The All-Volunteer Army After Twenty Years: Recruiting in the Modern Era

by Thomas W. Evans

[Excerpted from Army History: The Professional Bulletin of Army History, No. 27 (Summer 1993), pp. 40-46]

1 July 1993 was the twentieth anniversary of the all-volunteer Army. In the early 1970s, many doubted that the Army could survive a transition from a conscripted to an all-volunteer force. The passage was painful at times, but that Army did succeed. As the Army once again faces a period of drastic change, the following article is particularly relevant. It is adapted from a paper by Mr. Thomas W. Evans, formerly with the Headquarters, U.S. Army Recruiting Command, Fort Knox, Kentucky. Mr. S. Douglas Smith, public affairs officer with that command, submitted his paper to Army History.

The modem era of recruiting originated with Richard M. Nixon's 1968 political campaign promise to end the draft. It was shaped in 1970 by the Gates Commission Report, which charted a course for maintaining military strength without conscription. Over the next three years the Army's end strength dropped from 1.3 million to about 780,000-a level that prevailed throughout the 1970s-1980s. The Army raised entry-level military pay to attract the new level of recruits. In spring 1971 national media advertising began with a television campaign. The recruiting forces were augmented as Project VOLAR, a somewhat controversial experiment in improving the soldier's quality of life, was initiated.

These specific actions were part of the Modern Volunteer Army (MVA) Program, designed to strengthen professionalism, enhance Army life, and develop a modem accession system. These actions proceeded on a timetable geared to Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird's decision that all-volunteer recruiting should begin on 1 July 1973.

The last man was drafted in December 1972 and reported for training in June 1973. Over 180,000 young men and women enlisted in each of fiscal years 1973, 1974, and 1975, exceeding the U.S. Army Recruiting Command's non-prior service missions. At first the MVA Program seemed successful, but recruiting difficulties in subsequent years changed that perception sharply. The reasons for ending conscription and the controversies surrounding this action, e.g., the quality, representativeness, and motivation of volunteer soldiers, continue to be relevant because they involve ongoing public policy issues. The difficulties faced by the United States Army Recruiting Command in the late 1970s and the steps needed to overcome them serve as lessons for a future in which the Army must succeed in its mission, despite conditions of undoubtedly greater austerity.

The Gates Commission

The Gates Commission, appointed in 1969 by President Nixon, was chaired by Thomas Gates, Executive Committee Chairman of the Morgan Guaranty Trust Company and a former Secretary of Defense. Its membership included other distinguished businessmen, former military leaders Maj. Gen. Alfred Gruenther and Lt. Gen. Lauris Norstad, and a university president, W. Allen Wallis. Distinguished-and influential-scholars included the economist Milton Friedman, who had earlier advocated the application of economic market forces to military man-power acquisition and retention policy. Roy Wilkins, Executive Director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was a member, as was Georgetown University law student Steven Herbits. The diversified composition of the commission clearly was intended to generate assurance that the popular political decision to end the draft was reasonably based.

The commission was tasked to "develop a comprehensive plan for eliminating conscription and moving to an all-volunteer force." It did so by assembling a staff of economists and manpower analysts who studied military manpower needs and how they could be met through volunteers. They concluded that a 2.5 million person force could be maintained through voluntary service if: 1) monthly compensation for enlistees was raised from $301 to $437, 2) there were comprehensive improvements in the conditions of military service, and 3) the recruiting effort was improved and augmented.

The commission also recommended establishment of a standby draft system, a recommendation which was not carried out, although draft registration was enacted for other reasons in 1980.

The argument for higher pay was based more on empirical knowledge of what size increase was needed to attract the necessary number of recruits than on the underlying issue of fairness. A main theme of the Gates Commission Report was that conscription imposed a large, implicit (hidden) tax not only on those who were drafted, but also on those who were coerced to enlist because of the threat of being drafted. The report argued that military pay had to be raised, at least to parity with civilian pay, to mitigate the size of this hidden tax placed on a minority of youths who were called to serve the nation. Presumably, the problem was not that eighteen year-olds were being taxed, but that it was a tax not all eighteen year-olds had to pay. The "selective" part of Selective Service is what had led to its downfall.

