Saturday, February 04, 2006

Our All-Volunteer Army

NOTE: Written Saturday evening but not posted until Sunday afternoon because Blogger was doing "system enhancements."

I was too busy last week with work and various other obligations to blog about the Army's decision last week to stop-loss 50,000 soldiers and reservists back into active duty; but I do think it's important -- particularly in the context of the conclusions reached by a Pentagon-commissioned study that came out less than a week earlier.

Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer who wrote the report under a Pentagon contract, concluded that the Army cannot sustain the pace of troop deployments to Iraq long enough to break the back of the insurgency. He also suggested that the Pentagon's decision, announced in December, to begin reducing the force in Iraq this year was driven in part by a realization that the Army was overextended.

Krepinevich called the Army a "'thin green line' that could snap unless relief comes soon."

Donald Rumsfeld immediately denounced the report's conclusions, plus those of a second report prepared by Democrats in Congress that said the Army's size needed to be increased and outworn equipment needed to be replaced:

Rumsfeld insisted the current levels of deployment are sustainable for as long as the Bush administration thinks action is needed in the two countries.

For one thing, he said, the army is "battle-hardened" and well trained, unlike a peacetime force that has seen no action in recent years.
[He also said] that retention of troops is up, and said higher enlistment and re-enlistment bonuses have let the army meet its monthly recruiting targets for several months in a row.

Right -- and if Rumsfeld sees fatter bribes as the best way to persuade young men and women to enlist, then there is reason for cheer. To me, the very fact that potential recruits need bigger cash incentives to convince them to sign up is an indication that the Army has a major problem.

Not to mention that even higher enlistment bonuses are not enough to meet recruitment goals. Lately the military has been using waivers to recruit individuals with criminal records that normally would bar them from service.

...According to statistics provided to Salon by the office of the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, the Army said that 17 percent (21,880 new soldiers) of its 2005 recruits were admitted under waivers. Put another way, more soldiers than are in an entire infantry division entered the Army in 2005 without meeting normal standards. This use of waivers represents a 42 percent increase since the pre-Iraq year of 2000. (All annual figures used in this article are based on the government's fiscal year, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30. So fiscal year 2006 began Oct. 1, 2005.)

In fact, even the already high rate of 17 percent underestimates the use of waivers, as the Pentagon combined the Army's figures with the lower ones for reserve forces to dilute the apparent percentage. Equally significant is the Army's currently liberal use of "moral waivers," which are issued to recruits who have committed what are loosely defined as criminal offenses. Officially, the Pentagon states that most waivers issued on moral grounds are for minor infractions like traffic tickets. Yet documents obtained by Salon show that many of the offenses are more serious and include drunken driving and domestic abuse.

Last year, 37 percent of the Army's waivers (about 8,000 soldiers) were based on moral grounds. Like waivers as a whole, these waivers are proliferating -- they're 32 percent higher than in the prewar year of 2000. As a result, the odds are going up that the soldiers fighting and taking the casualties in Iraq entered the Army with a criminal record.

This is not the end of it. The Salon article notes that the military has lowered its enlistment requirements in other ways: High school dropouts are now finding it much easier to get in; the upper age limit for new enlistees has been raised from 35 to 39, and the Army has announced plans to significantly lower the standards for admitting people who score near the bottom of a military aptitude test.

Fred Kaplan at Slate also wrote about this:

Three months ago, I wrote that the war in Iraq was wrecking the U.S. Army, and since then the evidence has only mounted, steeply. Faced with repeated failures to meet its recruitment targets, the Army has had to lower its standards dramatically. First it relaxed restrictions against high-school drop-outs. Then it started letting in more applicants who score in the lowest third on the armed forces aptitude test—a group, known as Category IV recruits, who have been kept to exceedingly small numbers, as a matter of firm policy, for the past 20 years. (There is also a Category V—those who score in the lowest 10th percentile. They have always been ineligible for service in the armed forces and, presumably, always will be.)

