A war is a crisis if no one on our side shows up

The Army is struggling to meet its enlistment objective of 76,000 recruits for fiscal year 2018; in fact, it has reduced its objective from its original goal of 80,000. Last year it achieved its objective of 63,000 recruits but had to accept more than 1,000 Category IV recruits to do so.  These “CAT IV” recruits are applicants who score between the 10th and 30th percentile in aptitude tests.  

Today’s recruiting environment is particularly challenging with national unemployment at 3.9 percent, a declining propensity to serve among our 18- to 24-year-olds, and a 17-year war in Afghanistan. A survey by Blue Star Families indicates that those currently serving, or who have served, are less inclined to recommend military service to their children — historically a rich source of recruits. Additional problems are evident in the Army Special Forces and among Air Force pilots, including those in the Air Force Reserve.

{mosads}These problems exist despite the fact that the Army is offering $40,000 enlistment bonuses and paid more than $424 million in enlistment bonuses last year.


Although the Army’s official position is that it is not lowering enlistment standards, one might question that position, given several data points. The Army has stated that it is prepared to accept up to 4 percent of its recruits as CAT IVs. At current recruiting levels, that means that within three years (the average term of initial enlistment) we could have an Army with approximately 10,000 CAT IV soldiers. In addition, the Army continues to grant an unprecedented number of “moral waivers” for criminal offenses ranging from drug convictions to arson. Finally, the Army even has considered granting waivers for bipolar disorder, self-mutilation and ADHD.  

Sacrificing quality to achieve quantity is a slippery slope that places at risk our national defense and the lives of those who serve in uniform. CAT IV soldiers present several problems. First, they are less likely to complete initial training or their initial term of enlistment. Second, they are more difficult to train because of lower cognitive skills and literacy. Third, they are less effective. A 2005 RAND study reported that a CAT IIIA (scoring in the 50th to 64th percentile in the aptitude test) tank gunner had a 34 percent higher chance of hitting the target than a CAT IV tank gunner.  

The same study identified that a three-person communications team of CAT IIIB soldiers (scoring in the 31st to 49th percentile) had a 47 percent chance of making communications systems operational, while a team of CAT IV soldiers had a 29 percent chance of success.  Finally, training and leading these CAT IV soldiers is difficult and time-consuming for our Army’s already overburdened company grade officers and NCOs.

This liberal interpretation of standards is consistent with other actions taken over the past 17 years to compensate for — and perhaps even obscure — the deficiencies of the all-volunteer force, instituted in 1973. The Army changed its longstanding dwell time “standard” of two years recovery for each year in combat to a 1:1 ratio. It changed its policy of not using prescription psychotropic drugs to deal with PTSD, anxiety, sleep disorders and other emotional and behavioral problems to a wholesale dispensing of these prescriptions — with devastating consequences for service members and their families. It used stop-loss (a “backdoor draft”) to hold soldiers on active duty beyond their release date.  

Finally, the Pentagon deployed and redeployed the National Guard and the Reserve in a manner for which they were not originally intended: even taking the Orwellian step to change their name from a “strategic reserve” to an “operational reserve.” (One could argue that an organization used on an “operational” basis is hardly a “reserve.”)

Numerous “defense hawks” in Congress, the administration, and Washington’s defense community have argued that it is urgent to “restore” U.S. military power and leadership. For example, in 2016 the American Enterprise Institute argued that the active duty Army should be increased to 600,000 soldiers from its current 470,000; the Navy should grow from 282 ships to 346 ships, including two new aircraft carriers; the Marine Corps, expand to 200,000 from its current 180,000; and, that the Air Force grow to over 1,200 fighter aircraft.

These proposals would add more than $1 trillion to the defense budget of $5.7 trillion projected for the 2018-2027 time frame. This is a big lift for a nation already $20 trillion in debt, and it ignores the recruiting difficulties that are likely to become more acute in coming years.

While the Army (and to a lesser extent, the rest of the military) struggles to man the force with high-quality recruits, and may face greater challenges with a larger future force, a troubling reality goes unmentioned for political and social reasons.  

The military competes for talent with colleges, trade schools and civilian employers. Each year, approximately 4 million Americans turn 18 years of age; under 30 percent of them can meet the minimum enlistment requirements, leaving 1.2 million able to serve. The propensity or willingness to serve is about 15 percent, leaving about 180,000 willing and able to serve — or, about 1,020,000 able but unwilling to serve in our all-volunteer force.  

Each year, the military must recruit about 150,000 enlistees. I suspect that many of these 1,020,000 would not be CAT IV recruits and would not require waivers to enlist. The introduction of the all-volunteer force required the American military to surrender its greatest source of competitive advantage in its effort to field armed forces able to deter enemies and to fight and win the nation’s wars: conscription. A return to conscription would mitigate the need to compromise “standards”; in fact, the military could raise standards because of the enlarged pool of recruits.

A return to conscription may be a political and social non-starter. But a cold-eyed recognition of our current and future recruiting difficulties, and recognition of the consequences of compromising standards, ought to serve as a call to a fact-based national exploration of alternatives to the all-volunteer force.  

History tells us that it is better to address difficulties before they become crises, as manifest by the question, “What if we had a war and no one showed up on our side?”

Dennis Laich retired from the U.S. Army as a major general in 2006. A graduate of the U.S. Army War College and Harvard’s National and International Security Program, he is a member of Reserve Officers Association’s national council. Gen. Laich authored the 2013 book, “Skin in the Game: Poor Kids and Patriots.” His views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the policies of the Reserve Officers Association.

Tags Conscription in the United States Military recruitment Military reserve force Military service United States Armed Forces

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