Military End Strength

Phil Carter explains why nobody really knows how many soldiers we need in the military.

During the Cold War, U.S. planners could look at Warsaw Pact strength, do some fuzzy math to adjust for technology and skill differentials, and predict how many troops the United States needed to block a Soviet march through West Germany’s Fulda Gap. *** But now the military has to prepare for myriad threats, from aggressive states like Saddam’s Iraq to failed states like Somalia to non-state terrorist groups like al-Qaida. In the early 1990s, the Pentagon developed the “2 Major Regional Conflict” doctrine, which held that the United States should be capable of fighting two major regional wars at once. Elaborate war games were conducted to figure out how many forces would be necessary to meet this paradigm, and the results drove subsequent requests for personnel, equipment, and force structure. The 2MRC model quickly proved insufficient for real life. In the ’90s, smaller deployments to Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo stripped the Army’s capability to fight two wars at once. These deployments also highlighted the disconnect between the wars the Army planned to fight and those missions it was actually given.

He’s got quite a bit more analysis at Intel Dump as well.

In a related piece, Fred Kaplan explains why a draft won’t solve anything. The short answer: we don’t need more stupid soldiers.

[T]he aptitude of U.S. military personnel now exceeds that for American civilians.

Scores are divided into five categories. Categories I and II score in the 65th to 99th percentiles. Category IIIs score in the 31st to 64th percentiles, Category IVs in the 10th to 30th percentiles, Category Vs in the bottom 10th percentile. Here’s how the scores break down, for recent recruits and for civilians:

On balance, by this measure, those who volunteer for the military are smarter than those who don’t.

Other indicators confirm this impression. The average recruit has an 11th-grade reading level; the average civilian can read at a 10th-grade level. Nearly all recruits—97 percent of female, 94 percent of male—graduated from high school; 79 percent of civilians have high-school diplomas. Officers are better-educated still: All are now required to have college degrees.

In short, today’s armed forces are not the downtrodden, ethnically lopsided social rejects that they tended to be after the Vietnam War, when the all-volunteer military came into being.

Bringing back the draft would lasso the social dregs along with the society elite. Would the net effect be a “more equitable representation of people making sacrifices,” as Rangel put it? Maybe, maybe not. Even with a draft, not everyone would serve. About 11 million Americans are 20 to 26 years old. The military doesn’t need 11 million people. A draft would have to involve some sort of lottery. If that’s the way it goes, there should be no exemptions (except for the physically disabled, the mentally incompetent, convicted felons, and perhaps conscientious objectors). Still, unless a military draft was one component of a compulsory national-service program (the subject of another essay), only some would be called. It’s a matter of chance whether the kids from the suburbs would be called more than the kids from the projects.

There’s quite a bit more; it’s worth reading.

The bottom line is that–as everyone who studies the matter has known for over a decade–we need to radically re-align the force. There have been some impressive changes made in the last three or four years, but the change has come too slowly. The force is considerably better than it was even a few years ago at fighting jointly–the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines working together as a cohesive team. But today’s force still looks far too much like a downsized version of its Cold War era predecessor. We’ve got far too much heavy maneuver capability on active duty, far too much of our precious peace and stability operations capability (MPs, civil affairs, psyops, engineers, etc.) in reserve, and too much of the former and not enough of the latter, period.

UPDATE: Looking again at Kaplan’s numbers, I’m slightly confused by the civilian distribution. Presumably, it’s based on a static baseline based on a past year. Otherwise, one would expect the percentiles to line up exactly.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. mike says:

    I have yet to meet someone in the army who thinks a draft is a good idea. Rangel needs to pipe down and quit messing w/ something he knows nothing about.

  2. DC Loser says:

    Rangel knows what it’s like to be drafted. He was a Marine in the Korean War. I’d put his credentials up there against those that haven’t been through that experience.

  3. James Joyner says:

    I think we could exclude Paul from the draft pool right away. 😉

    Kaplan’s stats mainly refute the Charlie Rangel rationale–that the current system is skewed toward poor, minority kids with few options. But it makes a good overall point as well–the current force is much smarter than the population as a whole. Remember, the chart only deals with first-time enlisted personnel. Career NCOs and officers are much brighter at the aggregate than that pool.

    And, no, we don’t simply need more idiots in boots. Peace and stability ops require smarter people than simple combat ops, since they require much more decision-making lower in the ranks.

    The current force is quite likely skewed toward Congressional districts that support the war.

  4. A Soldier says:

    I’m a soldier and I certainly don’t want to see the draft. Commanders have a hard enough time getting soldiers who VOLUNTEERED to do their duty.

    We have a saying among Army leaders: You spend 90% of your time on 10% of your soldiers. It’s true.