The bad news is twofold. First, the number of Category IV recruits is starting to skyrocket. Second, a new study compellingly demonstrates that, in all realms of military activity, intelligence does matter. Smarter soldiers and units perform their tasks better; dumber ones do theirs worse.

Until just last year, the Army had no trouble attracting recruits and therefore no need to dip into the dregs. As late as 2004, fully 92 percent of new Army recruits had graduated high school and just 0.6 percent scored Category IV on the military aptitude test.

And Rumsfeld's claims about retention notwithstanding, the military is having such trouble keeping its officers that it's starting to hand out promotions to any soldier who "hasn't been court-martialed," according to a "high-ranking Army officer at the Pentagon" who was interviewed for an LA Times article on the rising promotion rate.

Last year, the Army promoted 97% of all eligible captains to the rank of major, Pentagon data show. That was up from a historical average of 70% to 80%.

Traditionally, the Army has used the step to major as a winnowing point to push lower-performing soldiers out of the military.

The service also promoted 86% of eligible majors to the rank of lieutenant colonel in 2005, up from the historical average of 65% to 75%.

The higher rates of promotion are part of efforts to fill new slots created by an Army reorganization and to compensate for officers who are resigning from the service, many after multiple rotations to Iraq.

The promotion rates "are much higher than they have been in the past because we need more officers than we did before," said Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, an Army spokesman.

The Army has long taken pride in the competitiveness of its promotions, and insists that only officers that meet rigorous standards are elevated through its ranks.

But the recent trends in promotions have stirred concerns that the Army is being forced to lower its standards to provide leaders for combat units that will be deployed overseas.

"The problem here is that you're not knocking off the bottom 20%," said a high-ranking Army officer at the Pentagon. "Basically, if you haven't been court-martialed, you're going to be promoted to major."

Now let's take another look at those 50,000 Army reservists being pressed back into active duty under the Army's stop-loss program. The Army insists it has to do with the need for experienced soldiers:

The military argues that it is a necessary step to preserve the cohesive nature of a unit, especially one ready to fight, and courts have backed the military so far in any challenges against the policy. But critics say it is just another illustration of how stretched out the US Army and reserves have become, and that could undercut increased effort to attract new recruits.

It would seem obvious that if you have to force former soldiers to return to active duty, they're not really "volunteers" in any meaningful sense of that word. Army recruiters do not tell potential enlistees that their service could be involuntarily extended, and although it may be in the contract enlistees sign, they are certainly not encouraged to read the fine print.

Nevertheless, last Thursday a federal judge rejected two soldiers' claims that they were not told about the stop-loss program when they signed up, basically taking the position that they knew what they were getting into and were not deceived by their recruiters.

James Joyner at Outside the Beltway writes that stop-loss is unfortunate but necessary, and not deceptive because every enlistee knows he or she is signing up for eight years of service, even if they choose two or three or four years as their period of active duty:

While soldiers enlist for periods of two, three, or four years of active duty, all thereby commit to eight years of total service. During ordinary circumstances, those remaining years can be served in the Reserve Component, including the non-drilling Individual Ready Reserve. While unfortunate, forcing those who still have several years' obligation to stay on active duty is not "a back-door draft."

Well, maybe, but then why do Army recruiters downplay the program, usually not mentioning it at all, and even giving enlistees the impression that they will be through with their active duty obligation after the time period they sign up for?

Certainly we all can agree that it's not what a salesperson would consider a great selling point, and you wouldn't want to draw the attention of someone you're trying to recruit to the fact that they could be called back to combat duty after they've completed the active duty they signed up for.

Even more to the point, if Army recruitment and retention goals continue to head south, and the military comes to rely more and more on stop-loss to fight wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, it does begin to look less like an all-volunteer army.

"As the war in Iraq drags on, the Army is accumulating a collection of problems that cumulatively could call into question the viability of an all-volunteer force," said defense analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute think tank.

"When a service has to repeatedly resort to compelling the retention of people who want to leave, you're edging away from the whole notion of volunteerism."

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