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Nation: Who’ll Fight for America?

21 minute read

Manpower problems are undermining U.S. military might

It could have been an occasion for pure celebration: a mighty warship sailing into port on Memorial Day after an exhausting mission showing the nation’s flag in distant seas. Yet the joyful welcome was clouded by a growing concern. For all of its sophisticated weaponry, America is facing a shortage of the most valuable military resource of all: manpower. The return of the U.S.S. Nimitz made the point symbolically, and President Carter made it directly as he stood on the nuclear carrier’s gigantic flight deck and praised its crew.

There was, of course, exuberance aplenty. Flags were flying and horns blasting as 1,000 vessels—tugs and schooners, runabouts and yachts, skiffs and even a Chinese junk—jammed Norfolk harbor. Pier 12 was packed tight as an estimated 15,000 friends and relatives shouted, waved their hands and flourished banners. Proclaimed one: WELCOME BACK TO THE KNOWN WORLD. Another: HEY! BIG DADDY. A smiling woman sported a T shirt emblazoned: WELCOME HOME STEVE.

The Nimitz was back at last after a nine-month cruise, including 144 consecutive days at sea, most of them spent on patrol in the Indian Ocean. The ill-fated Sea Stallion helicopters had taken off from her flight deck on their attempt to rescue the 53 American hostages from their captors in Iran. Not since World War II had any U.S. warship been at sea so long.

But the excitement of the homecoming could not mask the fatigue of the 5,500 men on the Nimitz and the 934 on its two guided-missile cruiser escorts, the California and the Texas. The patrol had been an extraordinarily arduous and lonely duty. In his talk, Carter thanked the crew for projecting “the presence of the U.S. Government and its military forces at a time . . . crucial to the maintenance of peace.” He then took the occasion for an announcement that implicitly acknowledged that the services of the carrier’s crew and similar American forces deserved better recognition from the nation. He declared his support of a bill before Congress that would give military personnel benefits amounting to $3.5 billion over the next five years; heretofore the President had feared that the proposal, if approved, would jeopardize his chances of balancing the budget. But on the Nimitz, the onetime submariner and lieutenant commander roused cheers by declaring that he now favored the congressional measure because he believed that “a career in the military should be as rewarding personally for those who serve as a career in any pursuit.”

Today, however, a career in the armed forces is not attracting enough talented Americans. The Pentagon is handicapped by shortages of sufficiently skilled and disciplined personnel in all ranks. A House Armed Services Committee report this spring charged that the U.S. now fields “a force with deficient military credibility.” And Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman David C. Jones admits that “our No. 1 readiness problem is people, the availability of trained people.” These views were echoed strongly at a TIME seminar on the alarming status of American military manpower (see following story).

A major cause of the nation’s manpower problems, according to analysts in and out of uniform, is the all-volunteer force (AVF). When the AVF officially replaced the draft seven years ago this month, it was widely assumed that the new system would be better than the old. G.I.s who voluntarily signed up, it was argued, would surely be more motivated than draftees; this would naturally lead to higher morale and more re-enlistments. These and other assumptions now seem to have been much too optimistic. Said the House report: “Overall, the continued viability of the AVF remains seriously in question.”

The problem is not raw numbers. At the end of March, the midpoint in fiscal 1980, the four services had 2,032,000 men and women volunteers in uniform, 96% of the Pentagon’s objective. Even more encouraging have been the recruiting results for the first half of the fiscal year; the Pentagon achieved 99% of its goals, compared with 91% last year.

But there is a good though hardly reassuring reason for this sudden upswing: the economy’s downturn. Said Assistant Secretary of Defense Robert Pirie Jr. at TIME’s seminar: “There is no question about the fact that the growing unemployment helps recruiting.” Another senior Pentagon official put it less delicately: “If the economy goes to hell, we could be in fat city.”

