(Note: This is an expanded version of a piece that ran in the Orange County Register August 29, 1999 but wasn’t put on the newspaper’s Web site.)
The twin concerns after almost 25 years of a voluntary military that met its recruitment goals with mostly qualified and competent people of the military falling short of recruitment goals and suffering morale problems that damaged retention rates didn’t start with the Kosovo war. But the war highlighted the problem and has policy makers in the early stages of casting about for ways to solve the dilemma: the U.S. government has committed the military to numerous brushfire conflicts around the world even as the military has been downsized and made to resemble social workers more than warriors.
Do we need to improve military pay, especially for enlisted personnel, some of whom still qualify for food stamps? Can taxpayers afford enough economic incentives to woo potential recruits from higher-paying, lower-stress jobs in a booming private sector? Is it time to think about conscription the widely resented draft toward which some still cast a nostalgic eye the method used to keep the military at full strength between 1940 and 1973?
More fundamentally, do we need to rethink the role of the United States in a world without a competing superpower, a role that is growing haphazardly as the government lurches from one commitment to another? Is it time to take a fresh look at the commitments our leaders have made and scale them back to a more realistic level?
Those are among the choices facing military and diplomatic policy makers.
WHAT WE LEARNED FROM KOSOVO
By end of March, only two weeks into the Kosovo bombing war, US military leaders were complaining the effort was cutting into an already low level of US combat readiness. The Navy had no aircraft carrier in the region because the Joint Chiefs of Staff require that at least one of them be in the Persian Gulf at all times and some crews and equipment need rest and repair time. The Air Force noted that it was already short 2,000 pilots and was cannibalizing planes for spare parts. The Pentagon said it was running out of cruise missiles. The Air Force asked Congress for permission to convert 92 nuclear-tipped cruise missiles into satellite-guided conventional missiles.
Experts early on estimated that it would take 200,000 troops to win a ground war in Kosovo. That turned out not to be deemed necessary, but some 30,000 troops are scheduled to be deployed there with no date for a pullout. They wouldn’t be available should there be a flare-up with North Korea, a confrontation between China and Taiwan, a decision to step up direct military aid to Colombia (the latest policy enthusiasm of drug and other warriors) or a concerted campaign of terrorist attacks.
The shortages at least compared to commitments highlighted by the Kosovo war are not new. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War the US military has been reduced substantially, but not enough that taxpayers have noticed a "peace dividend.” The Navy has 324 ships compared to a Cold War high of 600. It had 15 aircraft carriers in 1991 and one reserve but 12 now not, given rotation schedules and travel times, enough to maintain a permanent presence in the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean and the Pacific as current doctrine would prefer.
The Army says it is short more than 10,000 soldiers, the Air Force is short 1,400 to 2,000 pilots and lost 45 percent of eligible pilots in 1998 compared to 14 percent in 1994, the Navy says it needs 22,000 more sailors than it has. During the Kosovo war the Air Force banned all pilots, navigators and support crews from leaving the service, affecting about 6,000 Air Force personnel who already had approval to retire or leave for civilian jobs.
MILITARY SPENDING DECLINES
These recruiting and retention shortfalls have been matched by reduced spending. Between 1985 and 1996 military budgets declined some 35 percent according to former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and analyst Peter Schweizer in a Hoover Institution report. By 1996 a commitment to a conflict on the scale of the 1990 Gulf War would have taken all of the Army’s ten active divisions, including those deployed in Europe and Korea.
Yet the nation’s strategic doctrine remained and remains what it had become by the end of the Cold War: to be able to fight and win two wars on two fronts virtually simultaneously. As of 1996 the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimated that the cost of meeting administration goals would be 4.5 percent of the gross domestic product but the administration was calling for defense spending that amounted to about 3 percent of GDP.
Repair, maintenance and spare parts problems abound. In 1988 70 percent of Navy ships in US ports were rated in a high state of readiness; in 1998 it was 50 percent. The Army has waived some training requirements because of shortages of ammo, rockets and grenades. Humvee trucks bought in the 1980s were wearing out; only 52 percent of the Marines’ Humvees were in good repair in 1998. The readiness of Air Force fighter squadrons fell from 86 percent in 1992 to 75 percent in 1998 and the accident rate for Navy pilots was climbing, a problem attributed to old equipment and a shortage of experienced pilots.
INTERNATIONAL COMMITMENTS UP
Meanwhile, international commitments have been increasing. The Iraq bombing campaign added $200 to $250 million in short-term operating costs as of 1996 and ties down 5,900 Air Force personnel, many living in tents in the desert, on longer overseas assignments. The Persian Gulf military presence altogether costs taxpayers about $40 billion a year. The Army has deployed 34 times since 1990, more than three times the number of missions it took on during 40 years of the Cold War.
Many of these missions are far removed from traditional military operations. Soldiers in the US Southern Command have been sent to 32 Latin American and Caribbean countries to help catch poachers, work on conservation projects and defend endangered species. The Pentagon budget for nonmilitary operations environmental cleanup, drug interdiction, humanitarian assistance increased from $3.5 billion in 1990 to $10.9 billion in 1995, according to the Congressional Research Service.
