The recently issued Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission report launched a debate about reforming pay, improving retirement, scaling back entitlements and fixing healthcare for our military. Most arguments tiptoe around the issue of “supporting our troops,” because questioning anything provided to military families during war is somehow misperceived as unpatriotic. What is also missing, however, is the context of how we changed our military 40 years ago and why some might perceive per-person compensation growth as excessive.
In 1973, when the Vietnam-era draft was ended, the nation made a conscious decision to have a smaller, more professional military — and the personnel reduction has been dramatic. In Vietnam, the active Army alone was made up of 1.5 million soldiers, whereas today the entire active Army consists of only 490,000, a number that continues to decline.
It was a wise choice to have a smaller force, but the corresponding truth is that those remaining in the service must be better educated, better equipped, better protected, better connected and far more effective than ever before.
This effectiveness has been reflected in the dramatically different outcomes. Thanks to improved protection and life-saving medical procedures, many war fighters who would have died in the past are now surviving, albeit it with life-changing injuries. Although caring for those injured is costly, it has been far less expensive in blood and treasure to have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan with a better protected, more professional force than with a larger, draftee force.
The All-Volunteer Force (AVF) was not just a new way to enlist recruits; it fundamentally changed the way that America fights wars — for the better! Instead of a large mass army, we shifted to a more efficient force, with significantly fewer personnel employing much better equipment. As improved equipment and high technology has replaced personnel, today’s troops need to be more senior, more educated and better prepared to assume greater responsibilities.
Modern warfare depends on talented junior leaders whose actions in any isolated incident can have a strategic impact. My son recently returned from nine months as an artillery lieutenant on an isolated outpost in southern Afghanistan providing artillery fires throughout an area the size of Washington, D.C. At just 24 years old, he and his soldiers were entrusted with responsibilities that would have likely required a colonel in Vietnam or a general in World War II.
Strategic results have also been dramatic. In Afghanistan, at its height, the U.S. deployed 100,000 personnel, which leveraged an important, global coalition of 40,000 troops from 49 other nations. Those coalition forces worked with more than 300,000 Afghan National Security Forces to provide security for a nation of 30 million Afghans. The impact of the ordinary service member would have been impossible in the absence of the shift to a high-tech force with support from comprehensive intelligence, global communications, responsive logistics, ubiquitous helicopters and close integration from all services.
The nation has dramatically benefited from this approach of accomplishing greater missions with fewer soldiers. Put in the proper context, the question that should be asked is how did the AVF, with almost no increase in size, sustain itself and continue to recruit and retain great young men and women to serve after almost 14 years of continuous wars? How was the AVF able to effectively fight two major wars in two different theaters while still responding to a myriad of other requirements?
The answer is that the nation has improved the compensation per service member, not as a creeping entitlement but as part of a strategic national decision to have a smaller, more effective, higher-quality military. While discussions about how pay and benefits could be reformed are certainly appropriate, those discussions should start from the premise that we have built a different and substantially better military with the AVF. Any proposals to improve it should ensure that we enhance the quality of the force that we have.
Our national security in the future will depend on how well we can recruit, retain and develop the men and women in the military today.