New Warnings for the Military on Brewing Personnel Crisis

By Sandra I. Erwin
Marines fast-rope from an MV-22B Osprey

An increasing estrangement of the military from civilian society has been a deep concern of Defense Secretary James Mattis. The consequences of this trend are explored in “Warriors and Citizens,” a book Mattis co-edited last year, before he was tapped to run the Pentagon. 

This idea that the American public is losing connection to its military has been debated in academic settings, but has practical implications for the future of the armed services, two new studies by national security think tanks contend.

The current force “may have grown as far apart from the civilian workforce as it should –- or perhaps just beyond the threshold of what makes sense,” says a soon-to-be-released study by the Center for a New American Security. A draft copy was provided to National Defense.

CNAS analysts are raising red flags. They caution that the military is at risk of losing future generations of recruits due to its inflexible personnel system, and urge leaders to rethink how the services invest in talent. They suggest the military has to adjust to demographic and cultural trends in civilian society, or face a personnel crisis that could tear at the fabric of the nation’s security.

“The military’s current standards preclude almost 75 percent of youth from being qualified to join the armed forces,” says the CNAS report titled “AVF 4.0: The Future of the All-Volunteer Force.” Not only is this an obstacle to filling the ranks at large, but creates other challenges as not every military role requires the same skills, “and standardized admittance may preclude valuable assets from being able to serve the nation.”

Phillip Carter, one the authors of the study, says CNAS in 2016 launched the AVF 4.0 project to “focus on the deeper, structural issues that underlie today’s force, and the design principles that should guide development of the next American all-volunteer force.”

The United States has the best military the world has ever seen, “but there are quality problems in the force,” he says. Today’s military is an “enormously complex machine,” he says. About 180,000 recruits are brought into active duty every year and about the same number is discharged. Almost identical dynamics occur in the reserves. CNAS believes the model “sacrifices efficiency in service of expansibility, interchangeability, or the military’s up-or-out promotion system.”

The force suffers from a limited range of motion and flexibility, the study says. It is “too rigid and inflexible to new demand signals.” Any attempt to adjust is “frustrated by the immense bureaucracy of the personnel system. Talented individuals are unable to stray from predetermined career paths or advance at an accelerated rate.”

The civil-military gap is worrisome, the study says, because the use of military force is “so far removed as to be unfelt by the general population.” Meanwhile, the pool of young Americans who are qualified to serve and interested in doing so is narrowing. Approximately one quarter of American high school graduates are qualified to serve in today’s military, and the military estimates that only roughly 19 percent of American youth have the “propensity to serve.” 

Former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter suggested the military ought to consider relaxing current recruiting standards, but these proposals are controversial and generally rejected. Less than 1 percent of the population has served in the armed forces, and many recruits come from families with a history of military service, primarily from the South, the study says. “Though there are certainly those who feel the call of service from all parts of the nation and across the socioeconomic spectrum, the compartmentalization of military service in the United States” possibly is leading to the creation of a “warrior caste.”

The all-volunteer force, further, has led to a “decline in general familiarity with the armed forces over time, which is becoming particularly prominent in the millennial generation.” 

CNAS also raises financial concerns as the force becomes more expensive, creating a situation where the military may have to get smaller to be affordable. “The unit cost of the AVF also creates pressure to reduce manning in ways that may deserve more study.” 

As a proportion of the total defense budget, personnel costs make up roughly the same share (about 25 percent) of defense spending today as in 1990. At the same time, the uniformed military shrank by a third after the Cold War. Adjusting for inflation, the United States is spending 46 percent more today on personnel costs than it did in 2000. 

CNAS raises the same question that other think tanks and Pentagon officials have brought up over the years but whose answer has eluded everyone: How much longer can the United States afford the all-volunteer force in its current form?  

The study notes the “zero sum” dynamic within the defense budget, where personnel spending must duel with spending on operations, maintenance, and modernization. “The net effect is to place enormous pressure on DoD leadership to find efficiencies within the existing AVF – through cuts to end strength, compensation or benefits, or changes in the business model.”

In a separate study released March 20 by the Bipartisan Policy Center Task Force on Defense Personnel, the same issues were broached. That group is co-chaired by former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and erstwhile National Security Adviser Jim Jones.

The BPC panel was especially critical of the “one-size-fits-all” system that brings young people into the military, puts them into a rigid command-and-promotion structure, requires frequent changes of station and assignment, and removes all but the most-senior-ranking officers by their early 40s. This system is the reason the U.S. military is so powerful today, but it “has not adapted to changes in the global security environment, it has led to the unsustainable growth of personnel costs, and it has not kept pace with changes in American society.”

The military’s reliance on compensation as its sole tool to incentivize recruiting and retention, the BPC says, “is a result of a personnel system too inflexible to provide service members with incentives that might be just as, or more, valuable to them, but less costly to taxpayers.”

The group suggests that to recruit and retain the necessary talent, military service must be made “attractive to and inclusive of Americans throughout today’s society.” This would demand fundamental changes to some aspects of military life, such as taking spouses’ career concerns into account. “Additional factors like the rising rates of obesity, changes in education, and the demographics of the military itself further illustrate the need to rethink how the military approaches personnel policy.”


Topics: Defense Department

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