Reversibility in the Army: More Than Industrial Age Conscription

“…we have sought to differentiate between those investments that should be made today, and those that can be deferred. This includes accounting of our ability to make a course change that could be driven by many factors, including shocks or evolutions in the strategic, operational, economic, and technological spheres. Accordingly, the concept of “reversibility”- including the vectors on which we place our industrial base, our people, our active-reserve component balance, our posture, and our partnership emphasis — is a key part of our decision calculus.”
— Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, 2012

Reversibility should not be seen as a one-way pipeline to getting larger quickly in an emergency. It is an integrated process of policy and structural levers that maximizes our access to human capital, trained or otherwise. It maintains the capacity to meet our national policy objectives. To effectively incorporate reversibility as part of an institutional strategy, we must first admit that there is no constituency for conscription. Second, we must resolve that the All-Volunteer Force (AVF), from force structure to personnel management, inter alia, has fundamentally optimized beyond conscription. After four decades of evolution, the AVF does not rely on conscripted manpower. From that known point, we can then openly approach reversibility outside of unrealistic models that include discussion of the draft.

The point, in sum, is to generate discussion as to how reliance on the draft, today, is or is not valid. Frankly, the draft should fall off the table entirely. The AVF does not require vast amounts of unskilled manpower. Should such a scenario develop where a draft is required, the selective service would be challenged to provide the lowest order of manpower the AVF would need to support an expansion of scale. If the standards for performance the AVF has evolved to expect were maintained, the Army would struggle to absorb conscripts in strategically relevant time. If anything, the Selective Service should be revised to reflect a true strategic hedge with suitable labor for civil service across the whole of government requirement, inclusive of all sexes, wider age ranges, with perhaps voluntary and involuntary terms of service as needed (even an absorption of the functions of the Inactive Ready Reserve and the underpinnings of the DoD mobilization enterprise). This is not a new notion. From the Peace Corps to the Civil Conservation Corps, or the latest manifestation in the Aspen Institute’s Franklin Project, the potential and desire to serve is there, it is just not resourced or organized appropriately. At the National Service Summit in 2013 GEN(ret.) McChrystal stated that:

“More than most Americans realize, the demand to serve already exists. In 2011, there were nearly 600,000 applications to AmeriCorps — a program with only 80,000 positions, only half of which are full time. The Peace Corps received 150,000 requests for applications but has funding for only 4,000 new positions each year. This gap represents democratic energy wasted and a generation of patriotism needlessly squandered.”

For the defense enterprise, and specifically the manpower-intensive Army, this bench of volunteer manpower, registered and organized, could be leveraged in temporary roles across responses in a variety of crisis scenarios. The language of many emerging and published Joint concepts decry whole-of-government response, but fail to grasp that many if not most other government agencies are not manned or funded for operational, let alone expeditionary capacities. In the current environment, Defense provides most if not all of the operating capacity for other agencies. If the manpower pool were organized and leveraged across the national requirements for response, Defense could better focus its resourcing and force structure strategies, and certainly would not have to expend energy on absorbing or relying upon draftees.

In the current environment, Defense provides most if not all of the operating capacity for other agencies.

Why can’t the services openly discuss force structure without the logical impediment of conscription for military purposes? If they did, clearer and more defined force structure arguments can be presented to congress by the Joint Chiefs. Institutional reform, would also likely follow. Today’s Total Army does not adequately address the retention of talent or the broader issue of conscription. In many ways, it suggests an embarrassment of riches, where countless programs for education, training and experience are squandered as entire populations of officers and Soldiers are released or forced to separate, under the “up or out” mantra without being fundamentally integrated and retained in some line of service or altered duty status, should they be required again to serve. Could this bench of trained manpower not be cycled back through a manpower pool, as suggested above, to national service elsewhere as needed? Conversely, that pool could continue to support defense needs fortrained manpower as required during expansions.

The Army, especially, should reflect on two very real potential outcomes of the execution of the Budget Control Act. First, vast, required reductions in force are imminent. Second, that the diminishing political desire in Congress to return to funding levels that represent ever-larger portions of the budget for defense spending, will impede our ability to sustain the capabilities we fight to program for. Bearing those factors in mind, the discussion of our internal strategies for reversibility would be laid bare as woefully inadequate. If we choose to understand these left and right limits of our future Army, why would we continue to believe in the military draft as value-added?

After reading Bernard Rostker’s I WANT YOU! The Evolution of the All-Volunteer Force, it struck me that in light of this current state of affairs in building the future Army, it would be useful to compare how the nation viewed the All Volunteer Force at its inception with an assessment 41 years later. As a result of the confluence of an unpopular war (Vietnam), a changing domestic social environment, a draft system widely perceived as unfair, and a new President’s (Nixon) key political campaign promise to end the draft, the Gates Commission set the stage for the establishment of the AVF in 1970. The table below provides a means of framing contemporary observations against commonly held views at the AVF’s beginning. It helps unpack how the draft, in the Army’s force-sizing construct, is irrelevant.

Decisions that revise Army force structure and readiness must be tacitly reversible, as the extract from the President’s strategy states. Our ability to understand how we generate from raw manpower, units and capabilities that make up the All Volunteer Force, is essential. The Army faces gaps in comprehending how policy decisions interact with existing budgetary, structural and personnel systems. It is easy, in light of fiscal constraints, to reduce end strength of active forces and rely more heavily on reserve components in time of emergency, with the draft as a backstop. As well, to maintain “reversibility,” it follows that reducing accessions and retaining mid-career enlisted personnel and officers would mitigate the impact of force reductions in anticipation of future expansion. However, decision-making and historical precedent points to the contrary. World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, and the drawdown after the Cold War amply demonstrate that reliance on the reserve components to quickly mobilize was just as efficient as expanding the active force through conscription. However, all of these were predicated on the notion that a strategic hedge of conscription existed. In each case, prior to the advent of the AVF, the utility of relatively unskilled labor was intrinsic to the way we built, trained and used our force structure.

What underlies this issue today is a cognitive gap in our current understanding of the sources of potential, usable military manpower. Conscription has never been a popular mechanism for generating forces. From the 1770s to the 1970s, popular support has drifted from perceptions that it is a violation of basic civil rights to an accepted civil responsibility. The evolution of the American way of war and the evolution of the AVF have set the conditions firmly in place to remove the discussion of a draft altogether. It is time to reflect on, after 41 years of testing, improving and optimizing this formerly heretical notion of an AVF, why a draft is even part of our strategic calculus. It distracts us from essential, honest introspection as to how we can institutionalize force reduction and expansion across the enterprise while addressing truly whole-of-government response.

Bryan Rozman is a third-generation U.S. Army Officer with 23 years of service, beginning as an enlisted man. He has served in a variety of conventional and special operations assignments from team and interagency to multinational, and 3-star level headquarters. He currently is an Army strategist in the National Capital Region. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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