Military Force Sizing

Several loosely related stories over the past couple of days present a mixed picture of our force structure. While the attention over the last several months has focused on the strain the Iraq conflict has had on the Army, it appears that the other services are overstaffed. And the Reserves are finally having difficulty with recruiting that most have been predicting for years.

San Diego Union-Tribune (Scripps Howard) – Air Force, Navy Aim To Trim Ranks (July 19)

Thousands of Air Force and Navy troops will be able to skip their final year of active-duty service with no penalty under new Pentagon plans intended to trim the payrolls. Under the “force-shaping” plan, about 50,000 troops from both branches would be cut. A rapid buildup for the Iraq war and the war on terrorism left both services with a glut of personnel in certain positions. Also, a lack of private-sector jobs has made leaving active duty less attractive.

To meet 2005 reduction goals, both branches are offering incentives to leave active duty as much as 12 months early. The Air Force hopes to cut 24,000 active duty airmen by September 2005.
“There’s certain restrictions on certain career fields, but there are active duty commitments that are being waived,” said Air Force spokeswoman Jennifer Stephens. Although military personnel in some specialties are exempt from the offer, including pilots and nurses, even those in such high-demand fields would be able to leave early if they agree to enter the Air Force Reserve or Guard, Stephens said.

Air Force and Navy cuts are in stark contrast to a stretched Army that this month notified thousands of retired soldiers they would be re-activated and possibly sent to Iraq. The Army has received funding from Congress to add 30,000 troops in the next few years. For those looking to leave the Air Force and Navy early, the Army has a message: Join us. The Navy is encouraging sailors who choose to leave to consider the Army in a program called “Operation Blue to Green.” An estimated 25,000 sailors would be able to end their military commitments early through the program, with an immediate goal of shedding 10,000 by next October.

USA TodayStrained Army National Guard Having Tough Time Recruiting

The nation’s largest part-time military force is suffering personnel strains from extended call-ups of troops. Pentagon and National Guard figures show that the 350,000-member Army National Guard is having increasing difficulty recruiting soldiers. It also continues to lag behind the other services in the quality of enlistees as measured by military aptitude tests.

Signs of trouble:

*The Army Guard’s total number of soldiers — “end strength” in military terminology — is 343,846, more than 6,000 below its target of 350,000. End strength has been declining since January. Guard officials say they can recover by Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.

*The Army Guard is having trouble recruiting new soldiers. At the end of May, the most recent figures available, it was more than 5,400 recruits short. That’s about 14% below its goal of 37,486 recruits by May 31.

*Only 58% of Army Guard recruits this year have achieved “quality recruit” scores on military aptitude tests, compared with 72% for the Army Reserve and 80% for the Air National Guard. The Pentagon’s target for quality recruits is 60% for enlistees. The last time the Army Guard met that was in 2001.

*The Pentagon recently activated more than 5,600 members of the Army’s Individual Ready Reserve (IRR), in part to fill gaps in the Army Guard. The IRR is a rarely used group of soldiers who have finished their voluntary active-duty tours.

Personnel experts and some members of Congress had predicted problems would surface this year. The Army National Guard and Army Reserve make up nearly 40% of the 141,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Overall, 131,000 Army Guard and Reserve soldiers are on active duty in the United States and overseas, in most cases for 15 to 18 months. Full-time soldiers’ foreign deployments typically are one year. “We can’t continue like this,” says Paul Monroe, a retired commander of the California National Guard. He says recruiting will get harder as long as the National Guard or Army Reserve are called up for full-time duty as frequently as they have been since 9/11. The Army Guard and Reserve were established as part-time forces. Unlike the Army Reserve, a federal force, the Guard also has a state role and is controlled in peacetime by governors.


The Army National Guard’s retention rate — the rate at which soldiers choose to remain in the service — is above expected levels this year, but there are signs that repeated call-ups could begin affecting it. Monroe says that surveys of California Guard troops called up for extended duty showed earlier this year that as many as half of those who were mobilized plan to leave the Guard at the earliest opportunity.

The active-duty Army and Army Reserve are on track to meet their 2004 recruiting goals. Experts say it’s easier for the active-duty Army to recruit because it offers more benefits.

It’s not just the benefits but the mindset. Most people join the reserve force because they want the benefits and have some desire to serve during a national emergency. By definition, however, they don’t want to be full-time soldiers. If they did, they’d join up. So, in an era when reservists are treated as active assets and constantly deployed, it no longer has the same attraction.

Meanwhile, the idea of bringing back the draft refuses to die, at least in Big Media circles. Former Marine captain Nathaniel Fick has a piece in today’s NYT entitled “Don’t Dumb Down the Military” [RSS] in which he argues against the notion.

The dumb grunt is an anachronism. He has been replaced by the strategic corporal. Immense firepower and improved technology have pushed decision-making with national consequences down to individual enlisted men. Modern warfare requires that even the most junior infantryman master a wide array of technical and tactical skills. Honing these skills to reflex, a prerequisite for survival in combat, takes time – a year of formal training and another year of on-the-job experience were generally needed to transform my young marines into competent warriors. The Marine Corps demands four-year active enlistments because it takes that long to train troops and ensure those training dollars are put to use in the field. One- or two-year terms, the longest that would be likely under conscription, would simply not allow for this comprehensive training.


The current volunteer force rejects applicants who score poorly on its entrance aptitude exam, disclose a history of significant drug use or suffer from any of a number of orthopedic or chronic injuries. Face it: any unwilling draftee could easily find a way to fail any of these tests. The military, then, would be left either to abandon its standards and accept all comers, or to remain true to them and allow the draft to become volunteerism by another name. Stripped of its volunteer ideology, but still unable to compel service from dissenters, the military would end up weaker and less representative than the volunteer force – the very opposite of the draft’s intended goals.

Renewing the draft would be a blow against the men and women in uniform, a dumbing down of the institution they serve. The United States military exists to win battles, not to test social policy. Enlarging the volunteer force would show our soldiers that Americans recognize their hardship and are willing to pay the bill to help them better protect the nation. My view of the citizen-soldier was altered, but not destroyed, in combat. We cannot all pick up the sword, nor should we be forced to – but we owe our support to those who do.

Agreed. We have a professional military. Professionals don’t want to serve with amateurs, especially when their life is on the line.

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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.