Maintaining the All-Volunteer Force Requires Doubling Down on People

War is an inherently human endeavor, as is deterring conflict and maintaining peace. Soldiers play a role in both, and while matériel will always be necessary, investment in those who will execute the combat and support missions is paramount. The Ukrainian military’s inspiring resolve and its Russian adversary’s rampant shortcomings provide poignant reminders of these truths. Future investments should emphasize taking care of people as the antecedent condition to success in any operation. Such efforts are necessary to grow and maintain armies, not to mention sustain in combat. Despite the U.S. Army’s best intentions to do so, it lacks a perfect track record in this area and, in some cases, has failed spectacularly. Learning organizations, however, embrace the opportunity for betterment, and the army needs to continuously improve to remain a viable segment of the all-volunteer force (AVF). This demands concurrent efforts to demonstrate and communicate its value proposition. Indeed, this is a strategic inflection point.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the AVF, which at the time, was a controversial shift from a flawed conscription system in the wake of an unpopular war. Though the United States now maintains arguably the most highly-trained and professional military in the world, some remain skeptical and question its long-term viability. It is also the anniversary of the War Powers Resolution, intended to constrain the use of military force that has risen commensurately with U.S. influence. Deployments limited to a small percentage of the population are but one of the broader system's potential vulnerabilities. It has also been 50 years since the army transitioned to the Total Force Policy, which now relies on an “operational reserve” to meet foreign policy challenges in a way that, while necessary to satisfy contemporary security demands, was unanticipated by the President’s Commission on An All-Volunteer Armed Force led by Thomas Gates (the Gates Commission). This force structure has yet to mobilize the nation for war, as some believed it was designed. It also stresses the reserve component in a way that presents many unique challenges. Of course, the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), the principal driver to generate and educate the army, is also turning 50 and plays an integral role here. This is a significant historical moment, and the confluence of these events require continued, deliberate action from the army to maintain the AVF’s viability in the next 50 years.

The interaction of these historical events implicates the human element of war. Foremost, they feature prominently in the recruiting environment, and a failure to recruit effectively is an existential threat to the AVF. And while the exact reasons that contribute to the current crisis are unclear, uniformed service has become unpopular. According to Department of Defense (DOD) data, among the top reasons cited by young people for not joining is the belief that they will suffer physical harm (68 percent) or psychological harm (62 percent). Public confidence in the military has also declined, though that needs to be couched in a growing lack of confidence in government institutions altogether. Even high military trust has a downside considering the disparity with these other entities. Recruiters recruit in increasingly polarized communities, delicately navigating charged spaces, acknowledging the necessity to avoid partisanship at all costs. These and other factors—some overemphasized—contribute to one of the most challenging recruiting environments in recent history. This requires empathy and humility to recruit and retain future generations. Frankly, it also demonstrates a need to prioritize messaging and actions on quality-of-life efforts to recruit and retain the nation’s best and brightest in a tight labor market.

The widening chasm between the American public and the U.S. Army is also unhealthy beyond the recruiting challenge. Part of the issue is that, on average, people are uninformed about their military (of which the army is the largest component)—a principal finding in Kori Schake and former defense secretary Jim Mattis’s Warriors and Citizens: American Views of Our Military. In their edited volume that leverages YouGov survey data, Rosa Brooks notes the paradox between enthusiasm for the military coupled with ignorance about it, something Benjamin Wittes and Cody Poplin later suggest has repercussions for the use of military force. Jim Golby, Lindsay Cohn, and Peter Feaver describe an underlying resentment toward those who do not serve and a sense of entitlement among some who do. They hypothesize that the sustained mobilization of the reserve component to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan may extend that sentiment beyond active duty. More recent research by Max Margulies and Jessica Blankshain associates familiarity with the military and greater trust. However, this has negative prospects given that familiarity has decreased concurrent with uniformed service becoming a family business—83 percent of soldiers have a relative who served. While these dynamics are a far cry from those in the conscript-dependent force, they are troubling nonetheless and warrant interrogation.

A clear way to mitigate these risks is through dialogue and engagement with Generation Z. Consequently, it is a necessity to reintroduce the U.S. Army to the American public, which is no small challenge and the genesis of the recent rebranding. The army should also go on the offense—continuing to both evolve and tell its story. In addition to increasing basic awareness, this effort should include honest accounts of what drives soldiers to serve—some of whom are running to something and some of whom are running from something – and how they are doing now. Soldiers might describe the satisfaction of belonging to something greater. As U.S. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth recently stated in a Chicago classroom, “People remember people who take risks and try to do something in service of something bigger than themselves.” Soldiers might also explain the opportunity for upward social mobility, such as an accelerated path to citizenship or getting money for school. They might describe the engaged, empathetic, and trained leaders who do everything they can to care for them, from preparing for combat to feeling safe in their work environment—and transparency when they fall short.