In conducting and presenting its recommendations, the commission also developed a theoretical case for the increased cost effectiveness of a professional force. Total manpower requirements would be lower as three- to six-year enlistments replaced two-year draft stints. Fewer soldiers would have to be trained and outfitted. An increased measure of professionalism would result from longer average tours, as well as from a recommended policy of making military service more attractive by relieving soldiers of nonmilitary duties and chores.

All-Volunteer Force Controversy

The end of military conscription probably came as a relief to most members of Congress and the public at large because it removed a prime ingredient in the poisonous brew of Vietnam War issues. The system of liberal deferments which had grown up during the period of low draft calls following the Korean War had come to be seen as a means by which the most privileged members of society could avoid service. The switch to a lottery system in 1970 did not erase the sense of unfairncss, merely changing the focus from victimization of the underprivileged to victimization of the unlucky.

That the public had become somewhat inured to a peacetime draft at all was a modem (i.e., Cold War) development. Pre-World War II conscription laws were all passed in wartime, under conditions approaching total mobilization, and even then were problematic, sparking riots during the Civil War and large-scale evasion during World War I. However, the Selective Service Act of 1948 instituted peacetime conscription, and by the mid-1960s the military services-specifically the Army-had become habituated to dependence on the draft as a principal means of personnel acquisition. The prospect of its end was met with resistance internally and with vocal opposition from veterans' groups and some members of Congress.

In retrospect, it seems surprising that the uniformed part of the military establishment would resist a development calculated to produce a better paid, more professional force. However, doubts about the concept ran deep and fueled what was more than a simple reluctance to abandon the status quo. On some issues political liberals and conservatives found common ground in opposition.

Grounds for criticism were several. Some have been laid to rest first by recruiting success and then by the performance of all-volunteer soldiers. Others touching on fundamental questions about the affordability of national security requirements, the role of the military in our national life, and the responsibilities of citizenship, persist to this day in various forms. The most immediate- and most emotionally compelling-concerns were based on fears that monetary incentives and concessions designed to make military life more appealing would attract people poorly suited to military service and unlikely to become good soldiers.

The early emphasis on increased pay and benefits inspired comment about a "mercenary" force of low quality people, who would enlist only for the money, rather than to serve their country. Among serving soldiers it is likely that such talk summoned up memories of "Project 100,000," an experiment begun in 1966 in which the military services had to accept conscripts who technically had failed to meet enlistment standards.

The all-volunteer force backlash probably was also aggravated by the public image of Army recruiting presented through an unprecedented advertising presence on national media. One of the first MVA actions was a television advertising campaign concentrating $ 10 million worth of exposure over ten weeks in the spring of 1971.

The initial MVA advertising highlighted the higher pay benefits and attempted to alter the "Big Green Machine" image of the Army by suggesting that personnel assignments would be less arbitrary and working conditions less regimented. The notion that the Army was becoming more sensitive to the concerns of its recruits was conveyed by a provocative new slogan, "Today's Army Wants To Join You."

This advertising campaign concept was based soundly on research into the attitudes and motivations of the "target audience" of enlistment prospects . The measured impact of the television test indicated that it did do a good job of raising public awareness of new opportunities. However, the effort was flawed in important respects.

First, by underplaying some of the harsher aspects of military life it misrepresented the extent to which the life of a first-term soldier had indeed changed. Some of the early ads made enlistment seem too much like just another job. Ads designed to appeal to an interest in foreign travel could have been mistaken for civilian travel posters.

The worst of these advertisements were replaced in fairly short order, but a more fundamental problem involved the very tone of the campaign, which for Army officers and noncommissioned officers accentuated fears of a discipline-shattering permissiveness. It is difficult to exaggerate the extent to which this advertising was disliked by serving soldiers, and it was sometimes referred to as a current problem well into the late 1970s, even though the slogan was dropped after a year and advertising introduced in 1973 took on a tougher, more realistic cast.

Although problems of undiscipline and motivation did ensue, the Army found ways to overcome them within the all-volunteer concept by being more selective in who it recruited. The right kind of volunteers, it seems, could be turned into excellent soldiers. (The notion that "mercenaries" perform less well on the battlefield than conscripts is belied by history, and the other branches of service have, with rare exceptions, been all-volunteer.) It is possible that new styles of leadership-appropriate to the 1980s-1990s would appear "permissive" to a veteran of an earlier era, but there is no evidence that the essentials of military discipline have been compromised.

