Former SECDEF: America's All-Volunteer Military Is 'Slowly Dying'

Former SECDEF: America's All-Volunteer Military Is 'Slowly Dying'

America has a huge national security problem at a time when the world has become infinitely more dangerous, and a former secretary of defense is sounding the alarm.

Dr. Mark Esper, who served under then-President Donald Trump, noted in an op-ed published at on Monday, that the country’s all-volunteer military is “slowly dying” due to a number of societal factors.

“In the five decades since conscription ended, the AVF [All-Volunteer Force] produced the high-quality force it promised. In conflict after conflict, the more-experienced, better-motivated, and professional U.S. troops dominated the battlefield,” he began.

“Today, however, the armed services are struggling to meet their recruiting goals like rarely before. The Army is the most affected, projected to fall short by up to 15,000 soldiers, with a larger deficit expected next year. Experts point to a variety of reasons, such as insufficient pay and benefits, a difficult work-life environment, ‘culture war’ issues, COVID-19, and a strong job market,” Esper continued. “Even if each were ‘fixed,’ the core issues driving the AVF’s decline still won’t be reversed. ”

The former SECDEF noted that the biggest problem facing military recruitment is the shrinking pool of eligible young Americans in the 17-24-year-old range. Esper said that when he was serving as the country’s highest civilian military official in 2018, 71 percent of the then-34 million young people in the age group were unable to meet the military’s entrance requirements mostly due to “obesity, drug use, physical and mental health problems, and criminal misconduct.”

Now, the number is even higher, he said. Worse, of the 23 percent in that age group that otherwise qualifies for service, another 10 percent don’t meet the U.S. military’s basic academic standards, a reflection of our poor education system (thanks to the left-wing Democrats who have long controlled public education).

“Worse, of the 3.5 million young Americans remaining, only 9% (~320,000) have a proclivity to serve. A nation of 332 million people should do better than that,” he added.

He added:

The numbers are all heading in the wrong direction, driven by broader cultural and lifestyle trends and a population unfamiliar with the less than 1% of the U.S. population in uniform that protects them. When the draft ended in 1973, most young people had a family connection to the armed forces who could explain military life and encourage service to country; today that number is far lower.

Major reductions in the size of the U.S. military and in the number of bases across the country after the Cold War’s end contributed to this problem. A “knowledge gap” has grown over time due to civilians’ lack of interaction with those in uniform. This has led to an “identity gap” that inhibits many from considering a stint in the armed forces.

It’s no mystery why a military caste has developed in America, with nearly 80% of today’s service members having a family member that served. All of this affects a broader set of civil-military relations with which the nation is wrestling.  

Worse, he says that actions currently being taken by Congress and the Pentagon are only addressing these mounting issues “at the margins.” However, failing to get serious about the problems has become a national security concern of the highest magnitude.

Esper recommended establishing a bipartisan commission of experts to make recommendations, much like then-President Richard Nixon did in 1969 when he decided to end conscription during the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War.

“[T]he commission should look at ways to improve the health and fitness of America’s youth, review and update eligibility requirements, expand JROTC nationally, create new ways for civilians to interact with their military brethren, eliminate misconceptions about military life, and ensure recruiters unfettered access to high schools across America. Meanwhile, the Pentagon must steer away from lowering standards, reducing the size of the military, or creating hollow combat formations. We must field the force we need to win our nation’s wars, not take shortcuts,” Esper wrote.

He also recommended that the military turn to entertainment figures and other social influencers to hype military service.

“A message along the lines of ‘be healthy, keep fit, avoid trouble, and consider serving your country in uniform’ would be a solid start,” he said, adding that any solutions will “take years to bear fruit” while also dismissing a return to conscripted service as a solution.


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