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Putin’s draft validates the virtues of America’s all-volunteer force — now is the time to save it

In this handout photo released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, Chinese troops march during the Vostok 2022 military exercise at a firing range in Russia’s Far East, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022. Russia on Thursday launched weeklong war games involving forces from China and other nations in a show of growing defense cooperation between Moscow and Beijing, as they both face tensions with the United States. (Vadim Savitsky/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

The reaction by Russian citizens to President Vladimir Putin’s announcement to call up 300,000 military reservists to fight in Ukraine has been nothing short of remarkable. Protests have erupted across the country and more than 1,300 people have been detained during anti-war demonstrations. An astonishing exodus of conscription-age men has commenced, with flights from Russia selling out at incredibly inflated prices, and miles-long lines of cars forming at multiple exit points along the borders. This follows Ukraine’s stunning successes in the east that saw Russian soldiers deserting their positions and equipment and left some in the Russian media to openly question the war for the first time. Clearly, the Kremlin’s claim to the concept of Russian patriotism are less than credible.

At home and on the battlefield, prospects for this call-up are exceedingly suspect. For one, Russian reservists are only former service members who lack the repeated training and readiness that make American military reservists combat deployable within days of being recalled. Additionally, morale and unit cohesion within the ranks of the Russian army in Ukraine are abysmal. Successful integration of new conscripts who lack familiarity with the mission, members and identity of the units to which they will be assigned is certain to be an impossible endeavor.  

Contrast this with America’s all-volunteer force that has been in place for the past five decades. If we only look at today, our total active force strength numbers over 1.3 million, and for nearly every year going back to the end of the draft, it has been higher. Taking one example, the total number of service members who deployed for the Gulf War and after 9/11 tops 5 million. Compared to Putin’s last-ditch demand for reservists, these numbers are almost too big to believe.

How has this happened?  Simply put, the all-volunteer force has made our military better than those of our adversaries. To recruit and retain such an organization, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) constantly self-evaluates, especially in areas such as mission effectiveness, quality of service, quality of life. Like their civilian counterparts, American service members desire to serve in successful units that value their contributions and offer reasonable incentives. By and large, our military has delivered this to them, and the result has been a global fighting force that has protected our people and partners around the globe.

Yet, troubling trends in American society are eroding the strength of this all-volunteer force. The pool of qualified personnel who have an interest in serving continues to decline from year to year. A perfect storm of physical and mental health decline, drug use and criminal misconduct has combined with the fact that fewer people in the general population have military experience to make the call of duty less appealing to America’s youth. Recent recruiting statistics reveal this all too well.

Former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has called for the White House and Congress to address these issues by proposing that they come together to establish a bipartisan commission of leaders, much like President Richard Nixon did in 1969 when he decided to end conscription. Rather than creating the all-volunteer force, the new panel’s mission would be to save it. Such a commission would be charged with eliminating misconceptions about military service, raising awareness of its many benefits and inspiring our youth with the support of key figures in popular culture.

Despite superior firepower and numbers, the Russian military’s failure in fighting Ukraine is largely due to the inferior quality, readiness and will of its service members. Putin’s recent draft will only make that worse.

On the other hand, U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and coast guardsmen answer the call with their own free will — and because of that, they are second-to-none. Let us use this moment to recognize that we cannot take that for granted and we must ensure America’s all-volunteer force has what it takes to last long into the future.

Rear Admiral (ret.) Tim Gallaudet, Ph.D., served for 32 years in the U.S. Navy. He is a former acting undersecretary and assistant secretary of commerce and current CEO of Ocean STL Consulting, LLC

Tags armed forces Military Military Draft National security Russia russian draft Ukraine Vladimir Putin war in ukraine
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