Though the Pentagon is filling its quota of numbers in the ranks, there is a broad consensus in Congress and the Pentagon that the members of today’s armed forces do not match those of the days before the volunteer force. The education level of recruits has been dropping as the services strain to meet recruiting quotas. While 68% of the enlistees without prior military service had high school diplomas in the first half of fiscal 1979, this year only 58% do. Although some combat officers argue persuasively that a ninth-grade dropout may still make a good soldier, top military leaders today yearn to get better educated recruits. Said Army Deputy Chief of Staff Glenn Otis to the TIME panel: “We would like to have more high school grads. They have a better understanding of life and what they’re about. They’re better prepared to take on a wider variety of tasks and this gives us more flexibility in their assignments.”

The share of servicemen with some college experience who have enlisted in the Army has taken a shocking drop: from 13.9% in 1964 to 3.2% last year. There is also a drastic decrease in what are called category I recruits, those scoring highest on aptitude tests given to enlistees. Meanwhile, relatively large numbers of category IVs, the lowest level the military will accept, appear to be signing up. Fully 34% of the Army’s enlistees leave before their first three-year term is up; the Army shucks off those who seem totally unsuitable.

Says an MP at Fort Benning, Ga.: “I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘How do I get back to my unit?’ I ask, ‘What’s your unit?’ And then they answer that they don’t know. So I ask them what their orders say. They reply, ‘I can’t read my orders. All I know is that my unit is in a big, white building.’ ” This drop in aptitude and educational level is taking place at a time when weaponry is becoming substantially more sophisticated. Example: the modern Black Hawk helicopter has 257 knobs and switches, 135 circuit breakers, 62 displays and 11.7 sq. ft. of instruments and controls. The Army estimates that 13% of its enlisted force must be trained in electronics in order to keep the service running; this is double 1974’s requirement. Says a Navy commander at San Diego: “There is no need any more for the so-called able-bodied seaman. What we need is technicians.” At some Air Force bases, officers hint that they prefer not to fly the older cargo planes. Reason: they question the ability of new recruits to maintain such aging aircraft.

The AVF is causing other problems: the services are growing dramatically unrepresentative of the nation. Blacks make up about 15% of the U.S. youth population, but in the first half of fiscal 1980, they accounted for 21% of AVF enlistees —29% in the Army, 21% Marines, 16% Air Force and 13% Navy. By contrast, in 1964 blacks amounted to 10.7% of those putting on uniforms.

A number of military experts argue that while it is true that peacetime service offers to minorities opportunities for educational and social advancement, these advantages fade quickly during a war. The high number of blacks in uni form would inevitably result, as was the case during the Viet Nam fighting, in a disproportionate number of black fatalities. Said University of Chicago Sociologist Morris Janowitz at the TIME seminar: “We must not be dependent upon the dispossessed of this society. And we don’t want to mix up the concept of military service with the question of giving people an opportunity for a decent education.”

Probably more important than the AVF’S problems of attracting sufficient high-quality recruits is the difficulty in retaining them. In previous years, sergeants and petty officers with eight to twelve years of service would almost certainly have stayed until becoming eligible for their 20-year pensions. Today both whites and blacks are quitting at an unexpected rate, although proportionately more whites are leaving because of better job opportunities on the outside. Some highly skilled officers are also leaving. Examples:

> To maintain its strength, the Air Force figures that it must retain 59 of every 100 pilots and 54 of every 100 navigators after twelve years of service. Today only 27 pilots and 40 navigators per 100 trained are still in uniform at the end of this period. The airlines are hiring 2,000 pilots a year, most of them right out of military cockpits. The Air Force estimates that a pilot with twelve years of experience has received pay, allowances and training worth roughly $4 million. “Trying to replace that experience is not only very expensive, but it takes time,” says Major General William Reed Usher, director of the Air Force’s personnel plans. “You end up with a more junior, less ready force.” Says Colonel Bradfield Eliot at Norton Air Force Base in California: “We are so short of pilots that we are putting staff people back into the cockpit and making aircraft commanders out of people after only two or three years of training. We are using flight engineers who six months ago were cooks or bakers. The well is dry.”

