Putin’s Lessons for the All-Volunteer Force
“Since the need for change is rarely self-evident, most organizations usually resist learning so long as they think the existing way of doing business still works. The challenge is even greater for wartime militaries.” Michael Hunzeker, Dying to Learn
The U.S. military, plain and simple, has a recruiting problem. All of the services know it. Congress knows it. The all-volunteer force has started to show its age as it approaches 50, with outdated policies, recruiting practices, and career models that are derived largely from the body of work that established the force in 1973. If left unaddressed, the recruiting problems of today will manifest themselves as capability shortfalls of tomorrow.
Michael Kofman and Rob Lee provide a gift to senior military leaders and lawmakers that illustrates how the Russian military’s recruiting shortfalls manifest into capability shortfalls in their recent article on the Russian military’s “ill-fated force design.” The U.S. military and lawmakers can learn three valuable lessons from Kofman and Lee. First, conscription is never the answer. Second, recruiting shortages manifest into capability shortages in combat. Lastly, investing in technology over personnel is a recipe for disaster. The Department of Defense can leverage these lessons and update legacy personnel systems and career paths to ensure the U.S. military recruits and retains the capabilities needed for the 21st century and beyond.
The U.S. military faces a declining pool of eligible and interested men and women, a booming private-sector job market, and a world of new norms that include new family models, employer requirements, and career paths. If these trends are left unaddressed, the fate of “The U.S. Military Might Be More Like Russia’s Military Than You Think,” as a recent War on the Rocks podcast with CEO Ryan Evans and Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Blank had it.
Lawmakers and senior military leaders know there’s a problem. Sen. Thom Tillis recently said, “Every single metric tracking the military recruiting environment is going in the wrong direction.” Gilbert Cisneros, the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness stated,
The size and quality of the youth market has changed very little in ten years. Only 23% of today’s youth are eligible for military service without a waiver, and only 2% are eligible, high-quality, and likely to serve. Youth propensity has declined over the last several years, from 13% in 2018 to 9% in 2021. This decline represents approximately 1 million fewer youth propensed for military service.
The Army’s senior personnel leader, Lt. Gen. Gary Brito, said,
The Army will modestly reduce its end strength in FY 2022 and FY 2023 as we put the force on a sustainable strategic path. … [w]e are confident we can maintain the quality of recruits we need at this level as the Army rebalances its portfolio by investing in modernization, infrastructure, and personnel support programs.
Couple that with the Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. James McConville announcing that the Army is cutting end strength because recruiting got harder. In an environment where there are two jobs for every person in America, even the Air Force and the Navy are trending negatively. Maj. Gen. Edward Thomas, Jr., commander of Air Force Recruiting, highlighted that “numbers are trending down right now.” “Strong economic conditions in the U.S., like those characterizing periods of expansions, tend to challenge Navy’s ability to meet recruiting and retention requirements,” said Vice Adm. John Nowell, Chief of Naval Personnel. Even the Marine Corps, a service that prides itself on recruiting, knows there’s a problem.
Just Say No to Conscription
History and present-day events show the flaws of conscription. The studies done prior to the establishment of the all-volunteer force made arguments for and against such a system. In fact, excessive economic costs associated with continuous retraining of conscripts was a driving factor in the U.S. divorcing itself from conscription. Conscription resulted in high initial training costs that the all-volunteer force minimized by retaining servicemembers for longer periods of time — specifically as technical skills became more in demand for military occupations.
Kofman and Lee highlight the military challenges Russia is facing due to conscription: “Conscripts don’t serve long enough to be properly trained on these technical skills,” for one. A lack of qualified personnel with the requisite technical skills leads to a higher demand for talent in specific units, and thus, “[b]ecause the Russian Aerospace Forces, Navy, and Strategic Missile Forces have a higher percentage of technical assignments, they receive a higher share of contract soldiers than the army.” The shortage of qualified personnel creates an internal struggle for capability that cannot be satisfied. The Russian military illustrates something the U.S. military has long known, the importance of recruiting and retaining highly technical skillsets that require extensive resources and are not easily replaced.
The U.S. military now faces a similar problem at home competing for highly technical skills sought after not only by the military but private sector. The Space Force is increasing that demand by competing “for talent with the high-paying space industry.” The U.S. military is still responsible for achieving the required end strength with fewer eligible and interested men and women to recruit. In the war for talent, conscription is a nonstarter based on the existing body of work revealing the inefficiencies and inability to create and retain highly technical skills. Even when considering conscription, the Russian military illustrates how poorly such a system performs, with Kofman and Lee highlighting that “the Russian army was optimized for a short and sharp war while lacking the capacity to sustain a major conventional conflict.”
