Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The End of the All-Volunteer Force?

The recruiting shortfall is the latest in what’s become something of a prolonged losing streak for the military.

(Bumble Dee/Shutterstock)

A half-century after the end of the draft and the implementation of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF), has the United States Armed Forces found itself in an existential crisis?

The Pentagon recently reported all its branches of service were failing or struggling to meet recruiting requirements for the current fiscal year. The Army alone has met just 40 percent of its annual goal and there are only two months left in the fiscal year. In the beginning of 2022, the U.S. military had 1.3 million active-duty service members—over a third of which were in the Army alone—making it the third-largest military in the world, plus a National Guard and Reserve component bigger than most countries’ entire forces.


The recruiting shortfall is the latest in what’s become something of a prolonged losing streak for the military, going back to the Afghanistan withdrawal debacle last summer. After America’s second-longest war (Iraq is the longest) came to an ignominious end with the deaths of 13 service members, the military has suffered something of an image and identity crisis, battling accusations of incompetence and politicization.

On the latter, the charge largely sticks. The military is undergoing a full-blown cultural revolution, now speaking the language of the woke left and seemingly becoming more aligned with the Democratic Party; it professes non-partisanship while very openly taking sides on loaded political issues, like abortion or the death of George Floyd. That politicization seems to have sparked a backlash in the form of fewer Americans joining a once-popular institution.

Where does the military go from here? Before answering that, remember that we were never supposed to be here in the first place.

Saddled with the “generational trauma” inflicted by the likes of Oliver Cromwell a century prior, many of the Founders were bent on avoiding the establishment of a permanent, professional standing army, seeing it as a weapon of tyranny. In this new country, they would rely not on a full-time force for national defense, but instead on the citizen’s willingness to serve and protect his family, community, and country, the same as we pay our taxes and serve jury duty. In America, militiamen, not soldiers, would be our warriors.

Not everyone was convinced this was the way to go. The citizen-soldier came to occupy a mythical space in American lore, seen as having defeated the parliament’s professionals and secured the new republic. Truthfully, militias were militarily inconsistent, ineffective, and unreliable. George Washington, ever the statesman, praised the militias in public, but criticized them in private, assessing them to have done more harm than good. More militiamen may have fought and died in America’s wars throughout history, but ultimately, it was the full-time professionals who made the difference.


Two-and-a-half centuries later, the debate seemed to have been settled. The last mass mobilization occurred during World War II and, aside from the suspension of conscription in 1973, America never fully de-mobilized. The professional military has become an article of faith for the country, an institution in which Americans place significant trust.

Aside from a vocal minority, most Americans are opposed to the re-institution of the draft. But the viability of the all-volunteer force depends on the willingness of young people to enlist or seek commissions as officers. If the military cannot meet its manpower needs, it has two options. For one, it could accept reality and elect to downsize. It cannot make this decision on its own, however. Military force levels are congressionally dictated, and the president’s own national-security policy would be placed in jeopardy. For example, if the U.S. still intends to defend Europe from Russian aggression, Taiwan from Chinese annexation, and South Korea from North Korean invasion, the military today is likely unable to meet all these commitments.

It would take at least a few years of declining enlistment before shrinking the force is seriously considered. Once the decision has been made to downsize, it cannot be easily reversed. The White House, Congress, and the Pentagon would all have to commit and stick to the plan. Washington doesn’t like diminishing itself, so expect significant opposition to force drawdowns in Congress, especially from Republicans.

The other option is to bring back the draft. Despite its public unpopularity, a state’s legitimacy is rooted in part in its ability to raise an armed force—the Constitution calls for this—and to do so coercively, if necessary. The events of the last two years provide evidence the American public will ultimately go along with what the government dictates, though it may kick and scream along the way. The fact that the draft remains a male-only proposition means protests will likely to be minimal and will fall upon deaf ears. If women were required to register for Selective Service, this would likely call into question the legitimacy of conscription itself.

Like downsizing, however, reinstituting conscription isn’t a straightforward affair:

A national emergency, exceeding the Department of Defense’s capability to recruit and retain its total force strength, requires Congress to amend the Military Selective Service Act to authorize the President to induct personnel into the Armed Forces.

What’s a “national emergency?” War in Europe or the Asia-Pacific? A foreign invasion? It’s an open-ended question, but the implication is that it’d be something so serious there’d be no question as to the necessity of mass mobilization. Is meeting the military’s manpower needs at a time of relative peace an emergency?

Selective Service also makes clear the decision to implement conscription cannot be made unless both the president and Congress agree. Barring a national emergency for which there’s no question as to its necessity, conscription is toxic politically. Public opposition makes it unlikely either the president or elected representatives in Congress will make a serious bid for it unless they sense a political advantage in doing so. Former Representative Charles Rangel made multiple bids for universal service; though a career-long opponent of the AVF, he never made a serious effort to bring back the draft until opposition to the Iraq War in the 2000s made it easier to sell.

In theory, taxpayers pay politicians to make tough choices. In reality, politicians routinely take the easy way out. Expect them to kick the can down the road, just as they do with debt, and hope the military’s recruitment problem fixes itself or becomes someone else’s problem. It may be a crisis for the Pentagon, but it’s not a crisis for the president, so there’s no political upside in trying to fix the problem today.

As a society, the concept of national defense as a collective duty imposed on a militia of able-bodied men has become alien, even though the Constitution still recognizes its vitality. Service is no longer woven into the social fabric and the AVF is partly responsible. After all, the military picks and chooses who serves and, until recently, it judged applicants through relatively narrow criteria. When given the choice to serve as a full-time warrior, in most societies, people will opt otherwise.

Currently, the military is attempting to maintain its ranks by increasingly opening service to as many people as possible, to the point of lowering physical standards. Though consistent with America’s liberal traditions, it poses questions about the professionalism of the institution. Is an armed force made more effective through the influx of all sorts of people who represent society’s full range of diversity, or is it made more effective by a select minority who meet not only stringent physical requirements, but possess the character and mindset most likely to thrive in uniform?

For example, the soldier who announced, on social media, she was questioning her loyalty to America after the overturning of Roe v. Wade may be “good at her job,” but military service isn’t just a job. It’s the ultimate expression of love and loyalty to the nation. The soldier questioning her loyalty is exactly the kind of person on whom the Pentagon has focused its recruiting efforts for over a decade, but is she really someone Americans should trust with preserving and defending the Constitution?

It seems America is increasingly stuck between two ideas: not everyone should serve, but anyone who wants to should be allowed to whether suitable or not. But what if fewer and fewer want to serve? The military has gone all-in on trying to diversify and make itself more politically “reliable,” as in, not overwhelmingly conservative and Republican. The Pentagon may be learning the hard way that most people, given the choice, elect not to serve, and most who do tend to be the kinds of people the military seems to be trying to diminish, if not purge, from its ranks.

Retired Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr of the Heritage Foundation said, “2022 is the year we question the sustainability of the all-volunteer force.” It seems, in the not-too-distant future, it’s not out of the question we’ll either see a smaller force supremely loyal to the American left, or a conscripted force representing the full diversity of America.

Neither best serves our country’s needs. But beggars can’t be choosers.