    This 10% are nothing but trouble, and yet, they VOLUNTEERED. But once they’re in, they’ll do anything to get out, and take down other soldiers with them. In my 8 years in the Army, I have thrown out about 20 soldiers for various misbehaviors, ranging from PT failure to drug use to AWOL.

    I’m not saying that all draftees would be worthless wastes of human flesh. Draftees have served our country honorably for over 200 years. But today’s culture is different. The draft today would be a total disaster. Has anyone done a poll of draft eligible Americans? Anyone want to guess how many of them would support a draft?

    We have one hell of a force; they’re educated, they’re motivated, and 99% of them WANT to be there becaue they BELIEVE in what they’re doing.

    To spoil that with a draft, by forcing people to be there, would be one of the biggest mistakes in our nation’s history.

  5. James Joyner says:


    Read Kaplan’s piece.

    And, judging entirely on the results of the ASVAB, a standardized IQ test, there’s simply no question that poor, minority (i.e., black and Hispanic) kids do significantly less well than the population as a whole.

  6. A Soldier says:

    Who says we aren’t meeting recruitment and retention goals?

    All of the services have met their goals so far for this fiscal year. The numbers may have gone down, but we’re still meeting recruiting and retention goals. For FY 2003, we blew them out of the water. And the first 2 quarters of FY 2004, we’re meeting them as well. I think the reserves has seen a decline in their mid-careerist numbers. That’s the only category we’re hurting in right now. But you wouldn’t draft people to be reservists. You’d draft them for active duty. Active duty isn’t having a problem.

    The Air Force? They’re OVER-STRENGTH by 30,000 airmen.

    Of course it’s more difficult to retain soldiers given the protracted commitments in which we’re currently engaged, but we’re still meeting end strength goals.

    Take the 82nd Airborne Division… deployed to Afghanistan, then to Iraq, and then back to Afghanistan again. Since 9/11, they have been deployed more than any other division in the Army. They re-enlisted 90% of their troops. 90%! That’s almost unheard of. The Army assumes that for every 10 first-termers coming in, only about 4.5 will re-enlist.

    I could almost see your point if we needed the people. But we don’t. We don’t NEED a draft. Maybe we need an increase in the end-strength (the 20,000 passed by congress is a good start), but we certainly won’t need the draft to fill those 20,000 slots. I can guarantee you that. We might need to up the bonus offerings, but we’ll fill those slots with the same quality of Soldiers we have now. Guarantee it.

    A draft at this point would be nothing more a useless social experiment.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Debates of intelligence and test scores aside… I don’t need to look at any studies to know that a Soldier who believes in what he’s doing is simply going to be a better Soldier.

    A Soldier who WANTS to be there, as opposed to a Soldier who’s counting down the days until “freedom,” is simply more focused, more motivated, and more effective. Ask anyone who has served alongside a “short-timer.” If they aren’t re-enlisting, towards the end of their committment, they can barely drag themselves out of bed for early morning PT, their appearance usually leaves something to be desired, and all they’re thinking about is that glorious day they’re handed their DD-214 (official discharge document). That doesn’t make them bad people, nor does it necessarily make them bad Soldiers. It just makes them not as motivated, not as committed, as “gung-ho” as the rest of us.

    And given the military’s committments abroad; the only ones I want to take with me to war are the “gung ho” ones. They’re more committed to mission success; even if they don’t necessarily agree with that particular military action; they know they volunteered for it. They’re professionals. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that those Soldiers are generally speaking, the more effective ones.

    I’m speaking from personal experience when I tell you that taking a Soldier to war who doesn’t want to be there can be a very dangerous thing.

    Seems to me the only folks who think the draft is a good idea are the people who will never be impacted by it. Either they’re not eligible for the draft, or they won’t be serving in a foxhole beside someone who has been forced to be there. Ask anyone in the military and ask anyone who stands to be drafted should the draft be re-instated. The overwhelming majority of them will tell you not just “no,” but “hell no.”

  8. Mike says:

    The civilian percentiles do line up. There is 9-10% for each percentile but the category splits don’t match up evenly. With that in mind, if you look at the chart again you’ll see that the miltary shows 99% of its recruits from the top 7 percentiles and only 1% from the bottom 3. Civilians are spread evenly across the chart.

  9. Anonymous says:

    “well, the New York Times says so, based on THIRD QUARTER reports of new recruits. ”

    The Fiscal Year isn’t over yet. Some quarters may be under, others may be over. We’re still ahead for this Fiscal Year’s total goal. We’ll see at the end of the FY.

