Five years experience with the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) in Iraq has revealed one stark and unexpected characteristic of American military forces organized around the all-volunteer concept: their inelasticity. Put simply, the dynamics of the AVF have shown that reliance on an entirely volunteer military force does not allow the United States to increase measurably the size of those forces in times of conflict. In practical terms, this has meant the United States has been unable to enlarge the forces available and needed to conduct a comprehensive, effective occupation of Iraq. Presumably, the continued reliance on the AVF concept after Iraq will mean the United States will face similar constraints in the future. Does the United States want to increase the ability to expand its forces as exigency seems to dictate (make them more elastic)? If so, how can it accomplish that end? Or, alternatively, does the inelasticity of the AVF provide a useful constraint on the spurious, even promiscuous use of that force in the future?
Elasticity is another way of saying flexibility, at least in military terms. Certainly, one can take any given sized force and make it more capable through training and armaments (so-called force multipliers), and this was the intent of the Rumsfeld reforms of the early 2000s. There are, however, limits to force enhancement, and as the rigors of occupying Iraq have so amply demonstrated, for some tasks there is no substitute for a large armed force: more muddy boots on the ground. All the major candidates seems to recognize this problem, since all of them (McCain, Obama, and Clinton) have called for increases in troop size after their election (as discussed in What After Iraq?). Calls for larger and presumably more capable forces beg the question of larger forces for what?
It is possible, after all, to think of the inelasticity of the current force as a self-limiting virtue: it keeps the United States from pursuing military adventures it should avoid anyway. The United States, after all, could not have become mired in Vietnam had it not been for the apparently endless supply of conscripts to implement the policy, and presumably no one is likely to be foolish enough to propose another Iraq-style occupation with the forces currently in uniform. Do they want more troops so that the United States can occupy somewhere else? They haven’t said.
Greater elasticity in the force requires enlarging or at least planning to enlarge the current force for some more manpower-intensive effort. How could this be done within the AVF concept? Essentially there are three options (all discussed in some detail in What After Iraq?). They are enhanced recruitment, conscription, and privatization. All these options are objectionable, for different reasons.
Enhanced recruitment means reaching out to potential recruits not currently being recruited. In practical terms, this means potential recruits who do not meet current standards, which in turn means people with lower educational attainments than current force members or people with (presumably minor) criminal records. Both amount to diluting or “dummying down” the force, and the Army (which needs more recruits the most) does not want them, because they dilute the quality of the force. Recruiters may not mind dilution, but drill sergeants do. Conscription, of course, is the obviation of the AVF concept, and even to propose it is to commit political hara kiri. Privatization—turning over military functions to private contractors—has been tried in Iraq (Blackwater), and the results have been less than optimal, as the late 2007 Blackwater scandal demonstrated. Moreover, the regular military has issues over control of these very expensive forces.
Inelasticity may simply be a limitation the United States will have to accommodate as long as it adheres to the AVF concept. Despite the limitations it has imposed on actions in Iraq and the constraints it may place on future strategic options, no one is seriously proposing abandonment of the AVF concept. Like it or hate it, inelasticity is simply part of the strategic environment.