An important part of the U.S. Army’s story is its evolution to a more inclusive and highly capable force, almost unrecognizable from its 1973 predecessor. For example, once capped at two percent across all services, women now comprise nearly 16 percent of the active army—and could be a larger share. But even at current levels, the AVF would be a shell without the vital role women play. All jobs are open to women, a legacy of late defense secretary Ash Carter, with no degradation to combat readiness. No doubt their success contributes to prospects for registration into selective service—a notion that remains controversial yet seems increasingly possible. Upward trends in educational attainment, which are slowing for men, suggest that women will remain a vital recruiting population for all ranks. Yet, there remains so much work to do.

This effort requires a relentless emphasis on prevention that was thematic in the findings and recommendations of the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee (FHIRC) in November 2020 and the DOD-led Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military (IRC) in July 2021. Indeed, doubling down on people requires cultural change and a devout commitment to reducing harmful behaviors. Providing soldiers with a safe work environment is a moral imperative. Consequently, doing so would address one of the main reasons why people would not consider joining the military—32 percent fear the possibility of sexual assault or harassment. Extensive efforts are underway to ensure the FHIRC and IRC recommendations have the intended effect. These include, for example, the development of an integrated prevention advisory group (I-PAG), a workforce focused on primary prevention, and a lynchpin in developing prevention systems at echelon. Again, there is much work to do.

Separate but related, the army should continue to emphasize building positive command climates at scale of which there is a nexus with reducing harmful behaviors. Efforts to develop and select the best leaders, from Project Athena to command assessment programs, will continue to mature. It is also piloting command climate-related reforms and institutionalizing others to help units better see themselves. These are among many modernization efforts that it should remain committed to and continuously assess. They are essential to ensuring soldiers can be all they can be.

The AVF means the army should keep soldiers longer than it did with conscription—and unlike in 1973, more than 50 percent of today’s soldiers are married. Over that time, dual-income families have been rising steadily in the United States, but military life is not keeping up. The army sees this acutely in issues of financial well-being. It creates an opportunity to do better, emphasizing housing, childcare development centers, and initiatives to increase opportunities for spousal employment.

Recognizing the centrality of families, Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth issued a directive last April regarding parenthood, pregnancy, and postpartum—so that soldiers could “safely continue their duties, return to readiness, perform critical assignments, and advance in their careers while growing their Families.” Updated parental leave policies better care for these new families. These are necessary efforts and include activities purposively excluded from the Gates Commission. The commission’s focus on monetary incentives is incongruent with today’s recruiting landscape, which senior leaders recognize and is a focus area among thought leaders.

What worked in the past is insufficient to recruit Gen Z, or eventually, their middle school-age successors in Generation Alpha. The U.S. Army should become the employer they want to work for, which requires a better understanding of their needs and how to reach them. A major consideration, according to the Pew Research Center, is that Gen Z is more “racially and ethnically diverse than any previous generation.” These younger generations may be less willing to work in a nondiverse or anti-diverse environment. While the army has been “among the most integrated institutions in American life,” according to former DOD official Brad Carson, these efforts require perpetual attention and consideration as a national security imperative. Diversity that also cultivates openness toward others’ perspectives is necessary to solve complex challenges and fight and win the nation’s wars. However, more than simply diverse teams are needed. As Cohn commented at a recent conference, those diverse teams must also “accept diversity as a strength.”

The army must also influence Gen Z’s influencers, who tend to support but not recommend service. These problems are not new but a permutation of generational dynamics. Bridging that divide is critical to addressing what military personnel expert Kate Kuzminski calls the overlapping circles of eligibility and propensity. Eligibility is trending downward (23 percent), and propensity to serve is low (9 percent). There have been successes in turning those who were non-propended into recruits, but this math problem remains a pressing challenge indicative of a protracted war for talent. The solution does not imply changing standards but rather a clarion call to move away from an industrial-age recruiting process that does not work for digital natives.

Today’s environment has been the most challenging for recruiting compared to the past several decades. The U.S. Army should actively demonstrate and champion its value proposition beyond those locations most favorable to recruiting despite the economic inefficiency. Political analysts might call this growing the base, and in this case, it is no less consequential. Soldiers need to not only tell their stories but reach future generations on their terrain. This includes novel approaches and leveraging social media influencers. This is the genesis of the recent recruiting referral programs. Soldiers who share their army stories now will one day become veterans who also share their experiences. It is incumbent to evolve such that their experiences are transformative. The stakes are high. As scholar Paul Scharre remarked in an Annapolis symposium, “The AVF has become an article of faith, but it has its limits.” Preparation for whatever lies ahead is predicated on its viability.

Colonel Jaron S. Wharton is a military fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

The views expressed do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Army or the Department of Defense.

Jaron S. Wharton

Jaron S. Wharton

Former Military Fellow, International Security Program