The all-volunteer force - Armed Forces Journal
For the last 10 years, the United States has conducted a nearly unprecedented experiment: fighting two wars with a completely volunteer force. Many commentators predicted failure and collapse. Instead, military forces have remained effective even in the face of great stress, uncertain prospects for success and declining public support for the wars. Yet the costs have been steep: stress on personnel, disconnection from the wider society and a heavy reliance on contractors.
Now, as budget cuts loom and uncertainty persists, it is time to gather lessons from our experiment and apply them to this question: How can the nation maintain the strengths of the all-volunteer force (AVF) while reducing its costs?
The first success was being able to fight the wars at all. Maintaining the required troop levels in combat required very high rotation rates. At the height of the wars, dwell time for many units shrank to 1:1 — one year at home for one year deployed — and some specialties had even less time at home.
All the expectations and historical experience had indicated that a force would break under that kind of stress. Service goals had been 3:1 (one period of time deployed for three at home), with 2:1 being an absolute minimum. Although in theory 2:1 seemed acceptable, the services had learned that even when troops were “home” there were many nights away on training, exercises and schools. Thus, a 2:1 cycle did not provide enough relief.
These goals were based on hard experience. In the late 1970s, faced with growing operational demands in the Persian Gulf, the Navy had experimented with longer deployments for its carrier battle groups. The result was lower morale, poor retention and a manpower crisis. The Navy went back to six-month deployments and has been diligent ever since about easing stress through port visits and regular rotations.
The wars in Korea and Vietnam seemed to show that conscription was required to provide the large numbers of service members needed during a time of sacrifice and danger. During both wars, hundreds of thousands of men had been drafted, constituting over one-quarter of the total force and a larger proportion of the Army. Yet the AVF has been able to function effectively during the long conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as shown by three key manpower areas: numbers and quality of recruits, Guard and reserve contribution, and discipline.
Despite dire predictions by many commentators, recruiting and retention held up, though with great effort and some strain. The Air Force and Navy, not being as deeply involved in the conflicts, consistently met their quality and quantity goals. The Marine Corps did as well, though at times just barely. The Army, being the largest service, had the greatest challenge. Yet, even during the most intense periods of conflict, enlisted retention remained high, helped by large bonuses and expanded family support. Enlisted recruiting quality and numbers weakened in 2005, when the strain of war caused recruiting shortfalls and a large number of waivers to be granted, but revived in 2008 as the economy soured.