> Army guidelines call for retaining about 38 of every 100 soldiers with four years’ service for at least six more years; only 30 of the 100 now stay in uniform that long. The shortfall is particularly serious among technicians, weapons specialists and drill sergeants. At Fort Benning, for example, much of today’s training is done by drill corporals (and even acting drill corporals); these are recruits who have just completed their own basic training.

> The Navy’s problem may be the most severe of all: it is short 21,000 experienced petty officers. In particular, the Navy needs good men for key supervisory jobs, such as boiler technician, machinist’s mate and aviation bosun’s mate. Notes a senior Navy official: “We’re hurting for the kind of people we need most: aviators and nuclear-trained officers. They’re bright and have had rigorous training. The civilian nuclear industry just gobbles them up, along with other engineering types, as fast as we can manufacture them.” Example: last year the Navy had 138 nuclear-qualified petty officers with ten to 13 years of service who were eligible for reenlistment; only 36 are in uniform today. The Navy is 35% short of its needs for pilots with the rank of lieutenant; by 1982 it expects to be 46% short.

Experienced officers and NCOS are quitting for a number of reasons. Reports TIME Pentagon Correspondent Don Sider: “Many are dissatisfied with the quality of the troops they are getting and of the training they are able to give. They feel they spend too few hours in the cockpit or fire too few artillery practice rounds or take their recruits too few miles on marches. In addition, the professional military man’s morale has suffered because of prolonged separations from family. The 144-day Indian Ocean patrol by the Nimitz is but an extreme example of what is happening more and more.”

With one-third of the Army’s G.I.s now based in Western Europe and East Asia, Army families also suffer from separation. At one time, living abroad was an affordable adventure, but the decline of the dollar has turned it into an economic nightmare. Says Lieut. Colonel Paul McCarthy, an Army personnel specialist at the Pentagon: “Repetitive overseas tours play havoc with marriage and family life.”

But most personnel are quitting the armed forces for the most simple and obvious of reasons. Joint Chiefs Chairman Jones says it: “The fundamental issue is compensation.” When trained people leave, adds Jones, the process “creates other problems. You get into a vicious circle. You lose people and then you have to move the rest more often or you have to keep them deployed more.”

The volunteer force concept was designed to compete, by and large, with civilian salaries. But since 1972, when the armed forces received their last major pay boost, comparative earnings have been sliding. Pentagon experts calculate that the average military income, when adjusted for inflation, is about 11% below what it was in 1972. For many first-term enlistees who make only their $448.80 a month basic pay, hourly earnings are substantially less than the $3.10 federal minimum wage. Says Major General William P. Acker, Commander of the Air Force Military Training Center at Lackland in Texas: “A good, sharp youngster can do better working at McDonald’s.”

Bitterness over low pay was stressed in a cable sent to his superiors in early May by Captain R.R. Owens, skipper of the Texas, which came home last week with the Nimitz. Said Owens: “While we have been able to cheerfully handle the arduous shipboard conditions, we rebel against our inability to provide our families back home with sufficient funds to provide for their wellbeing. It is very hard for a commanding officer to recommend to his men that they apply for food stamps or other welfare and at the same time ask them to be ready to fight.”

Former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird estimates that at least 100,000—and perhaps as many as 250,000—military families could be eligible for welfare. Says Colonel Eliot: “When 16% of the Air Force can qualify for food stamps, patriotism doesn’t make it as a motivator.” Military base commissaries are taking in over $10 million annually in food stamps. Complains a paratroop sergeant in Alaska: “If the Government can give me $71 a month in food stamps, why can’t it give it to me in salary?”

Air Force statistics show that an astonishing 86% of enlisted personnel and 51% of officers moonlight at civilian jobs or have spouses who work. Typical is Sergeant Joe McCrary, a 24-year-old marksmanship instructor at Lackland Air Force Base. During most of his six years in the Air Force he has held second jobs; his latest was bartending in a VFW hall.

