October 1, 2011  

The all-volunteer force

After 10 years of war, it’s time to gather lessons

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.

Guard and reserve performance has also exceeded expectations. In the 1990s, there had been a vigorous debate about whether Guard and reserve units, which generally received an annual average of 38 training days, could perform adequately on a modern battlefield. Further, reserve mobilization was regarded as a once-in-a-generation event because the experience was so disruptive to reservists’ lives. In Iraq and Afghanistan, however, reserve units have mobilized, trained and been used interchangeably with active-duty units. Far from weakening the reserves, the experience has strengthened them. By executing their war-fighting missions, the institutions have gained credibility both in the near term for the current conflicts and in the long term as the combat skills stay with them during the years of peace.

In the matter of discipline, the contrast between the Vietnam War and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has been stark. In Vietnam, discipline eroded. In Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the strain of a similarly protracted conflict and lack of obvious success, the U.S. military has held together. Some of this difference can be attributed to external policies. For example, rotation by unit instead of individually, which fostered stronger cohesion. However, much of the difference must be attributed to the AVF: filling the ranks with people who wanted to serve instead of with draftees who did not. A few key metrics tell the story.

• Desertion. Despite impressions to the contrary, desertion rates have been at an all-time low for a period of conflict. The current rate for the Army is about nine per 100,000, about the same as the prewar figure. Rates in earlier conflicts were much higher: Vietnam (73 per 100,000 in 1971), World War II (63 per 100,000 in 1944) and Korea (22.5 per 100,000). Other services have had the same experience. Further, during the Vietnam War, hundreds fled to Canada or deserted in theater. In the current conflicts, only a few dozen, though highly publicized, fled to Canada and essentially none deserted in theater.

• Mutiny. The Vietnam War saw many instances of indiscipline that were, in effect, mutinies (“refus[ing], in concert with any other person, to obey orders or otherwise do [one’s] duty”) though most incidents were not described that way. This indiscipline affected all services: Army units refused to go on patrol, sailors rioted aboard ship. In 1970 alone, 152 soldiers in Vietnam were tried (and 131 convicted) of mutiny or refusal to perform a lawful order. In Iraq and Afghanistan, there have been only a few, isolated instances. For example, in 2005, an Army Reserve truck unit refused to leave the base because it believed its protective gear was inadequate.

Similarly, the number of “fraggings” — violence against superiors — has plummeted. Between 1969 and 1971, the Army reported 600 fragging incidents. In 10 years of the current conflicts, the number is less than five.

• Crimes against civilians. The U.S. record in the Vietnam War was marred by incidents of great violence against civilians. At My Lai, the most infamous, up to 500 civilians were killed in a single day. Although the current conflicts have had like abuses at Abu Ghraib and the killings at Hadithah, nothing has arisen on the scale of Vietnam. The courts-martial record tells the story. In Iraq and Afghanistan, 22 service members have been convicted of killing civilians through 2010. The comparable number for Vietnam was 278.

• Drugs. The military of the Vietnam era was plagued by drugs. Even in combat, service members got high. Periodic testing and a zero-tolerance policy have made the modern U.S. military essentially drug-free.

• Anti-military underground. Hard as it is to imagine today, during the Vietnam War, service members — with help from civilian anti-war activists — created an anti-military underground with newspapers and offices off-base. Organizations such as GIs United Against the War in Vietnam, the American Servicemen’s Union and the Movement for a Democratic Military actively encouraged desertion and resistance to authority. Nothing like that has appeared in today’s military.


These successes have come at a steep cost that cannot be ignored: stress on personnel, a disconnect from the wider society and heavy reliance on contractors. Stress crept up on the military, increasing over time as the cumulative number of deployments rose. Stress has many manifestations — post-traumatic stress disorder, suicides, divorces, risky behavior — all of which are now well documented. Suicides, being relatively easy to measure and to compare with non-deployed experience, provide the clearest insight into the stress of deployment. Historically the military’s suicide rate has been about half the general population’s (age and gender adjusted) — 10 per 100,000 vs. 19.2 per 100,000. In 2004, the Army’s rate began to climb steadily, hitting 24.4 per 100,000 by 2010. The Marine Corps had a spike in 2004, eased off, then rose again to the same level as the Army’s. By contrast, levels for the Air Force and Navy have risen only slightly.

Although senior leaders have been taking aggressive action to reduce the effects of stress, and the nation has given them the resources to do so, they clearly feared a breakdown such as the military experienced in the early 1970s that took a generation to heal.

