An Army near the breaking point, chapter 3

Wars are the ultimate stress-test of an Army.  Designed to wage 2.5 wars, after five years of fighting two “small wars” our Army shows signs of breaking under the strain.  That is unfortunate, as these wars are like those we will likely fight in the future.  Worse, experts tell us that such struggles often take a decade or more to win (in the few cases in which foreign forces have been able to claim victory).  What will our Army look like after another five years if we cannot substantially reduce our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan?  (Here are chapters one and two in this series).

What does it mean to say that an army is “breaking”?  Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings writes:

For one thing, there is no sharp, discontinuous transition between an “unbroken” Army and a “broken” one: the kind that happens when a plate shatters, a fuse blows, or a motor finally gives out. For another, a “broken” Army will still be able to function, more or less … So there is no sharp contrast between an “unbroken” Army, which works, and a “broken” Army, which doesn’t.

What we are doing to the Army is less like breaking something, and more like slowly degrading its ability to perform its tasks to an unacceptable level. It’s a gradual process, one that does not provide us with clear points at which we can look at the Army and say: well, now it is well and truly broken. It’s not like breaking a chair or a statue.

Here are a selection of reports about the stress cracks in the body of the US Army.  None of these look good for the prospects of an Army of “strategic corporals” capable of implementing sophisticated COIN doctrines.

The Dumbing-Down of the U.S. Army“, Fred Kaplan, Slate (4 October 2005)

GI Schmo — How low can Army recruiters go?“, Fred Kaplan, Slate (9 January 2006)

Army Readiness Detailed“, US ARMY News Release (13 September 2006) — a response to articles like Kaplan’s.

A U.S. military ‘at its breaking point’ considers foreign recruits“, Bryan Bender, Boston Globe (26 December 2006)

Services Attain Strong Recruiting Numbers for Fiscal 2007“, American Forces Press Service (10 October 2007)

Army Effort to Retain Captains Falls Short of Goal, Wall Street Journal (26 January 2008)  (subscription-only site) — Excerpt:

The program persuaded 11,933 captains to commit to additional Army service, short of the 14,184 goal. The military will pay out more than $349 million in bonuses to the officers who took the incentives.  All told, 67.6% of those eligible for the program — which offered officers cash bonuses of as much as $35,000, the ability to choose their next assignment or military-funded graduate school — agreed to serve another one to three years in the Army.

Military Recruiting 2007: Army Misses Benchmarks by Greater Margin“, National Priorities Project (22 January 2008)

Note the that past surveys by this group have proven unreliable, and the Army disagrees with some of the conclusions in this report — mostly over the magnitude of the deterioration.  The following excerpt describes DoD numbers, which DoD has not contested.

All recruits also take the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) which is normalized for the youth population.  The test score indicates trainability.  Those in Categories I and II tend to be above average in trainability; those in Category IIIA and IIIB are average; those in IV are below average; those in Category V are markedly below average.2

Until 2006, the DoD had a goal of at least 67 percent of recruits testing at least in the 50th percentile of the AFQT, in terms of the categories, I – IIIA.  Since 2005, the percentage of active-duty Army recruits scoring in the top half of the AFQT has fallen.  In 2007, it was 60.8 percent.  The DoD attempted to cap Category IV recruits to less than 2 percent, but recently raised the cap to 4 percent.  Historically, this has not been a problem, but since 2005, the percentage of Category IV recruits has been at least 4 percent. In 2007, it was 4.1 percent. 

The next article reports on a speech from someone on the front lines of the struggle to recuit young men and women into the Armed Forces.  We should listen closely.

“How Do We Recruit, Train and Retain the Right People for the Future Force?”, Panel Discussion at Transformation Warfare 2007 Conference on 20 June 2007.  Here is an excerpt from a report on this panel by the Air Force Times (21 June 2007):

Most of today’s youth are not eligible for military service because they are too fat, too weak, not smart enough and prone to drug-use and criminal behavior, according to a panel of senior military officers.

“We are all victims of our own past success.  We all have a conscript mentality that there’s a never-ending supply of perfect high school graduates that are over the horizon coming at us to fill every job we have,” said Vice Adm. John Cotton, commander of the Navy Reserve.  “I’ll tell you what, we’re about to be shocked, because they are not there.”

Cotton spoke on a panel on recruiting and retention with officers from the Marines, Army and Air Force at a conference on “transformation warfare” hosted by the U.S. Naval Institute and the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association in Virginia Beach.

Seventy-two percent of American youth between 17 and 24 years of age are not eligible for military service for fitness, academic and law enforcement deficiencies, Cotton said, citing national statistics that some 30 percent of male youths drop out of high school.

Stephen Duncan, a Naval Academy graduate and former assistant defense secretary for manpower and reserve affairs, moderated the panel discussion on recruiting and retention.

“You can talk about acquisition and technology and all that is important but, as John Paul Jones said, ‘Men mean more than guns in the rating of a ship,’ ” Duncan said.  “A lot of other general officers have said the same thing. We win or lose based on our people.”

More on this in the next chapter.  Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

Previous posts in this series

  • To find a listing of all the articles cited in this series:  An Army near the Breaking Point — an archive of links

    One thought on “An Army near the breaking point, chapter 3

    1. The National Guard and Army Reserve just were given approval to provide retention bonuses for Captains in certain specialities (there are a lot of them). $20K for a three year extension in the USAR, $30K for a three year extension in the ARNG.

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