What is especially demoralizing to the military is that while real earnings have been falling, much of the civilian work force has been enjoying modest raises. Between 1972 and the end of 1978, real earnings jumped 12% for a blue-collar federal employee and 6.3% for unionized labor in American industry. Thus the disparity has widened between comparable military and civilian pay. Says Master Sergeant Jessie Snodgrass, who is in charge of a C-141 air transport maintenance crew at Norton Air Force Base: “I am losing two men a month. The pay is unfair. The civilians here are paid $9.30 an hour and do exactly the same job as my men who get about $2.30.” Other sample disparities: a mid-career NCO earns about $14,500 annually; if he is a computer programmer, he could make $23,000 working for a civilian employer. A Navy captain earns $43,198, including allowances for food and quarters; but a Merchant Marine Master, with his customary overtime, can make $66,450.

The military, of course, enjoys indirect financial benefits: free medical care (though it is not always readily available and not always first-class); cut-rate prices for food and other items at commissaries and a pension that provides half-pay after 20 years in uniform and three-fourths of base pay after 30 years. But with galloping inflation, these fringes no longer offset low wages. Then, too, most civilian jobs also have attractive fringe benefits.

Measures to resolve the nation’s military manpower problems will be costly and complex. Not only must they deal with the matter of recruiting high-quality first-termers but also with retaining experienced NCOS and officers. If anything, demographic analyses indicate that recruiting could become more difficult. In 1978 some 2.14 million American males reached age 18. This year, the figure will decline to 2.13 million, and by 1992 it will fall to 1.61 million. Not until this century’s final year will the 18-year-old male cohort rise to 1.9 million. Recruiting more women will compensate for part of the drop in available males, but some experts caution that the quality of female recruits may also go down as the numbers rise. Women currently account for 7.4% of the armed services, up from 3.5% in 1974. The Pentagon estimates that by mid-decade women will make up about 11 % of the enlisted force.

To get better people, the Pentagon has added recruiters and increased its advertising, measures that have pushed this year’s recruiting budget to $614 million, about $100 million above the 1979 level. The Army has even mobilized its 275 U.S.-based generals. They have been speaking at high schools, calling on local government officials to ask their support for the AVF (one way: by making student rolls available to recruiters) and paying surprise visits to recruiting stations.

Pressing recruiting sergeants to achieve higher quotas is one technique the Pentagon is not considering. Such pressure was behind last year’s scandals. To meet their quotas, recruiters helped volunteers cheat on their aptitude tests and enlistment applications.

One proposed solution to the manpower problem is to attempt to attract bright, college-bound enlistees by restoring some of the generous educational benefits of the old G.I. Bill. Several versions of such a measure are now before Congress. Army Chief of Staff Edward C. Meyer argues that such benefits should be transferable to the children of those now serving in the AVF. General Meyer believes this would induce many experienced NCOS and officers who were family men to stay in uniform.

But a substantial pay raise would help the volunteer force the most. Says Meyer: “Professional soldiers remain professional soldiers for reasons profoundly more complicated than wage scales. But the youngster who is searching, and must justify his choice to his peers with some rationale, cannot ignore the tales of hardship relayed to him by present and former service members.” Says Dr. AJ. Martin, a Pentagon manpower specialist: “The most patriotic guy in the world has to feed his family.”

According to a 1979 Pentagon study, it would take about $5.5 billion in pay hikes right now to “reestablish the relative positions which existed at the end of 1971 between the military and the civilian power to purchase goods and services.” The raise endorsed by Carter last week is not that ambitious. Sponsored in the Senate by Georgia Democrat Sam Nunn and Virginia Republican John Warner, the proposal would provide a relatively modest $3.5 billion over five years to alleviate some of the AVF’S most serious problems, although it would not give everyone a raise across the board. To retain pilots, for example, flight pay, which currently ranges from 5100 to $245 extra per month, would be increased 25%; to compensate sailors for the hardship of lengthy family separations, the monthly sea pay supplement of $25 to $55 would be boosted 15%. Among its other features, the bill would increase the 100-a-mile travel allowance payments to 18.50 for personnel transferred to new posts, and the basic $15,000 bonus ceiling for re-enlisting for three years would be hiked to $20,000. The Nunn-Warner bill is given an excellent chance of being passed by Congress, which all too often in the past has preferred to spend money on flashy weaponry —with the constituent-pleasing defense contracts that go with the hardware expenditures—rather than on manpower.