The Cost of the All-Volunteer Army

Other criticisms of the all-volunteer concept which persisted well into the 1980s involved its cost, a subject that is less clear cut than it might seem because comparative figures depend greatly on underlying assumptions. Compensation is certainly much higher than would be necessary if 40 percent of the force were low-paid conscripts. Another consequence of voluntarism is an older force with a higher proportion of married soldiers, and dependent-related expenses certainly add to total personnel costs. In addition to pay and benefits for all soldiers, the enlistment bonuses and educational entitlements needed to fill less attractive or more intellectually demanding specialties became large, visible expenses, as did the sums needed to market Army opportunities and operate the expanded recruiting establishment. Finally, the larger percentage of career soldiers that came about through the all-volunteer force has added to long-term retirement system costs.

As anticipated, enormous savings accrued from the reduction in personnel turnover due to longer enlistments. However, the prediction of the Gates Commission in this regard was confounded to some extent by the phenomenon of first-term attrition, which for some categories of volunteers could be 50 percent. Minimizing attrition by precluding the enlistment of high-risk prospects became a necessary feature of the recruiting management systems which eventually developed.

Suffice it to say, the different cost factors were so complex and so interrelated that the cost effectiveness of a volunteer force relative to a conscripted Army became indeterminable. If the "implicit" tax on young conscripts cited by the Gates Commission is considered, it is likely that the all-volunteer force is a bargain for society. However, it is a bargain that poses for the Army the problem of using a greater share of its budget to acquire, pay, and take care of its personnel. What is undeniable is the fact that all of the cost of raising and maintaining the force became a part of the Army 's budget, greatly raising the proportion of total expenditures assigned to personnel costs.

The fact that personnel-related costs climbed to 60 percent of the defense budget led some critics to charge that the high out-of-pocket costs of the all-volunteer force manpower unduly limited total Army strength. This was a matter of serious concern throughout the mid-1980s as Army planners foresaw a need to fight outnumbered in the event of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe as well as meeting the requirements of other worldwide national security scenarios.

Presumably, this constraint on Army manpower exerted a major influence on the Army's development of weaponry and doctrine. The major modernization of the 1980s gave soldiers high-performance weapons designed to offset a numerical disadvantage. Doctrine emphasized mobility and coordinated action as a means of making the best use possible of limited forces. Thus, the Air-Land Battle-and the tools necessary to fight it-were in some sense an imperative of the all-volunteer force policy.

The cost issue also highlighted the role of a trained and ready reserve component, which necessarily became the focus of some of the Army's combat capability and much of its combat support. An active force big enough to perform all assumed missions was unaffordable. In fact, the dictionary meaning of the word reserve, "to keep back or set apart for later," makes its application to the non-active component somewhat misleading. As indicated during Operation DESERT SHIELD/DESERT STORM, some elements of the Selective Reserve had to be deployed very early to complete a well-rounded operational force.

Maintenance of adequate reserve component strength became not only important but particularly challenging because the large number of conscripts who served short term active duty tours was no longer available as a ready manpower pool from which reserve units could be filled. This generated a sizable requirement for the enlistment of people with no prior military service directly into U.S. Army Reserve and National Guard units.

The added cost of increased military compensation needed to attract new enlistees also proved to be a continuing, complex issue. The entry-level wage has to be continuously adjusted as inflation and labor supply and demand factors dictate if it is to be kept competitive.
However, if the wages of first-term soldiers grow without sufficient adjustment for the upper ranks-a phenomenon referred to as pay compression-retaining highly qualified careerists becomes problematical. Less than 10 percent of those who remain to retirement, but those

careerists become the trainers, technical experts, and leaders upon whom the performance of Army units is heavily dependent.


Costs aside, the all-volunteer concept raised sociological concerns, with much of the discussion focusing on the issue of representativeness . Briefly, critics feared that an Army of volunteers attracted principally by economic incentives would become less representative of the population at large, with various adverse consequences. It would be disproportionately drawn from the poor, which by definition also meant heavily weighted with disadvantaged racial and ethnic minorities.

Like all essentially political questions, this one can be thorny. Is it fair that the economically privileged escape exposure to combat? But, why shouldn't the people who need it have the opportunity to get the edge on life afforded by Army experience and training? Does a conscript Army which cannot be employed easily without a fair measure of public support (as we learned in Vietnam) provide a desirable brake on military adventurism? Or, does that limitation make it too difficult for our political leaders to respond to legitimate national security emergencies?