The wars have widened a disconnect that separates the military from the wider society. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates laid the problem out clearly: “The Iraq and Afghan campaigns represent the first protracted, large-scale conflicts since our Revolutionary War fought entirely by volunteers. Indeed, no major war in our history has been fought with a smaller percentage of this country’s citizens in uniform full-time — roughly 2.4 million active and reserve service members out of a country of over 300 million, less than one percent. … The performance of this all-volunteer force has come at significant cost … in terms of the relationship between those in uniform and the wider society they have sworn to protect.”

Such a disconnect is inherent in a military force of limited size and existed during the years of peace also, but war made the disconnect evident to all and socially important. Americans have reacted with an outpouring of support that has celebrated service members and contrasted markedly with the negative attitudes during the Vietnam War. Alongside this support, however, Americans have felt discomfort as they deal with stressed military institutions that few have any personal experience with.

The wars also saw the military vastly expand its hiring of outside help. The number of contract employees rose from 9,000 during Desert Storm to 200,000-plus at the height of the more recent Iraq war. Contractors are now everywhere. They feed the troops, transport materiel, build and maintain bases, repair equipment, translate for the locals, guard facilities, protect diplomats. Many military commentators were startled to find that so much of their logistics tail had been “privatized” and worried about whether it was wise to rely so heavily on “mercenaries.” Critics decried this development as shocking and irresponsible. However, reliance on contractors was a rational response to the scarcity of military personnel and to the force structure changes of the post-Cold War era.


If conscription is politically unacceptable and militarily problematic, then the only alternative is to make the AVF work in larger conflicts than were originally anticipated. In adapting the AVF to the current conflicts, the services got a lot right: unit rotations rather than individual rotations, strong support of families, increased recruiting and retention incentives. Nevertheless, the recent conflicts have shown additional actions to be taken next time that build on the AVF’s successes while mitigating its costs.

• Build new forces early. After the Cold War, active-duty military manpower shrank 40 percent; the reserves shrank 30 percent. These levels were considered adequate for the short, conventional conflicts expected during the 1990s, and initially, at least, they seemed sufficient for Iraq and Afghanistan.

There was great reluctance to expand the force. It was not until the surge was announced in December 2006 that the long-term need for more personnel was acknowledged and the ground force permanently expanded. Two years later, manpower cuts to the Air Force and Navy stopped when it became clear that they could not execute their wartime functions if they kept shrinking.

The clear lesson is to build new forces early, whenever the deployment cycle time goes below the minimum goal of one year deployed and two years at home. Waiting until the scope of conflict clarifies is too late. This is politically difficult, for it acknowledges that a conflict may be long and difficult at a time when decision makers are hoping for a shorter, easier fight. However, the relatively small peacetime size of the armed forces allows little slack. The social benefit of peacetime savings from this small force size must be balanced by a commitment to accept higher wartime costs for larger forces.

• Get everyone into the fight. Upon becoming commandant of the Marine Corps in 2006, Gen. James Conway was shocked to find out that, at a time when some Marines had deployed three, four or even five times, 60,000 Marines had never deployed to either Iraq or Afghanistan. Some of these Marines were in the training pipeline and would eventually deploy, but about half were in billets that did not require deployment. This affronted a service that regarded itself as lean and war-fighting. Conway therefore directed that “everyone have an opportunity to get into the fight,” and many Marines in headquarters and training units received orders overseas.

All services developed mechanisms to broaden the base of deployable personnel. The Navy even expanded its end strength to provide more augmentees. Nevertheless, as of 2010, some 40 percent of the nation’s active-duty force had never deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, while another 30 percent had deployed just once. Concerns about service members who had made multiple deployments were appropriate, but the burdens of combat were unevenly distributed.

The key insight is that force management, not just force size, can reduce stress on personnel. Peacetime personnel policies that keep some out of the fight while others bear the burden — tour lengths, skill specialization, school attendance and follow-on assignments — must be set aside in wartime.

• Acknowledge contractors as a permanent element of force structure. Because military manpower is so limited, extensive use of contractors is inevitable. Planners therefore need to recognize them in prewar planning and preparations. Contractors are like Guard and reserve forces in that planners may not always like the restrictions they come with, but wars cannot be fought without them. Contractors make military, political and economic sense, so they are not going away.

Acknowledging contractors as a permanent element of force structure implies the need for two efforts. The first, mostly already accomplished, is to establish the structures and controls needed to rapidly and effectively employ contractors without fraud or waste. The second, and more difficult, is to fully incorporate them into prewar planning. With the establishment of Annex Ws (Operational Contract Support) in contingency planning and the standing up of the Joint Contingency Acquisition Support Office, tangible steps have been taken, but full implementation will take time and experience.