Russian end strength declined below the intended target over the last few years, Kofman and Lee note: “The Russian military set a target to reach 425,000 contract soldiers by 2017 and later to reach 499,200 by 2019. Instead, according to Russian officials, it reached 384,000 in 2016, 394,000 in 2019, and 405,000 in 2020, which was the last time a figure was publicly released.” For the U.S. military, the FY22 authorized end-strength is 1,348,040 personnel for the active component with the FY23 recommended end-strength at 1,330,220 personnel. With a difference of 17,820 personnel from last year to this, an estimated 23 percent lag by Pentagon leaders in annual recruitment, and the Army involuntarily extending recruiting tours, a similar theme emerges: the overall erosion of end strength since 2010 below the originally planned quantity. Even the current FY22 recruiting estimate by the services is 15,601 personnel short of the target. One can easily make the argument that the U.S. military surpasses the quantity and quality of the Russian military, and that is correct. The U.S. military’s responsibilities also exceed Russian military responsibilities. Caitlin Lee captures the challenges that face the U.S. military, writing, “Between Russian aggression in Europe, an increasingly assertive and powerful China, and myriad security challenges elsewhere, the U.S. military has its hands full.” If left unaddressed, the recruiting shortages of the U.S. military will manifest in execution during a logistically dominated war in the Indo-Pacific. The Russian military today illustrates how personnel shortages manifest in execution: “There were also shortages of key personnel, from enablers to logistics, and the force was far more brittle than many (including us) had assumed,” Kofman and Lee note.
Technology Over Personnel
Kofman and Lee note, “Along with the United States, Russia came to believe that a smaller but better equipped and trained military could handle a range of conflicts.” One can’t help but wonder if the U.S. military will find itself in a similar predicament, without a clear direction forward, requiring drastically different personnel levels between unpopular or ineffective operating concepts. If the U.S. military continues to struggle to meet recruiting goals while investing in weapons systems and platforms over personnel, it increases the likelihood of encountering the same problems that face the Russian military.
The U.S. military must avoid this pitfall and invest in modern personnel systems. The Department of Defense can no longer afford to invest in modern weapon systems and platforms at the expense of legacy personnel systems. For example, it costs approximately $5–10 million to train an Air Force pilot. The military defaults to the recruit, train, and replace model over a cradle-to-grave system able to collect important data and leverage predictive analytics and machine learning to see how capabilities and talents change over a career. This kind of system could also potentially increase retention through better matching of new servicemembers’ skills with military specialties, which lowers training costs for highly technical skillsets, something the all-volunteer force has sought to accomplish since 1973. The dependency on mid-1980s technology can no longer compete with private-sector human-resource systems or meet 21st-century threats from the likes of Russia and China.
A Way Forward
The attention of lawmakers sets the conditions for the testing and refinement of possible solutions to attack the problem. The Department of Defense is also aware of the challenges that face the military. In March 2021, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks established the Deputy’s Workforce Council. The council is scheduled to meet weekly and discuss topics to include “Workforce Development and Talent Management.” The following recommendations look to bolster current efforts within the Defense Department. My recommendations are derived from the thousands of interviews I conducted with servicemembers as an assignments officer for the Marine Corps.
First, to address stability for families, the services should explore assignment lengths. Family models have changed since the establishment of the all-volunteer force. In a Pew Research study, only 25 percent of families were dual income in 1960. In 2012, 60 percent of families were dual income. With the average annual salary at $53,000, and a majority of families being dual income, the historic military career model of relocating every two to three years needs to change. It is no surprise that servicemembers and families will opt for financial security, which is grossly impeded by the historic military career path: Studies show “that spouses who relocate tend to take a cut in pay and benefits, and many find it difficult to find new employment.” Military-spouse employment is cited as the top concern by military families. In fact, 43 percent of servicemembers said it was an issue in the largest annual study of military families impacting economic security.
A recommended solution is increasing the normal three-year assignment length to five years. If one assumes a 20-year career, this requires a family to relocate three times after the initial assignment. This suggested tour length enables children to finish high school in one location, increases equity in home ownership, and enables longer periods of spouse employment without sacrificing the benefits of dual-income households as frequently. It also provides greater unit cohesion and continuity of leadership within a unit.