In fact, the racial composition of the Army has changed under the all-volunteer force. The Gates Commission predicted that black enlistees would be 19 percent of the total by 1979; the actual percentage was 36.7 percent. The notion that an underprivileged segment of the population was being put in harm's way out of economic necessity gained currency among some. Others worried about a "tipping point," a percentage of minority face content which would discourage enlistment by non-minorities and also lead to loss of political support. These issues were somewhat defused during the 1980s, as the annual percentage of black enlistees fell into the low 20 percent range. That the Army is seen as an equal opportunity employer and an avenue of upward mobility has been demonstrated both by enlistment statistics and by the fact that black soldiers have reenlisted at a higher rate than others.

A relatively unforeseen development which has been influenced, but not entirely caused, by a switch to the all-volunteer concept has also been growth in the participation of women in military service. In part, the increase in female soldiers, from 2.1 percent of the force in 1972 to 11 percent in 1992, reflected a national trend that has seen a major growth in work force participation by women. However, although a 2 percent legal limitation on enlisted female strength was lifted in 1966, the growth trend did not begin until 1973. The greatest growth occurred in the first six years of all-volunteer recruiting, with an increase to 8.9 percent of the force by 1980.

Success and Failure

In very broad strokes, all-volunteer Army recruiting achieved its numerical goals in fiscal years (FY) 19731975 and provided some grounds for optimism. Only 50 percent of FY 72's 182,000 enlistees were high school graduates, however, a post-World War II low. This raised concerns that the MVA would be of low average quality, and it also kept future year recruiting objectives higher than desirable because the rate of attrition for non-graduates is double the rate for those with high school diplomas. Congress responded in legislation authorizing funds for recruiting by mandating improvement, setting as a minimum a 55 percent high school graduate component.

Other factors contributed to early successes. Recruiting was adequately resourced, entry-level enlisted pay remained competitive throughout the period, and the Vietnam-era G.I. Bill continued in effect. Moreover, the country was in recession, with high youth unemployment, conditions which began to abate only in 1975.

Beginning in FY 1976, events conspired to undermine the early gains. The youth labor market tightened up, as an improving economy gave enlistment prospects more employment alternatives. Cuts were made in recruiting resources; the advertising budget, for instance, was reduced by a third. The Vietnam-era G.I. Bill was allowed to lapse, to be replaced by the far less attractive Veterans Education Assistance Program (VEAP). Entry-level pay was not keeping up with the double digit inflation of the late 1970s, and pay compression was accelerating the loss of experienced careerists, particularly in the technical specialties. The Army Recruiting Command experienced a shortfall of 16,000 in FY 1979, and Army Chief of Staff General Edward "Shy" Myer told Congress that the nation had a "hollow Army."

In 1980 it also was found that the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), used since 1976 to classify and select applicants, had been misnormed at the lower end, making a large number of enlistees appear more capable than they really were. The sky did indeed seem to be falling on Army recruiters, and talk about the need for a return to the draft grew louder.

Instead, the Army solved the problem with improved incentives, increased resources, and better management of recruiting. The ability to offer a limited number of two-year enlistments as a "market expander," withdrawn in 1976, was restored in 1979. Funds for advertising and recruiter support, which had been cut by about a third in FY 1976, were restored in FY 1979 to levels close to those prevailing earlier. Fiscal years 1981 and 1982 both saw significant increases in military pay. And funding for enlistment bonuses was increased beginning in FY 1981.

As a result of budget increases, Army advertising was seen and heard more frequently and, beginning in January 1981, that advertising was part of the widely admired and highly effective "Be all You Can Be" campaign.

With these changes in process or in place, the situation began to improve. A very high non-prior service enlistment mission was achieved in FY 1980, and the years immediately following saw the beginning of what turned into a trend of annual quantitative missions accomplished and qualitative standards progressively improved. There were grounds for concern, however. The country was in recession, but the expected economic recovery evoked memories of 1976. Additionally, a downward trend in the size of enlistment-eligible age groups made the shrinking manpower pool a continuing worry.