In 1997 the administration’s Quadrennial Defense Review predicted that the most serious security problems would be "instabilities” caused by poverty, disease, terrorism, global climate change and the like. Such missions are said to reduce morale because peacekeeping and social missionary deployments require longer work weeks and longer overseas deployments than some thought they were signing up for, at a time when an increasing number of servicepeople are married with families. Not surprisingly, divorce rates among military personnel are on the rise.
WHAT OTHER COUNTRIES SPEND
There’s another context that puts military spending and readiness in a different perspective. In today’s world, arguably much safer (though not without dangers) than during the Cold War, the United States accounts for 40 percent of the world’s military spending. We recently spent (according to a 1996 Cato Institute policy study by Doug Bandow) nine times as much per year as China, four times as much as Russia, and nearly twice as much as France, Germany, Japan and Britain combined. On a per capita basis we spend twice as much on defense as France and Britain, two to three times as much as Germany and Japan, and more than three times as much as South Korea, which lives under active threat from a hostile regime but spends less on its own defense than the United States does.
The US and its allies account for 80 percent of global military spending. Against what realistic military threat is all this spending and manpower deployed?
MORE COMMITMENTS AND DANGERS ANTICIPATED
A White House global strategy for the next century, drafted by the National Security Council and obtained last week by the Washington Times, makes a case for continuing US intervention in a variety of trouble spots and claims the country is facing its biggest espionage threat in history (interestingly enough, without even mentioning the Cox report or mainland China’s recent antics). It also speaks of the threat of attacks by terrorists and "rogue” states using sophisticated biological, chemical or even nuclear weapons.
More missions like those in Haiti, the Balkans and Africa, designed to change the behavior of other nations, are anticipated and endorsed.
"We must be prepared and willing to use all appropriate instruments of national power to influence the actions of other states and non-state actors, to exert global leadership, and to remain the preferred security partner for the community of states that share our interests,” said the NSC report. "In our vision of the world, the United States has close cooperative relations with the world’s most influential countries and has the ability to influence the policies and actions of those who can affect our national well-being.”
That’s in line with the latest Quadrennial Defense Review, done in 1997, which said that without a two-war capability, "our standing as a global power, as the security partner of choice, and as the leader of the international community, would be called into question.”
Those are general goals that don’t offer precise guidelines as to whether the US should get involved in this or that future regional conflict. The significance of the most recent documents is that they show no evidence of anything resembling serious rethinking of the general line that it’s important for the United States to be the dominant political and military power, that the bias is toward interventionism (`to influence the actions of other states”).
There’s little or no cautionary language about the limits of globalism or the necessity to match US goals and resources. Though many have criticized our interventions in Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and elsewhere, the NSC sees them as necessary, almost inevitable consequences of our leadership of the post-Cold War world.
Perhaps most interesting, the report mentions almost no actual military threats and aside from the possibility of small-scale terrorist attacks (which we’ve been warned about for the last 20 years) no real threat to US territory or to civilians who aren’t overseas.
Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of the Kosovo war was its enthusiastic support in certain quarters of "elite” opinion circles precisely because no real US national interest was at stake. Rather than defending something so grubby and selfish as a national interest, we were there to promote the lofty and hopelessly utopian ideal of multiethnic states in a part of the world that has always resisted them. But that was fine. The more abstract and ethereal the goal the better some liked it. Perhaps that made it easier to overlook then fact that the chosen instrument of humanitarian compassion was the cruise missile.
A QUASI-IMPERIAL BURDEN
As Boston University international relations professor Andrew J. Bacevich puts it in the August 9 issue of National Review: "Clinton will bequeath to his successor a nation that has shouldered quasi-imperial burdens. As evidenced most recently by Kosovo, the responsibilities of the `indispensable nation’ entail the frequent and protracted exercise of military power. The United States employs that power not to defend American shores or even to win wars, but to make and keep the peace, enforce norms of behavior, and advance the cause of globalization that will, we are assured, make the world more stable, more peaceful, and more prosperous.”
BRING BACK THE DRAFT?
But the desire to meddle (or intervene benevolently) comes up against the very real problem of declining levels of recruitment and retention in the armed forces. How to assure the means to reach the lofty ends? Various small policy fixes, including better pay, are being proposed and partially implemented. And we are starting to hear nostalgic calls ("remember when we had a common purpose and the shared experience of forced military service throwing people from all classes into the barracks together”) for a return to conscription.
Aside from Northwestern University sociologist Charles Moskos, the intellectual godfather of the notion that forced national service is the essence of citizenship and community, who never misses a chance to promote any mandatory service program of any stripe, hardly anyone says this year that they want a draft. A draft "would be harder to do than in the past, and an unfair one might do more harm than good,” says Army Secretary Louis Caldera. "Only as a last resort,” says Rep. Herbert Bateman, a Virginia Republican who heads the Armed Services readiness subcommittee.
