The Bunker, delivered to our subscribers Wednesdays at 7 a.m., is a newsletter from the desk of National Security Analyst Mark Thompson. Sign up here to receive it first thing, or check back Wednesday afternoon for the online version.
This week in The Bunker: The All-Volunteer Force is showing its age in a changing nation, and it’s not going to be sufficient, despite the Pentagon’s latest recruiting bonuses and baubles, if a major war breaks out; and more.
THE ALL-VOLUNTIRED FORCE
The post-draft U.S. military turns 50
We spend a lot of time here at The Bunker focused on military hardware. But the software that operates the weapons and plans the wars — the human software — is even more critical to the nation’s defense (will > weapons). As the Pentagon’s All-Volunteer Force turns 50 this month, that post-draft engine for filling the ranks is sputtering and in danger of running out of gas. If a Big War comes, God forfend, the U.S. military draft will return with a vengeance.
The three biggest services will all miss their enlistment targets this year. The Army expects to fall 10,000 short of its 65,000-recruit target; the Navy projects it will be 6,000 shy, and the Air Force predicts a 10,000-person gap. Only 23% (PDF) of U.S. youth eligible for military service are qualified to sign up — and only 9% of that small slice are interested in donning a U.S. military uniform. According to our steam-powered abacus, that means that fewer than 3 in 100 are contemplating enlisting in the U.S. military today. For recruiters, that’s a teeny-tiny pond.
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Less than 1% of Americans are serving in the military; the number of veterans has dropped from 18% in 1980 to 7% in 2018. “Most Americans have not served in uniform, no longer have a parent who did and are unlikely to encourage their children to enlist,” The Bunker noted in a TIME cover story (PDF) 12 years ago. “Never has the U.S. public been so separate, so removed, so isolated from the people it pays to protect it.”
And it’s only gotten worse since then. The share of military families who would recommend joining the service dropped from 74.5% in 2019 to 62.9% in 2021. That’s especially depressing given that military families are the biggest pipeline for U.S. military recruits. Things are so tough the Navy ordered its recruiters to begin working six days a week starting July 8. Recruiting is tough work. College is now the choice of 62% of high school graduates. Every town is papered with “help wanted” signs that soak up lots of those who would enlist if unemployment weren’t at a near-record low of 3.6%, like rates last seen during the Vietnam war.
So how grim is this lack-of-bodies count? Here is some of what the Pentagon is doing to try to get more young Americans into uniform.
- The Pentagon’s preferred method of dealing with a problem, be it in its tanks or in its ranks, is to throw money at it. Last month, the Navy started offering what it calls “life-altering $140,000” bonuses for new sailors. That’s not their paycheck — it’s $75,000 for certain assignments and $65,000 in student loan repayments. “The Army offers rewards above and beyond your salary,” the Pentagon’s biggest service says. Army recruits are eligible for up to $50,000 in bonuses. Air Force enlistees can pocket up to $40,000, and also are newly eligible for the $65K in student loan repayments.
- The Army is spending more than $100 million this year on special schools to smarten and toughen up wanna-be soldiers who can’t make the grade without the extra help. In the first six months of 2023, they put 6,800 would-be GIs into basic training. The Navy launched a similar program in April.
- Not only is the military letting recruits pick their own jobs once in uniform, increasingly they’re letting them pick where their first assignment will be, and letting them serve for as little as two years.
- The young Americans who want to enlist no longer have to be that young. Last November, the Navy boosted its oldest-recruit age to 41. You can enlist in the Army or Air Force until 39, although there are waivers available for those joining the Army up to 45.
- And those young Americans don’t even have to be citizens. The Army and Air Force have recently boosted recruiting among immigrants seeking a faster path to U.S. citizenship. Nearly 2,900 legal permanent residents joined the Army between October 2022 and March 2023.
This is a glass half-full, glass half-empty kind of challenge. If you believe the future of the U.S. is threatened by China, the recruiting crisis is a problem. The Pentagon “is mired in its worst recruiting stretch in history,” write retired three-star Army general Thomas Spoehr of the Heritage Foundation and Dr. Ken Hartman of Our Country Salutes. “That America’s military is struggling to attract volunteers carries danger for our national security.”
But if you think the U.S. military has grown too big and is sent off to wars too willy-nilly, it’s an opportunity. “Our nation was founded as a limited-government republic, one with a relatively small, basic army,” says Jacob Hornberger, a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute who now heads the Future of Freedom Foundation. But, he maintains, exaggerating the communist menace following World War II led to our current corpulent U.S. military. “If the Constitution had proposed the national-security state form of governmental structure under which we live today,” Hornberger argues, “there is no possibility that our American ancestors would have accepted it.”
As we saw in the first-this-one-then-that-one wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the all-volunteer U.S. military would break in a major war. Yet the national-security state likes to maintain the fiction that the All-Volunteer Force could go to war with Beijing. The nation would be far wiser to insist on a congressional declaration of war before entering any such hostilities, something it hasn’t done since 1942. Adhering to such a constitutional nicety, and the resulting draft it would surely require, would focus the nation’s mind — and make war less likely, to boot (the Selective Service, which would run a renewed draft, remains in business).
We are approaching nearly a century of congressional flaccidity when it comes to declaring war. It’s not too much to ask lawmakers to put their political lives on the line before they once again put young American lives on the line.
WHAT WE’RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker’s eye recently
The U.S. military says it has destroyed all of its chemical weapons, the Associated Press reported July 7, a prolonged quest The Bunker reported on 26 years ago.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) has proposed ending Pentagon testing for marijuana use by members of the military, USA Today said July 8.
The stalemated war in Ukraine is pushing Russia’s Vladimir Putin closer to breaking the nuclear taboo that has existed for 78 years, retired Army colonel Martin Stanton wrote in Small Wars Journal June 30. He ponders what would happen next.
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