If Congress is willing to prescribe ambitious remedies, most experts generally believe that the AVF is salvageable. But General Meyer warned a House Armed Services subcommittee last week that without “an adequately resourced all-volunteer force,” it might become necessary “to go to the draft.” Nearly all America’s allies depend on conscription, a system that would have several advantages for the U.S. For one thing, the Pentagon’s raw manpower supply would be assured. For another, U.S. history has shown that the very existence of the draft has produced more high-quality volunteers for all of the services. A draft would also cut basic personnel costs; privates would be paid salaries comparable to the $288 per month that previous draftees received instead of the markedly higher wages of today’s volunteer.

Reviving the draft would also spur young men, anxious to avoid full-time duty, to join the reserves and thus solve one of the military’s major problems. Today’s Army reserves are some 370,000 below their mandated peacetime levels. This is especially troubling because the main justification for the reduction of the Army’s active-duty strength from 801,000 in 1973, when the AVF was started, to its present level of 766,000 was that the reserves would be able to fill the ranks on short notice with combat-ready units and individuals.

Finally, bringing back the draft would signal to the world that the U.S. is ready to do what is necessary to maintain its military might (see ESSAY). This was a point implicitly made by West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt after visiting the U.S. in March. Said he: “There’s a difference between a country that has a military service obligation . . . and a country which has abolished the draft.”

But there are equally strong arguments against restoring conscription—at least until other remedies for the volunteer force are given a chance. The draft would do nothing to help the Pentagon retain those experienced commissioned officers and noncoms whose skills are in demand in the civilian economy. Nor would conscription necessarily make the socioeconomic, racial and mental aptitude composition of the military more representative of the U.S. population than is the case under the volunteer force. Reason: if men and women continue volunteering at the current rate—and being accepted at the current quality—and the armed forces remain at their present size, it might only be necessary to draft about 10,000 to 20,000 each year. Such a tiny influx would scarcely change the armed forces’ character. Said Pirie at the TIME seminar: “Presumably you would take volunteers first and draft only for the shortfall. But if you want to change the mix of the forces the question is: “Where do you cut off the volunteers and on what basis do you discriminate against those volunteers in favor of taking conscripts?”

Reviving the draft, moreover, would certainly trigger widespread opposition. Even Jimmy Carter’s modest and sound proposal to register 18-year-olds for potential, though certainly not imminent, military service set off college demonstrations. Few politicians would risk supporting a draft today, and even if there were political support the draft debate could divide the nation and thus weaken its military credibility and determination in the eyes of the world. This would undermine one of the goals that restoring the draft was intended to achieve.

A beguiling and less radical proposal than conscription for the active armed forces would be to draft only for the reserves. At the TIME seminar, Senator Nunn suggested “a flexible system of drafting for the reserves in which youngsters would be eligible from ages 18 through 25 and would serve for six months at a time generally convenient for them.”

Assistant Secretary of Defense Pirie observed that this would produce “people who had basic training but had not served in units. So you would have a kind of minimum military capability in them.” Whether six months is adequate to train soldiers to handle today’s sophisticated weaponry is doubtful. At present Congress is not considering any measures for drafting into the reserves.

What Congress is likely to do is appropriate the $13.3 million the White House seeks for the staffs and computers needed to register the nation’s 18-year-olds, which has not been done since 1975. The Senate is expected to consider the question this week. Says Air Force Major General Acker: “At the very least, some form of registration is necessary to provide a ready pool of people to call on if needed.” In addition, according to Major General Maxwell Thurman, head of the Army’s recruiting command, registration “will heighten the 18-year-old’s awareness of the Army.”

But as long as recruitment rather than conscription remains the nation’s preferred manner of filling its military ranks, the means—and the money—are going to have to be found to attract higher-quality enlistees and to retain them in sufficient numbers. Says Sociologist Janowitz: “The volunteer force in its expanded form is a unique institution in American history. We have never run a force like we have now.” The challenge is to keep it running in a way that assures the nation’s security.

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