?"
Worse, we might be asking the question that Skin in the Game poses: "What if we had a war and nobody came?"

That final question is one that several of the current crop of candidates in what passes for the Republican primary process should begin to contemplate seriously.

Major General (Ret) Dennis Laich served 35 years in the US Army Reserve; Colonel (Ret) Lawrence Wilkerson served 31 years in the US Army.