    “A couple of points…FY 93 ended on September 30, 1973. A LOT has happened since that time….and that includes improvements in the private sector job market. ”

    Who is talking about FY 93 and 1973? I am confused here. I referred specifically to FY 2003 and FY 2004.

    “secondly, as i noted earlier, the apparent reason that the active component of the military is meeting its goals is that those who would ordinarily enlist in the reserves have realized that they will wind up in Iraq anyway, and the active component offers a much better deal. We are robbing peter to pay paul, in other words.”

    I don’t know how any of us can possibly arrive at that conclusion, but whatever. I’m not going to argue a “it could be that xxx” type of argument. If there is some data on that, I’d like to read it. Otherwise, we’re only giving our best guesstimate on why the reserve numbers are slightly lower than the active.

    “its also practically impossible, since nowhere near 90% of the troops would have been up for re-enlistment since 9/11. Its also irrelevant, because the Afghanistan war was seen as unnecessary by very few Americans—unlike the situation in Iraq. ”

    In recruiting terms, the 90% refers to the 90% WHO WERE ELIGIBLE. Not 90% of the Division, since that would mean 18,000 soldiers re-upped. The fact is that 90% of the ELIGIBLE first-termers re-enlisted. I didn’t think I needed to spell that out, since the folks posting here appear to be pretty intelligent. But apparently I should have gone ahead and spelled it out. 90% of the ELIGIBLE first termers re-enlisted. Here is the link to that article:

    “You acknowledge that it is the “mid-career” servicemen (and servicewomen) that the military is having a hard time holding on to. Considering the fact that enlistees have a six (or eight) year military service obligation, I’d say that the loss of “mid-career” soldiers is a sign that there is something wrong. ”

    Let’s clarify, it’s mid-careerists in the reserves whose numbers are down. Not the active component.

    And granted, that may “signify a problem” but is the answer to that problem a draft? Talk about swatting flies with 100 pound mallet.

    This isn’t the first time in our military’s history we’ve faced difficulty in retention… and I don’t even call this difficulty.

    One quarter’s numbers are down for ONE of the services, and people are screaming for the draft.

    Just boggles the mind and defies common sense.

  10. A Soldier says:

    You admitted it yourself. You are opposed to the draft. You only want to see one instituted for political purposes under the auspices of influencing foreign policy. Draft enough people, and sway them all over to the “dove” crowd because “hell no, they won’t go” right? Boy, if there was a pathetic reason to institute a draft and FORCE young Americans into dangerous service, this was it.

    I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I was debating politics with you. I’m a Soldier. I don’t debate politics, regardless of my personal opinions. I don’t have that luxury. Soldiers are supposed to be apolitical. It’s dangerous for the military to become too heavily politicized.

    But anyway, you asked for my solution. I gave it already.

    Increase the end strength of the Army, and fill those new slots, BUT NOT WITH DRAFTEES. Increase the end-strength and re-organize the current fighting force, like we’re doing now, to get more out of the same number of troops. Our divisions are organized for a cold-war style, traditional, linear battlefield. Realign the units and reassign EAC (echelons above corps) support units within Divisions to make better use of the skill sets and numbers of soldiers. Schoomaker said it best when he said that the Army right now is like a water barrel with a spiggot half-way up the side of the barrel. When we turn on the spiggot, we get the top 50% of the force spilling out, and rarely reach down into the lower half. It’s a bottom heavy force; too many institutional support units and soldiers propping up to few warfighters. You’ve got much-needed specialties in the reserves that are now being transferred to active units (not the actual people, just the slots), and units on active duty that haven’t been needed since before the FIRST Gulf War! Why are those units on active duty? We apparently have very little need for them right now. Get them in the reserves, and in their place, stand up an infantry unit, or an MP unit, or Civil Affairs. Anything will be better than wasting those slots on soldiers whose specialty is not in demand right now. I’ve always felt that way, especially since my first assignment was to a unit that never went anywhere or did anything of any real value. What a waste – I hated it. Morale was low, and everything from training to promotions suffered because of it.

    The answer is NOT the draft. It’s reorganization of the current force and adding more numbers to the bottom line.

    That’s not just my solution. With the exception of adding more troops to the end strenth, it’s the solution of the Chief of Staff of the Army, the Secretary of the Army, the Secretary of Defense, and, no offense to you sir, just about anyone with any common sense.

    Not a single person can yet convince me of the virtues of instituting a draft, despite all of their extolling to the contrary, at this point in time. No one comes close to providing even one shred of evidence that we need it, or that it would even work. Again, we’ve had difficulty in recruiting and retention before (during deployments to the Balkans; retention ALWAYS takes a hit during protracted deployments). We got through it without a draft then, we’ll get through it without a draft now, and we’ll get through it without a draft in the future.