America’s all-volunteer military is slowly shrinking in size and talent despite leadership’s prevention efforts. Without new leadership and ideas, war inevitably becomes the only safeguard against America’s pending military implosion.
The Commandant of the Marine Corps addressed current military recruitment failures in November’s U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine entitled, “Recruiting Requires Bold Changes.” The Commandant identified the American people’s degrading trust in the military as the biggest obstacle to recruitment. Current data supports his statement. According to Gallup, Americans’ faith in military officers has degraded to the lowest levels ever recorded. Yet the Commandant, like most senior military leaders, understands the problems but lacks the insight and courage to recommend leadership changes. Last month the Assistant Commandant, during a panel on the all-volunteer force, reinforced this observation. Unsurprisingly, the panel never discussed recommendations for changes in leadership, despite the general officer stating, “all options are on the table.”
Recruiting is complicated, but despite what the old guard will have you believe, young Americans are not lazy or stupid. They can sense hypocrisy. On the one hand, military leaders preach higher purpose, sense of duty, honor, and other noble virtues. But with the other hand, they rack up long lists of failures and double standards. There can be no virtuous call to service, if the leadership of the service doesn’t live by its own virtues. Thus, it’s not surprising that only 9 percent of Americans aged seventeen to twenty-four, when surveyed by the Defense Department in 2022, showed a propensity to serve in the military. Is the new generation’s reluctance to join the military based in ignorance and apathy—or wisdom?
Modern military recruitment and retention techniques are hinged around the all-volunteer model created post Vietnam. Following backlash from Vietnam’s draft, President Nixon organized a panel to discuss the future of military recruitment. While many influential people had a voice in the debates about conscription versus volunteer military service, the argument of economist Milton Friedman was the impetus for change. Friedman wrote: “The cost of a volunteer army, properly calculated, would almost surely be less than of a conscripted army.” This logic has sustained the military model into modern day.
Fifty years following Nixon’s decision, in September 2022, during a hearing with the Senate Armed Services Committee, the ranking member of the military personnel subcommittee, Senator Tom Tillis stated,
“It's becoming clear the all-volunteer force that has served our country well for the last 50 years is at an inflection point…The truth of the matter is, unless we do things differently and do things for the better, I believe every service except for the Space Force is at risk of missing their recruiting mission over the next year, and we need to act.”
Senator Tillis, who like others on the committee lacks military experience, failed recognizing how the blended retirement model, recently implemented in the military, will negatively impact retention. Military members entering the service after 1 January 2018 are no longer beholden to the twenty-year retirement model. Starting last year, service members under the blended retirement model can begin exiting without financial penalty. This new generation has a 401K (“blended retirement”) transferable to any organization. Past generations within the all-volunteer model were influenced by financial pressure to sustain service towards a twenty-year retirement.
Economics, much like the influence it had on the creation of the all-volunteer force, drove the military towards the 401K system. But when financial motivations compelled the shift, military leaders failed modifying how senior commanders treated talented service members with 8 to 18 years of service. In the past, leaders took for granted middle management’s dedication while working towards retirement. This is no longer the case. If there is no offsetting financial penalty, why would service members work 18-hour days building power-point slides with vague purpose, withstand beratement, and move every three years when other opportunities await? Add this combustible issue up with misguided COVID policies, questionable inclusion policies, and a lack of accountability for senior leadership, and the system begins painting a grim picture for the future of the all-volunteer military force.
Military service should be about a larger selfless sacrifice, but it’s hard for leadership to stand on principal about selfless service when financial incentives drove the creation of the all-volunteer force and then later shifted it to the blended retirement model. This, exacerbated by leadership’s inability for honest self-reflection, makes any calls to duty and honor ring hollow.
Temporary incentives focused on recruiting such as lowering standards, waiving tattoo restrictions, amending previous disqualifying medical conditions, and offering marginally higher financial incentives will not be enough to guarantee an increase in dedicated volunteers or offset falling retention rates. Without dramatic changes to current leadership, the bleeding will continue.
At a certain point, military leadership will be left with only one option to prevent the implosion of the all-volunteer force: war. The glorifying war call brings in surprising levels of personnel and resources while simultaneously marginalizing scrutiny. While military leaders serve politicians, and cannot start a war by themselves, their advice on the matter could, as it has previously, tip the scales.
The next President must select a Secretary of Defense who understands the systemic problems facing our military culture. All options should be on the table, including dramatic reshuffling of senior officers. The United States should not seek war. It should reset, reform, and rearm the military. The United States military has the best pool of talent from which to recruit. It has the largest national military budget, and it has the best training facilities on the planet. Creating a culture of accountability, competition, and victory starts with new leadership.
Stuart Scheller is a former USMC infantry officer and author of Crisis of Command: How We Lost Trust and Confidence in America’s Generals and Politicians.
This article was written on February 4, 2023; an edited version was published on realcleardefense.com