Guest Post: “A draft won’t work, but here are six ideas to help the Army’s recruiting crisis”

Today’s post is by retired Marine Corps colonel Mike Samarov, and he grapples with a very serious national security issue: the Army’s recruiting crisis.  Here are some key facts and figures from a recent article in The Hill:

    • Every year, the Pentagon must recruit approximately 150,000 service members.
    • Every year, approximately 4 million Americans turn 18, 23 percent of whom can meet the minimum enlistment standards, meaning about 920,000 able to serve.  
    • Of those 920,000, only 9 percent are motivated to serve, meaning approximately 83,000 both able and willing to serve. 
    • The possible shortfall of 67,000 enlistments represents a serious threat to national security.

All the military services are suffering recruiting difficulties but none more than the Army which is expected to fall 40,000 recruits short

Logically, people may start thinking about a draft to fill the ranks (as they are in Europe), but Mike contends that it won’t solve the Army’s need for motivated, high-quality people.  Importantly, he makes his argument from the perspective of someone with many years of authentic troop leadership experience.

However, Mike doesn’t simply “pour cold water” on the idea of a draft; rather, he offers six solution-oriented ideas to get the Army the people it needs.  They won’t resolve the immediate problem, but can over time go a long way in addressing the Army’s recruiting challenges without resorting to conscription.

A draft won’t work, but are six ideas to help the Army’s recruiting crisis

by Col. Mike Samarov

Military Recruiting Under Stress: Stories of the U.S. Army’s recruiting challenges have become common in the mainstream (and not so mainstream) national security media.  Even the Services that will “make mission” this year admit that they face unprecedented recruiting challenges. 

Next year may be even harder.  Given the unsettled state of the international security environment, problems staffing the U.S. Armed Forces – the ultimate guarantors of American and Western security – couldn’t be happening at a worse time.

A Solution to the Problem:  As H. L. Mencken once said, “There is always an easy solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.”  One such solution has gained currency as the Army struggles to achieve its recruiting mission – The All-Volunteer Force (AVF) as an institution has outlived its utility and the time has come to return to the draft

At the risk of being accused of besmirching previous generations of draftees who courageously and selflessly served, bled, and died for the freedoms we enjoy today, let me pour cold water on this idea… 

Why the Draft Won’t Work: There is no reasonable way back from the AVF. Relying on a conscripted force isn’t the right answer for the U.S. today.  The wealthy and powerful will almost certainly find ways out for their children. This will leave the economically and politically disadvantaged primarily liable for service. 

Most draftees will not want to be in uniform. This will almost certainly increase the levels of misconduct, malingering, drug and alcohol abuse, and absenteeism to levels that the Department of Defense (DoD) hasn’t seen in decades.

A drafted force’s commitment to training and tactical performance will also almost certainly be less than a similarly constituted volunteer force. The U.S. operational focus is primarily and correctly overseas. Forward deploying draftees — especially in high-risk specialties to high-risk areas — will be massively controversial. 

Unless we eliminate the option to volunteer, a draft will almost certainly make the Army’s average manpower quality worse. Given its endemic recruiting challenges, the Army will have to rely on conscripts more than the Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Space Force. Over time, this trend will increase because volunteers will want to join the other Services to avoid the negative perception of being a conscript.

Other, Better, Less Obvious Answers: More importantly, there are steps that the Administration, Congress, DoD, and the Army can take to address the current recruiting woes without resorting to conscription. 

First, the Secretary of Defense, Service Secretaries, and Service Chiefs must go to Congress and the President and ask for help. Ultimately, the American People through their elected representatives must own this problem.

The President and the leadership of both parties in Congress should agree to talking points about the benefits of volunteering for military service. Congress should pass and the President should sign funding for advertising to counter the myths that make military service unattractive.

Second, DoD should direct the Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Space Force, to the extent that they are able, to pick up Army operational and administrative commitments. The Army is in crisis. The other Services must provide support.

Third, the Army must make recruiting its top manpower priority.  This will involve re-prioritizing its highest quality personnel from assignments that they want to recruiting duty. 

Success on recruiting duty should become a necessary gateway to resident Professional Military Education (PME), desirable duty stations, the best units, and command or command sergeant major selection.

Majors, rather than lieutenant colonels, should become recruiting battalion commanders.  An lieutenant colonel assigned recruiting battalion command in lieu of an operational battalion or squadron command knows that his or her career is no longer on the fast track. A Major will be in the opposite category.

Fourth, the Army should make recruiting a much more prominent function within the institution.  A key step in this process would be to make the U.S. Army Recruiting Command Commander report directly to the Chief of Staff of the Army. This should become a prime command that leads to selection to command at the 3-star level. Similarly, recruiting brigade command should become a pipeline for promotion to brigadier general.

Fifth, the Army should place as many top-quality Soldiers as necessary on the street until the present crisis is over. We should treat this situation just like the Iraq surge… except that ending the current crisis will probably take more time — perhaps 3-5 years. This will create challenges for the Army’s operating forces. Unfortunately, this is unavoidable.

Finally, the Army should refocus its recruiting efforts in rebuilding its delayed entry program. This year’s 9% start pool is a direct result of several years of attempting to make near term shipping at the expense of long-term success. It’s also the proximate cause of the massive mission miss the Army will experience this year.

The Army’s historic target of a 35% start pool is much too low. 50% is the right goal. Half of a year’s mission pooled is like money in a rainy-day fund. Sacrificing near term shipping in today’s circumstances may seem counterproductive. However, it’s the right thing to do.

These steps will be painful. They don’t represent an immediate solution. However, they will solve the longer-term issue. A draft isn’t in the political cards… and it won’t fix the problem.

About the author

Colonel Mike Samarov retired from the U.S. Marine Corps in 2020 as the Assistant Deputy Director for the Deputy Directorate, Europe, NATO, Russia, on the Joint Staff J-5. As an infantry officer, Mike had command at every rank to include leading a Marine Infantry Regiment, Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force, and Joint Task Force in the U.S. Southern Command. Since retiring, Mike has worked in the information technology industry. He has remained engaged in international security and military affairs.

The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University (see also here).

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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