RAND's Hosek produced another study in 2006 that examined the "unprecedented strains on the all volunteer force" to identify the causes behind the most recent exodus. The study was comprehensive in scope, reviewing published literature and surveys of military personnel conducted by the Defense Manpower Data Center, as well as original focus groups of active-duty service members. What Hosek found was the deployments alone were a positive, not a negative, factor in retaining soldiers. Service members valued deployments as an opportunity to participate in an activity and mission that they believed in and that also enhanced their career prospects; however, the frequency and duration of deployments were weighing negatively on soldiers. "High op-tempo" is the phrase used to describe the high demands on soldiers' time -- long hours of work every day with few days truly off. Wartime means there is immense stress placed on soldiers, but also on their families, with troops facing mental fatigue or worse from multiple deployments.
Now, half a decade after the crisis broke into the public's consciousness, the matter may seem resolved. Already history. The war is over, so we can forget about how hard it was, right? That would be an error.
Time for a Total Volunteer Force
In 1973, the United States abandoned the euphemistic citizen Army which drafted unwilling labor into its ranks in favor of a professional Army which used only volunteers. The All Volunteer Force (AVF) transformed all branches of the military into the finest fighting force in history, but the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have exposed nagging retention problems. The Army in particular proved able to attract and retain top quality talent for its corps of junior officers, but proved unable to manage them well enough to keep the right numbers from resigning as combat-experienced young captains. Even worse, talented senior officers were badly mismatched with the optimal jobs because the Pentagon continued to use a command-and-control personnel system right out of a Soviet playbook, rather than trusting the voluntary nature of their volunteers.
Surveys reveal that the main drivers of attrition were not high op-tempo but frustration with the personnel bureaucracy. In short, the voluntary nature of the AVF lasts for a single day. Starting on day two, coercion dominates how America organizes its fighting men and women.
The way to fix the personnel bureaucracy today is to continue the professional revolution of the 1970s: use more autonomy and less coercion. Here are five steps that the Pentagon and Congress should embrace in designing a Total Volunteer Force:
- Empower commanders with hiring authority. The coercive nature of Human Resource Command has robbed commanders and officers of autonomy and judgment, and for what? Rotating people through jobs at an ever faster pace encourages ticket-punching, at a cost of efficiency, mission accomplishment, and lives. The singular reform of giving commanders the authority to hire any officer for any job -- and bearing responsibility for how they perform -- is the only reform that can break the status quo.
- End year-groups. Professionals should be treated as individuals, not interchangeable components in year-group cohorts. Promotion zones today drive the services away from merit and toward seniority alone. Cohorts are empty categories that are essential for central planning, but serve as barriers to excellence in a labor market.
- Promotion boards should authorize rank rather than give it. With commanders in charge of hiring, central boards may seem irrelevant, but they are not. Boards are essential in determining who qualifies for certain jobs and ranks, which is their strength, not determining who actually gets called for which job. Likewise, personnel officers should be trusted advisers at the unit level, not faceless bureaucrats thousands of miles away.
- Let force-shaping be natural. If fifty colonels are needed and seventy are available, using top-down layoffs or early retirement creates perverse incentives. If instead commanders are free to hire the best fifty, then the remainder can retire without the trauma of firing.
- Allow veterans to re-enter the service by applying for any active-duty position. Thickening the market with more talent can only be good for the mission. Arguments against civilians entering at mid-rank have no bearing if the pool is limited to former officers, plus they will bring fresh ideas into the military, and will help bridge the military-civilian cultural gap.
Bleeding talent still happens every day in the Army, Marines, Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard. It happens in peacetime as well as wartime. The talent that was lost and mismanaged during the Iraq War will have consequences for decades to come, and the unresolved dysfunction in the personnel system is likely to get worse if the armed forces use force-shaping techniques based on seniority instead of merit. A potential drawdown in the years ahead must draw lessons from what caused the midwar manpower malfunction.