Of course, when a policy wonk says "I’m not for it but we need to think about it,” it usually means "I’d do it in a heartbeat if I thought we could get away with it, and if nobody shoots down this trial balloon look out.” Whether that’s really the attitude of South Carolina Republican Rep. Floyd Spence, Illinois Republican Rep. Steve Buyer, of South Carolina Republican Sen. Strom or of California Republican Rep. Randy "Duke” Cunningham of the San Diego area, all have publicly flirted with the idea of conscription.
OR PHASE OUT THE SELECTIVE SERVICE?
Cunningham has vowed to fight a provision quietly placed in a House appropriations bill that would shut down the Selective Service System, which has been registering 18-year-old males since Jimmy Carter reactivated it in 1979, but hasn’t drafted anyone since 1973. Republican Rep. James Walsh of New York, who heads an Appropriations subcommittee that oversees independent agencies, led the campaign to "zero out” Selective Service, mainly to save the $25 million a year or so the registration system costs. Cunningham promises an amendment to keep the Selective Service in business.
Currently draft registration serves no useful purpose. Registration was intended to generate a large conscript army for a protracted war, such as World War II, when the most recent draft program was begun (conscription is not a long-standing part of the American tradition and a good bit of American history has centered around resistance to standing armies and conscription).
Today’s military, however, requires highly skilled personnel able to operate advanced weaponry. No longer, as Arizona Sen. John McCain has put it, can you "spend six weeks showing a recruit the right end of a gun and send him on his way.” If anything, retention of highly skilled personnel is a more important problem than recruitment, and conscription would do nothing to solve it.
THE REAL VALUE OF VOLUNTEERISM
Few commentators ever mention one of the truly useful aspects of a volunteer military: the reality check it imposes on policy makers with a yen to remake the world. If you can’t raise enough military forces through persuasion and incentives to carry out your policies, maybe it’s time to check whether or not those policies are realistic or desirable.
Hardly anybody wants to look at it that way. Study the literature and news stories on military recruitment and retention problems and you’ll find a lot of discussion of the role of the booming economy in holding down recruits. If a young person can earn more with less danger and hassle in the private sector, many will take that option. And many recruits attracted by a "be all you can be” ad campaign, having received valuable technical and organizational training, take their skill and knowledge into the civilian marketplace rather than re-upping. The administration is responding by improving military pay and benefits and a $268 million TV ad campaign.
You’ll also hear about the increasing gulf between civilian life and military culture and there might be some mention of lower morale due to more extended overseas deployments. Occasionally somebody will note that the current Commander in Chief doesn’t exactly command respect and undying loyalty from military types.
But you’ll almost never hear that young people, including those who joined the military a few years ago, are underwhelmed to disgusted by the kind of missions they are likely to be asked to perform.
SUSPICION ABOUT THE MISSION
If you listen very long to current or recent military personnel and you’ll hear numerous anecdotes about people in the military who can’t wait to get out because they no longer believe in the kinds of missions they’re assigned to.
Ted Carpenter, defense and international relations expert for the libertarian Cato Institute, told me the services do exit interviews when service members decide not to re-enlist. While he knows of no systematic study of these interviews, he says they’re showing an increasing incidence of people who are willing to tell others that they’re getting out because they no longer believe in the mission.
There’s little question that a booming economy and changes in the culture are important factors in the military recruitment and retention problem. But any approach that ignores the strains on morale and pride imposed by imperial overstretch sending would-be warriors on policing, conservation, "nation-building” and social welfare missions with vague objectives and fuzzy timetables will miss what might be the most important reason the military is having trouble attracting recruits.
The military may seem kinder and gentler these days, but it does impose hardships and involve danger. People will endure hardship and danger if they’re proud of what they’re doing. They’re less eager to do so if they’re indifferent or ashamed.
STRIKE BACK AT THE EMPIRE
An intelligent approach to the military recruitment problem should involve a fundamental rethinking of American policy not just tinkering with pay and benefits something that really hasn’t happened since the Soviet Union collapsed. The world has changed in fundamental ways and the potential dangers are different than in the 1980s.
Do we want the United States to be an imperial power, ever ready to put down those who violate current norms of what passes for civilization, to punish ethnic cleansers, to step in to prevent instability or put down insurgents, to mold the rest of the world to fit into the patterns envisioned by US policy elites as molders of the new world order?
Do we really need a military capable of fighting and winning two major regional conflicts simultaneously? Or do we want to have a military devoted to defending the homeland, able to deploy overseas in a real emergency, but with a bias against intervening in the affairs of other countries?
Do we want, in short, a military appropriate to an imperial power or a military appropriate to a free republic? A military appropriate to a free republic could be even smaller than ours is now, but prouder and more focused on beneficial, even noble missions.
Even in an economy more prosperous than what we’re enjoying now and wage earners without stock portfolios can imagine and would welcome such a boom it would have little trouble attracting volunteers with a sense of pride and mission in performing essential duties
MILITARY FORCE LEVELS