To sustain recruiting success in the face of these countervailing forces, funding was maintained at healthy levels and an important incentive was added. When the Veterans Educational Assistance Program (VEAP) was created in 1976, the legislation authorized the individual services to augment the educational entitlements involved for individuals who were particularly well qualified or who would enlist in hard-to-fill specialties. In 1982 approval was obtained to go nationwide with the most generous incentive package. This made it possible to promote what had been referred to earlier as Ultra-VEAP as "The Army College Fund," and it gave Army recruiters a most effective tool for use with college-bound enlistment prospects. In 1985 the VEAP was replaced by the Montgomery G.I. Bill, but the Army College Fund has continued to be used as a supplementary incentive for those who can qualify.

In 1983 Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger declared that the all-volunteer force program was no longer experimental and that the term, in capital letters (All-Volunteer Force), would no longer be used to describe the armed forces.

FY 1985 was seen as critical year because of the declining manpower pool and increased competition from civilian employers due to economic recovery. Considerable thought and effort went into the development of analytical early warning systems to detect difficulties of the sort that developed in the mid-1970s. Funds for advertising and recruiter support were increased.

The crisis did not, in fact, develop. In FY 1985 a slightly smaller recruiting mission was achieved handily and with a slight increase in average quality over the previous year.

It appeared that recruiting success or failure had become less sensitive to changes in civilian employment, and this impression grew as recruiting objectives continued to be achieved even during the high employment years of the second half of the decade. Why this was the case is not entirely clear. Perhaps the structure of youth employment had changed. Instead of competing against the lure of relatively high paying factory jobs, military recruiters could offer an alternative to low paying, dead-end jobs in the service industries. In fact, real wages of high school graduates fell through the decade of the 1980s, although the wages of college graduates rose.

It may also be that successful marketing directed at college-bound high school graduates using the Army College Fund meant that civilian employment as the principal alternative to military service had become less relevant.

Challenges and Implications

Recruiting at mission levels characteristic of the 1980s continued through FY 1989,when the Soviet threat began receding and initial actions to draw down the size of the Army began. In FY 1989 111,500 non-prior service soldiers were enlisted; in FY 1990 the number was 84,300; in FY 1991 74,200.

In the early 1990s attention shifted from a rather single-minded focus on meeting or exceeding recruiting objectives to maintaining recruiting production under conditions of great uncertainty and as resources were being adjusted downward to meet the smaller task.

Uncertainty was understandable. Reduction-in-force plans developed by the Department of Defense were the source of continuing dialogue with the congressional committees responsible for authorizing and approving defense appropriations.

How deeply to cut and how rapidly were at issue, but also the means for achieving reductions. For recruiting, a key issue was the outcome of debate on how much to cut from the career force and how much to achieve through accessing fewer new soldiers. The latter is the easier alternative, but if overdone it leads to an unbalanced and inefficient force, with too many people doing jobs for which they are too senior-and too highly paid.

The complexity and political difficulty of decisions concerning personnel strength and policy under such circumstances proved a challenge to Army recruiters. Compounding the problem was the onset of war in the Persian Gulf, as planned separations were deferred and recruiting was accelerated.


From the historical vantage of late 1992, much of the early debate about the soundness of the all-volunteer concept now seems beside the point. Volunteer soldiers performed admirably in the Persian Gulf war. The dismantling of the Soviet empire seems to mitigate the need to keep very large forces under arms and to be ready to fall back on general mobilization.

The Army, however, must be maintained as a ready force at whatever strength level is authorized and funded by the Congress. There can be little doubt that the decision to maintain the strength with volunteers has had profound implications for the Army and has in many ways been a transforming one. It clearly produced a different kind of Army...or at least greatly accelerated tendencies which led to institutional changes.

Fears that the need to be more accommodating to the Army's new recruits would lead to an overall permissiveness detrimental to discipline underrated the professionalism of the noncommissioned officer corps and the tenacity of military tradition. The need for the Army to live up to individual promises recorded in enlistment contracts, however, did enforce a managerial discipline on the way soldiers are inducted, trained, and assigned to units.

As we go into the 1990s the all-Volunteer Army faces new challenges. The advertising budget has been greatly reduced once again. That, coupled with a growing public perception that the downsizing Army doesn't need new recruits, has made the recruiter's job more difficult. The value of the G.I. Bill and Army College Fund had not been raised since 1985 (that problem was addressed, at least, with an increase in those benefits on 1 April 1993).Despite nagging concerns, if we use the lessons we have learned over the past twenty years, there is no reason to believe that the Army cannot successfully continue to maintain an all-volunteer force, as long as enlistment incentives are maintained and recruiting manpower and funding are maintained at an adequate level.