Twenty-five Years of the All Volunteer Force
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Appendix A-E

Chapter 9


Personnel and Mission Changes

The U.S. Armed Forces observed the 25th anniversary of the All Volunteer Force (AVF) in 1998.  The recognition of this benchmark brings with it the challenges of an ever-changing constellation of military personnel issues.  Service today is a matter of choice.  As a result, the military must attract its members from a broad demographic base.  Military personnel are, in general, younger, more likely to be female, and more likely to be married than ever before.  These and other factors place quality-of-life matters at the forefront of human resource interests and force management.

The 25-year old AVF is a very active one. Since its inception, it has not only been deployed all over the world, but it is currently deployed in capacities beyond warfighting.  Various public opinion surveys suggest that despite the non-customary nature of today's military operations, there is broad public support to use American troops abroad for peacekeeping, peacemaking, and other non-traditional military operations. 

When the AVF was formed 25 years ago, the strategic environment in which the military operated was, in many ways, more transparent than it is today. Distinguishing between enemies and allies was easier, and international relations were more reliable and less volatile.  When the Cold War ended, so did the era of superpower rivalry and thus, strategic predictability.  This post-Cold War world has drawn the military into regional conflicts, civil wars, and ethnic disputes beyond traditional U.S. security interests.  It is no small matter that the international events eliciting American military response today include not only direct U.S. security concerns but also decisions about humanitarian aid and ethical issues.  It is an important and perplexing task to try to understand how the military's evolving missions affect today's military recruiting and personnel management.

Competing for Recruits

Because the U.S. economy has enjoyed a spate of economic success the past few years, with low unemployment rates and increased job opportunities for more and varied groups, the supply of quality military applicants has been tight.  The economic detractors from recruiting are compounded by growing college enrollment rates among youth of enlistment age. Without the draft to press youth into service, the military must compete for qualified recruits.  While a military career, or even one term of service, offers many tangible and intangible benefits to include pay, job training, educational opportunities, adventure, discipline, and pride, it carries significant burdens not the least of which include separation from family, danger, and other routine hardships. 

As always, reliance on all demographic and social segments in the United States is imperative.  Issues of representation arise not just under a draft or in times of war when it is anathema that the defense of the nation would fall disproportionately on selected groups.  Representation remains a concern today.  Each subgroup represented in the military, whether racial/ethnic, gender, or otherwise, brings with it unique experiences, concerns, and needs.  Understanding the opportunities and experiences of all potential personnel allows military human resource planners to prepare for future trends. Given fierce labor market competition, increased college enrollment, a rapid operating tempo and other factors increasing the complexity of recruiting, military personnel policymakers today face significant challenges. After 25 years of maintaining a successful volunteer military, it is timely to reflect on what has made it successful and what factors challenge that success.  

Declining Representation

Attracting new members depends in part on perceptions that the military is a viable career path and an honorable calling.  Without the draft to call varied segments of society into service, the over- or underrepresentation of various ethnic/racial and economic subgroups in the military is to be expected.  Traditionally, Black Americans have participated in the military at higher proportions than their overall representation in the general population, but Asian-Americans and Hispanics tend to be underrepresented. While this is so, the military's commitment to equal opportunity and advancement for all its members is strong.  It is notable that Eric Shinseki, a Japanese-American, recently became the Army's 34th Chief of Staff, one of the highest-profile positions in the Army, and the current Secretary of the Army, Louis Caldera, is Hispanic. Trying to narrow the gap in Hispanic representation, Secretary Caldera has been travelling around the United States speaking to young Hispanic audiences telling them that the Army both wants and needs them.  As he explained to one audience, "It's important that the Army represent the great diversity of this nation. ... We have to have a nation that pulls together across ethnic lines."

With these examples in the Army and examples in the other Services, minority visibility within the military may have an impact on increasing the numbers of those groups that have traditionally been underrepresented.  Or, it may take more proactive methods, such as the approach Secretary Caldera is undertaking, to increase the proportions of those in underrepresented groups.

Much research defining the relationship between propensity to enlist and socioeconomic status suggests that when there are economic downturns, individuals will increasingly turn to military or public service as alternative employment. This has been true especially for Black Americans who have historically been left out of the rewards of even a strong economy. Compared to the early 1970s when the AVF was just underway, the U.S. is now experiencing economic prosperity. Despite the continued chronic economic disparity between majority and minority members, the latter groups are experiencing a comparative cultural and economic boom. 

For example, in general, employment, income levels and college enrollment for Black Americans are at an all-time high and so is their optimism for a better future. While this is good news overall, it may be bittersweet for the military. The military may find that as Blacks have more economic options available to them, fewer numbers may enlist.  Although Blacks are still overrepresented in the military relative to youth population proportions, Hispanics are underrepresented despite their growing population counts.  One challenge that the military must face is how to project an image of viable career contender for all Americans regardless of economic conditions. 

