The long, slow decline of the US military’s all-volunteer force puts America in jeopardy

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The US military’s All-Volunteer Force (AVF) is slowly dying. In the five decades since conscription ended, the AVF has produced the promised high-class military force. In conflict after conflict, the more experienced, better motivated, and professional US troops dominated the battlefield.

Today, however, the armed forces are struggling to meet their recruitment goals as rarely before. Hardest hit is the army, which is expected to fall behind by up to 15,000 troops, with a larger deficit expected next year. Experts point to a variety of reasons, including inadequate pay and benefits, a difficult work environment, “culture war” issues, COVID-19 and a strong job market. Even if everyone were “fixed,” the core issues driving the demise of the AVF still won’t be undone.

The fact is, the number of Americans ages 17-24 who are qualified and interested in ministry continues to shrink. When I was Secretary of the Army in 2018, 71% of those 34 million young people were unable to meet military eligibility requirements, primarily due to obesity, drug use, physical and mental health issues, and criminal misconduct. Four years later, that number is even higher. Additionally, of the 23% who are eligible for service today, an additional 10% do not meet military academic standards. Worse, of the 3.5 million remaining young Americans, only 9% (~320,000) have an inclination to serve. A nation of 332 million should do better.

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The numbers are all headed in the wrong direction, driven by broader cultural and lifestyle trends and a populace unfamiliar with the less than 1% of the US population in uniform they protect. When military service ended in 1973, most young people had a family connection to the armed forces who could explain military life and encourage service in the country. today that number is much lower. Contributing to this problem after the end of the Cold War were significant downsizing of the US military and the number of bases across the country. A “knowledge gap” has grown over time because the civilians don’t interact with those in uniform. This has created an “identity gap” that discourages many from considering enlistment in the armed forces. It’s no secret why America developed a military caste where nearly 80% of today’s military personnel have a family member who served. All of this affects a broader spectrum of civil-military relationships that the nation struggles with.

Pentagon officials struggle to find recruits. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

The scale and magnitude of these trends are beyond the Pentagon’s ability to remedy. There are actions the Services can and are taking, but these only marginally address the issue. Since the military’s ability to defend the country depends directly on a sizable force of first-rate volunteers, this is a national challenge that must be addressed at the highest level.

That means the White House and Congress must work together to reverse underlying trends. They could begin by setting up a bipartisan commission of respected leaders, much like President Richard Nixon did in 1969 when he decided to end conscription. Instead of creating the AVF, this time the new panel’s mission would be to rescue it. Therefore, Commissioners need to focus on the key issues: increasing the pool of young people who are qualified for the service and increasing their interest in it.

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For reasons well beyond the needs of the military, the commission should explore ways to improve the health and fitness of America’s youth, review and update eligibility requirements, expand the JROTC nationally, find new pathways for civilians to manage to interact with their military brethren, clear misconceptions about military life, and ensure recruiters have unhindered access to high schools across America. In the meantime, the Pentagon must refrain from lowering standards, reducing the size of the military, or creating hollow battle formations. We must assemble the forces we need to win our nation’s wars and not take shortcuts.

The President and legislators, working with governors as appropriate, must also educate and inspire our youth by addressing their concerns, extolling the virtues of military service, and discussing the benefits and opportunities that come from fulfilling the call to duty. They should also seek the support of athletes, entertainers and others who are influencing America’s youth. A message along the lines of “Be healthy, stay fit, stay out of trouble, and consider serving your country in uniform” would be a solid start.

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With growing threats from China and elsewhere, we cannot risk our future by ignoring these issues. Most solutions will take years to bear fruit, and a return to conscription is not the answer. But if we are to deter war, be victorious, and win the 21st century, we must maintain a sizeable, highly skilled force of volunteers. That means today’s leaders must act now to educate and inspire the next great American generation to serve.

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