Second, geographically challenging assignments also need to be addressed. Overseas assignments and those in remote locations stateside are required but in need of revision. The services face challenges when providing family support services, such as childcare, in remote locations. Although the services have sought to remedy childcare shortfalls with stipends and increased services at military installations, servicemembers are inclined to stay in highly desirable locations with greater support to increase their family’s well-being. Although overseas incentives exist, I recommend exploring additional incentives that include family travel from overseas. For reference, a family of four will pay approximately $8,000 to travel round-trip from Japan to California. The services must recognize the cost of living is rising dramatically, with airfare increasing 18.6 percent in April, the largest increase since 1963.
With the military looking to re-align forces within the Pacific theater, it is worth exploring if overseas billets would be easier to fill with an increased use of brevet promotions. The FY19 NDAA granted the Army the ability to use 770 brevet, or temporary promotions, that include increased rank and pay. In fact, the Army filled geographically challenging positions at Fort Irwin using this authority. Other services apparently failed to leverage this authority. If the authorities were not granted, or not requested by the other services, this is a simple request to include in the upcoming NDAA.
Third, the military career path needs to not only match the operating environment of today in terms of providing the requisite capability but acknowledge the desires of those the military is looking to recruit. In a recent study, respondents reported that pay was the top reason for leaving a job. This is good news for the military, as compensation is reviewed every four years by the quadrennial review for military compensation. The quadrennial review for military compensation ensures the military is on equal footing when compared to civilian market wages. The problem is the military has many jobs that require extensive training, such as aviation, cyber, and STEM. Those careers are extremely lucrative and also in high demand in the private sector. Although the most recent review shows military pay is comparable to the private sector, it specifically identifies cyber compensation challenges:
There are, of course, particular occupations, such as cyber and special operations, where military pay falls behind pay in the civilian labor market. When this occurs, such tools as special and incentive pays can be used to ensure military pay is more competitive. Across-the-board or targeted pay increases are far too expensive a solution for occupation-specific pay disparities.
If the military is unable to compete monetarily with the private sector for such skills, then it needs a new military career path that reflects what young men and women now seek from their employers: good work-life balance, learning and development, and hybrid or remote work. When competing for talent, the U.S. military needs to recognize, “Some 43% of companies are offering hybrid [work] models.” How the military chooses to implement or attack those requirements can vary from service to service, but these facts must be considered, planned for when appropriate, and prioritized in updating the legacy career model.
These recommendations do come with challenges. First is the blended retirement system. The previous retirement system required a military servicemember to serve 20 years to become retirement eligible, but now a servicemember can walk away prior to 20 years with money in their pocket. Although data is lacking, the military would be prudent to assume that in the future this new system will impact retention. A Bureau of Labor Statistics study shows the median time spent in a job, for those ages 16–44, at 2.79 years. The same study shows a drastic decrease in the percentage of men and women who serve 20 years with a single employer. The updated retirement system and the Bureau of Labor Statistics data illustrate a possible future mass exodus of highly skilled servicemembers, resulting in a further loss of military capability.
Also, the services depend greatly on advertising. Historical data shows increased advertising yields increased recruiting results. The problem is, once again, that society has changed. How many of us have cable television? A Pew Research Study reveals, “The share of Americans who say they watch television via cable or satellite has plunged from 76% in 2015 to 56% this year .” How many of us sit around and listen to the radio at night when there are streaming services that are now commercial-free? This may seem insignificant but poses a real challenge to the services when trying to recruit the men and women who use social media to a greater degree than many of us who fill the ranks and determine policy do. The Army and Marine Corps seem to note the importance of social media. Recent events held by the services show they are aware of the impacts of social media on the next generation of military servicemembers. A Center for Naval Analyses study shows that while social media recruitment “may take longer to materialize,” the resulting enlistment may last longer. The study also encourages the services to move advertising budgets away from traditional methods, such as television and radio, and more toward social media.
The U.S. military will only end up like Russia if the warnings are ignored. Senior military leaders and lawmakers are now in an advantageous position where their immediate attention and action can remediate the recruiting shortfalls of the U.S. military. If left unaddressed, the U.S. military will prove Barry Posen correct in his conclusion that “militaries are like all bureaucratic organizations in that they resist change despite obvious evidence that existing ways of doing business are obsolete.”
Maj. Ryan Pallas is a Marine Corps helicopter pilot and has completed tours at Miramar, California; Yuma, Arizona; Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii; and Quantico, Virginia. Maj. Pallas heads to the Schar School of Policy and Government as a Commandant of the Marine Corps Strategist Fellow where he looks to continue his study of the all-volunteer force. The views are those of the author and do not reflect the Marine Corps, Department of Defense, or any other government agency.