College graduates are another segment of society that is underrepresented in the military's enlisted ranks.  Since the military recruits heavily from the high school graduate population, and the trend indicates an increasing number of high school graduates are college bound, it is reasonable to assume college graduates will remain underrepresented among the active-duty enlisted corps.  However, college graduates are well represented among the officer corps and among the reserves, so the issue of representation is not one of equity, as in the case of race or gender, but concerns enlistment supply.  Defense must grapple with how to attract recruits from the growing segment of enlistment-aged youth who are college oriented.

These socioeconomic and demographic trends are important and dynamic forces in American society and culture.  Because the military relies exclusively on volunteers for its personnel, it must recognize and work with these societal trends. Understanding the economic opportunities available to different groups, the population projections of ethnic and racial minorities, and various other population trends will provide the military with some of the information necessary to understand its future recruiting and personnel needs.  The same is true for gender representation.

Female Representation

Both research and conventional wisdom have demonstrated that there are multiple factors contributing to the levels of women's participation in the military: comparative economic opportunity, increased social acceptance of women in non-traditional roles, increased exposure of women to non-traditional jobs, changes in laws and military policies and so forth.  The AVF marked a turning point in women's participation in the military.  During the mid- to late 1970s when the AVF was suffering recruiting woes, a significant increase in the number of highly qualified women entering military service helped the AVF survive the transition from the draft.  Ironically, 25 years later, when women comprise approximately 18 percent of new recruits and 14 percent of the active duty enlisted force, and continue to make inroads into all enlisted and officer ranks and most occupations, the military is again facing significant recruitment shortfalls. 

While women are making inroads into leadership positions, their military roles are still unsettled.  Although the Congressional Commission on Military Training and Gender-Related Issues concluded that the Services' current training practices (including mixed gender environments in all but the Marine Corps) were contributing to readiness, a minority of commissioners were reluctant to endorse removing the barriers to gender interaction at the basic training phase, in part in reaction to increasing military participation by women.

Though women's representation in the military is at its largest in history, American women in the general population still suffer pay inequities and are well below men in terms of median income in all racial/ethnic groups. For example, according to the Census Bureau(1) the female-to-male earnings ratio was 0.74 in 1997. Such pay inequities, at least in terms of parity in job performance, do not exist in the military.  This could be a contributing factor as to why women's participation is at an historical high and why the military is still a good alternative employment opportunity for women.

While military representation of minorities is relatively high and has been growing for women over the past 25 years, fewer and fewer Americans, proportionately, are serving in the military, owing to its smaller size. The military may remain a trusted institution, but fewer veterans means that the direct influence of a family tradition of service to country is less commonplace than in the past. Fewer policymakers today have military experience. For example, the ratio of Congressional members with military service has declined from more than 75 percent in 1971, just prior to the inception of the AVF, to less than 34 percent for the current, 106th Congress. No matter how serious or trivial the civil-military divide is in the United States, the military cannot ignore the possibility that recruiting may suffer as a result of this widening gap.   If young men and women are less exposed to positive military images and stories and feel far removed from the role the military has in American society, then it is reasonable to assume their propensity to enlist will decrease. 

Clearly and for many reasons listed above, the U.S. military does not reflect completely the population from which it is derived.  But how representative should the U.S. military be?  Among the difficulties in considering representation issues is how and to what extent we as a nation want the military to mirror American society, its demographic makeup, its values, its politics.  Many argue that having a military as diverse and variable as the American populace is an ideal as important as the liberties the Armed Forces are instituted to protect. 

But the reality is, the military has moved beyond these basic questions.  Plainly, the military does not reflect the demographic makeup of the United States.  The democratic process of filling military personnel needs, instituted in 1973, is much more palatable to Americans than going back to a draft that would constitute a more representative force.  So the concern today, at the AVF's quarter-century mark, is how to attract new members from all segments of society and levelout the burden of military service to increase participation among underrepresented groups, such as Asians and Hispanics. If we are to have, as Secretary of the Army Caldera stated, "a nation that pulls together across ethnic [and other minority] lines," then the military must actively engage in drawing underrepresented groups into service.  Military leadership values the dynamic and diverse characteristics of its personnel. It is concerned about the health of its personnel management and about the image the military has among citizens in general.  After 25 years, the AVF and the nation it protects still struggle with minority representation issues. But the military has demonstrated it is willing to continue the struggle to achieve, on the one hand a successful warfighting capability, and on the other, an organization that comprises "we the people."

  1. See Timenes, N., Jr., Force Reductions and Restructuring in the United States, presented to NATO Seminar on Defense Policy and Management, Brussels, Belgium, July 2, 1992.  The derived force was based on the distribution by years of service from FY 1987 through FY 1989—a period of stable funding preceding the drawdown. (go back)

Go to Appendix .

[Home] [Overview] [Contents] [Search] [Download] [Links] [FAQs]