Small Wars

This Week at War: Uncle Sam Wants You … Whoever You Are

Is the United States running out of military recruits?

Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Writing in Small Wars Journal, Gregory Conti and Jen Easterly, both U.S. Army lieutenant colonels, discussed the problems the military faces recruiting "cyber warriors" into the newly created Cyber Command, which aims to "conduct full-spectrum military cyberspace operations in order to … ensure US/Allied freedom of action in cyberspace and deny the same to our adversaries."

Yet Conti and Easterly note that Cyber Command will recruit from an already tiny pool of cybersavvy talent, a pool made even smaller by Cyber Command’s requirement that its soldiers pass security clearances, polygraph examinations, and drug screening. Meanwhile, Cyber Command will have to compete with the likes of Google for talented techies who may not find military culture all that inviting. It should come as no surprise to eventually find Cyber Command mostly staffed by highly-paid civilian contractors rather than uniformed soldiers or career civil servants.

Cyber Command’s recruiting difficulties are a microcosm of the broader troubles the military, especially the Army, now faces. The all-volunteer military has been a success and should be retained. But evidence continues to mount that the Army has grown as big as it can under the all-volunteer system. If circumstances ever required a significantly larger Army, Army leaders and U.S. society would have to get used to an Army of much lower quality at the margin. Deploying such a force, especially into stability operations, would entail taking greater risks and paying higher costs.

The recently released Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) Independent Panel report called for an overhaul in the military’s personnel system. The report concluded that compensation costs for the all-volunteer force have exploded and are no longer sustainable. Active-duty head count has declined from 2 million in 1991 to 1.37 million in 2009. Yet in spite of this 32 percent decline in head count, military personnel costs (in constant 2005 dollars) have grown from $122 billion in 1991 to $130 billion in 2009 ($60,939 per head in 1991 versus $94,533 per head in 2009, adjusted for inflation).

Even with this vast expansion in soldier compensation, the Army has had to reduce enlistment standards to fill its ranks. According to the QDR Independent Panel, these reduced standards include raising the maximum enlistment age to 42; accepting more recruits without high school diplomas, with criminal records, and in Category IV (low mental aptitude) on the Armed Forces Qualification Test; and increasing the numbers of noncitizens serving. The overall population of the United States is growing, but the cohort qualified and willing to volunteer for military service is shrinking. (Seventy-five percent of American youth are ineligible for military service for physical, mental, or educational reasons, or due to criminal records.) The prime recruiting base seems to be narrowing by geographic area and to families of veterans, increasingly turning military service into a "family guild."

Immediately after taking office, Defense Secretary Robert Gates directed the Army and Marine Corps to increase their headcounts in response to the pressures of Iraq and Afghanistan. Regrettably, this decision collided with the evaporating pool of suitable military recruits. The Army recently released a report that studied suicide prevention and the Army’s mental-health issues. The report revealed a broader range of rising high-risk behaviors and criminality in the Army’s ranks. Part, maybe most, of the increasing incidence of suicide in the Army is related to the strain of wartime deployments. But the report noted that 68 of the 120 suicides (57 percent) the Army suffered during the first half of 2010 were to soldiers who had zero or one deployment.

Over the past five years, the Army has suffered from increasing rates of discipline problems, crime, and drug use. The suicide prevention report noted that during this time, enlistment waivers increased and soldiers who previously would have been dismissed during initial training for unsuitability were instead retained, presumably due to the requirement to increase the Army’s head count. Indeed, the Army calculated that one-third of the soldiers recruited to meet the Army’s higher end-strength would have been dismissed from the service under the previous quality standards. It seems highly likely that the Army’s retention of soldiers it would previously have found unsuitable for service is related to the increased suicide rate, along with other behavior problems.

Thus, in spite of sharply increased (and in my view, well-deserved) compensation, the Army has reached an upper boundary on its size — unless Army leaders and the country are willing to accept rapidly declining quality and rapidly increasing trouble at the margin. The increasing U.S. population is not offsetting the declining propensity to volunteer for military service or the shrinking percentage of the youth cohort medically, mentally, or socially qualified to serve.

If the Army has reached the bottom of its U.S.-based recruiting pool, where could it go for additional manpower if it needed to? The U.S. military has a long tradition of recruiting non-citizens into its ranks. This would be a tempting option for expansion although language, culture, and security clearance problems place limits on its use. Instead, foreign auxiliary forces, organized, trained, and equipped by U.S. special operations forces, are likely to be used to supplement deployed U.S. forces, especially during long low-intensity stabilization operations.

Finally, can a military culture attract and retain the widely diverse sets of skills needed for modern military campaigns? The problem extends beyond the culture clash between Cyber Command and Google as they bid for computer hackers. As we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, a stabilization campaign requires infantrymen, anthropologists, truck drivers, linguists, pilots, cost accountants, snipers, warehousemen, IT whizzes, negotiators, commandos, public relations artists, artillery gunners, teachers, report writers, construction foremen, nurses, and many other specialties.

But can one organizational culture hold together such a motley collection of specialists? The Army is trying but seems to be straining against a limit. The campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have compensated through the hiring of a vast number of contractors. Today, soldiers, civil servants, and contractors march off to the battlefield together.

Institutional culture is vital for the success of military organizations like the Army and Marine Corps. Such organizations take great risks when expansion requires them to lower their standards or when they attempt to absorb into their ranks outside cultures that are a bad match. The Pentagon’s exploding personnel costs and the tragic consequences of the Army’s need to lower its recruiting standards show that the military has reached the bottom of the U.S. recruiting pool.

If the Army needs additional manpower, perhaps it should be standard operating procedure for the Special Forces to recruit it from the indigenous population within the war zones. And maybe Cyber Command is best left for the contractors.

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