TCS Daily


Shut the Window, It's Getting Drafty

By James H. Joyner - March 3, 2005 12:00 AM

Phil Carter and Paul Glastris make "The Case for the Draft" in the current Washington Monthly.

        "America's all-volunteer military simply cannot deploy and sustain enough 
        troops to succeed in places like Iraq while still deterring threats elsewhere 
        in the world. Simply adding more soldiers to the active duty force, as some 
        in Washington are now suggesting, may sound like a good solution. 
        But it's not, for sound operational and pragmatic reasons. America doesn't 
        need a bigger standing army; it needs a deep bench of trained soldiers 
        held in reserve who can be mobilized to handle the unpredictable but inevitable 
        wars and humanitarian interventions of the future. And while there are 
        several ways the all-volunteer force can create some extra surge capacity, 
        all of them are limited."

They warn, "America has a choice. It can be the world's superpower, or it can maintain the current all-volunteer military, but it probably can't do both."

They discuss a series of alternatives to the draft, dismissing them all, including the one that seems most obvious to me, a larger reserve force. With regard to the latter, they note it would be difficult to lure the volunteers necessary and that the country would likely be able to recruit only inferior soldiers during peak economic periods, eroding the quality of the professional military.

Their alternative solution is draconian:

        "[T]he federal government would impose a requirement that no four-year 
        college or university be allowed to accept a student, male or female, 
        unless and until that student had completed a 12-month to two-year term 
        of service. Unlike an old-fashioned draft, this 21st-century service 
        requirement would provide a vital element of personal choice. Students 
        could choose to fulfill their obligations in any of three ways: in national 
        service programs like AmeriCorps (tutoring disadvantaged children), 
        in homeland security assignments (guarding ports), or in the military."

Washington Monthly's resident blogger, Kevin Drum, correctly notes that this is a political non-starter and points out that, even if we had this gigantic surge capacity, the United States still would not have the vast stockpiles of additional equipment needed to field the suddenly-huge force. One could add the leadership cadre and necessary basing and logistical infrastructure to the list.

Even aside from the ethical concerns of forcing people into involuntary servitude during peacetime simply to exercise their right to go to college (and the fact that wealthy parents could send their children to elite schools in Canada, the UK, and elsewhere to bypass the requirement), this solution has some serious military drawbacks.

The calls for universal (traditionally, defined as all able-bodied males) military service have re-emerged periodically throughout our history. The problem, though, is that the premise is flawed, especially in the modern era. Military skills are incredibly perishable. People with minimal training who return to civilian life would quickly become only marginally more valuable as soldiers than those with no training at all.

Given that the deficit Carter and Glastris are trying to correct is a lack of soldiers for peacekeeping duty, the program would need to limit the obligatory service to the Army or Marine Corps, preferably the infantry, military police, and similar specialties in demand for stabilization operations. The draftees would spend a couple weeks in-processing, three or four months going through basic training and the initial entry training for their assigned occupational specialty, perhaps a follow-on course such as Airborne or Ranger school, five to seven months doing menial work in a line unit, a couple weeks out-processing, and then go home. If not required to stay in the active reserves, they would quickly get out of shape, lose proficiency in their basic skills, and become antiquated as new equipment and tactics replace the ones with which they trained.

Let's presume that the follow-on obligation is limited to the remaining seven years of the current eight year obligation that one incurs upon volunteering. That would minimize the degradation in skills and physical fitness somewhat. Still, what will we have gained from this? A pool of people, many of whom have a college education and productive jobs, available for duty as privates first class and lance corporals (the most one can reasonably achieve during a one year tour, by definition without a college education). Even if their skills have not degraded one iota and they are ready for full service on Day 1, all that has been achieved is to have cut off the three to four months it takes to create a private. For this, we wasted billions of dollars training people we may well not need and forcing others to do things they, by definition, would not have done voluntarily. That's a high sacrifice of liberty for a rather small return in security.

Moreover, the dearth the military faces is a sufficiently large pool of people to perform certain critical tasks. We don't merely need boots on the ground but rather people highly trained in urban warfare, counter-insurgency, civil affairs, Arabic, and similar skills critical to peacekeeping and stability operations. We will not get these people through a draft. Instead, we must rebalance the active and reserve forces, putting more of these people in the active force and more of the less-needed armor and artillery forces in the reserve. Further, the active force should be restructured, increasing the size of the Army and Marine Corps and diminishing the size of the Navy and Air Force, which both have substantial excess capacity unlikely to be needed for the missions the country is likely to face.

Finally, the country must seriously re-evaluate how it uses its military. Do we really want to stretch our force so thin with nation-building operations that we have to consider conscription? If critical warfighting missions require the redeployment of our forces from less critical duties, so be it.

James H. Joyner, Jr., Ph.D. is Managing Editor of Strategic Insights, the journal of the Naval Postgraduate School. He writes about national security policy at the Outside the Beltway weblog. He is a frequent TCS contributor.

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