MILITARY MANPOWERThe Uncertain Future of the U.S. Military’s All-Volunteer Force

By Erin Staine-Pyne

Published 20 July 2023

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of U.S. all-volunteer military force. It also coincides with one of the worst recruiting years for the U.S. military since 1973. The U.S military has a manpower problem and it’s not just due to today’s recruiting shortages. It’s time for a comprehensive plan to solve the personnel shortfalls.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of United States’ all-volunteer military force. It also coincides with one of the worst recruiting years for the U.S. military since 1973. The army missed its 2022 recruiting goal by fifteen thousand soldiers, and the army, air force, and navy all expect to miss their goals in 2023. The shortage is blamed on a confluence of domestic issues: a competitive job market, lack of in-person recruiting during the pandemic, and a population of young adults who are less informed, less interested, and less qualified for military service. The lack of qualified recruits has received a lot of attention, but the fact that our young population does not see the value of military service should also ignite great concern.

The Global War on Terror (GWOT) hurt the military’s brand and reputation, not just because some Americans did not support the wars, but because of the cost paid by service members who were repeatedly deployed to combat zones. The all-volunteer force has been called one of the United States’ greatest success stories, but it was not used as designed during GWOT, and today it is inadequate to meet current personnel needs. It is time to address the shortfalls of the all-volunteer force with a renewed Gates Commission, before the United States’ next long war.

Transition to an All-Volunteer Force
In 1973, the United States transitioned from a conscription-based military to an all-volunteer force after a comprehensive review by the presidentially directed Gates Commission. While there were calls to abandon the Selective Service system (the federal agency charged with matters concerning the draft), the commission recommended keeping it in case of a major conflict that would require the reinstatement of the draft. The new military structure was built to support a long war by utilizing a draft so that the active-duty volunteers could spend two years at home for every year in a combat zone (a “1:2 dwell time”) and the National Guard and Reserves could be home six years for every year mobilized (a “1:6 dwell time”). The dwell goal for the Guard and Reserves has since changed to a 1:4 dwell time, but this system established the Guard and Reserve Components as a temporary stopgap to relieve active-duty forces until the president and Congress reinstate a draft.