Thursday, December 28, 2006

Fitter, Happier, More Productive?

If there's one thing Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on these days, it's that we need a bigger military. More boots for the ground so to speak. Matt Yglesias is rightly concerned with the rather substantial price tag that would accompany such an increase. Others have questioned whether more is the answer, rather than "better specialized" (ie, whether the need for specialized forces such as MPs, translators, and other soldiers with expertise required for nation building operations outweighs the need for more raw manpower as such).*

Yet, one of the issues that doesn't seem to be receiving quite as much attention as warranted is the extent to which we have ability to actually increase the size of the military in the first place - at least without compromising its efficacy. Meeting recruitment targets aimed primarily at maintaining status quo troop levels during the Iraq war (with some modest increases) hasn't been all that easy. So if treading water is problematic as is, how will plans for massive expansion fare? Phil Carter has doubts:

This New York Times story from Dec. 24 makes it clear that growing the all-volunteer force is not as easy as simply adding yeast and letting it rise. The term "all-volunteer force" is a misnomer anyway. It's really a recruited force. To make it bigger, the Pentagon must employ the right mix of advertisements, incentives, recruiting personnel, accessions policies, and strategic leadership. Given the difficulty of reaching the recruiting missions for the past three years, I'm not sure they can get there from here.

Hope springs eternal on the Potomac, I guess. But as retired Gen. Gordon Sullivan always said: "hope is not a method." My gut tells me the military will be able to increase it's size, but that this is going to cost a lot of money, and have secondary and tertiary effects on the force. Pay careful attention to reporting over the next several months about accessions standards, because my fear is that the military will lower these standards in order to recruit the force it needs.

I imagine that after the Iraq war finally ends, recruitment levels should rebound somewhat. Call it the peacetime dividend. Still, many of the fears Carter voices in his post are already a reality. In addition to the fact that increased bonuses are already making recruitment and retention more expensive, as well as the fact that the maximum age of enlistment has been pushed up to 42 years old for the Army, standards for aptitude tests have been falling rather dramatically.

As Fred Kaplan noted in January, the "tertiary and secondary" effects on the armed forces stemming from lowered standards that Carter alludes to are very real:

Some may wonder: So what? Can't someone who scores low on an aptitude test, even very low, go on to become a fine, competent soldier, especially after going through boot camp and training? No question. Some college drop-outs also end up doing very well in business and other professions. But in general, in the military no less than in the civilian world, the norm turns out to be otherwise.

In a RAND Corp. report commissioned by the office of the secretary of defense and published in 2005, military analyst Jennifer Kavanagh reviewed a spate of recent statistical studies on the various factors that determine military performance—experience, training, aptitude, and so forth—and concluded that aptitude is key. A force "made up of personnel with high AFQT [armed forces aptitude test] scores," Kavanagh writes, "contributes to a more effective and accurate team performance." [...]

The pattern is clear: The higher the score on the aptitude test, the better the performance in the field. This is true for individual soldiers and for units. [...]

Smarter also turns out to be cheaper. One study examined how many Patriot missiles various Army air-defense units had to fire in order to destroy 10 targets. Units with Category I personnel had to fire 20 missiles. Those with Category II had to fire 21 missiles. Category IIIA: 22. Category IIIB: 23. Category IV: 24 missiles. In other words, to perform the same task, Category IV units chewed up 20 percent more hardware than Category I units. For this particular task, since each Patriot missile costs about $2 million, they also chewed up $8 million more of the Army's procurement budget.

Then again, viewed from another angle, [the new lower standards] would double the Army's least desirable soldiers. These are the soldiers that the Army has long shut out of its ranks; that it is now recruiting avidly, out of sheer desperation; and that—according to the military's own studies—seriously degrade the competence of every unit they end up joining. No, things haven't gone to hell in a handbasket, but they're headed in that direction. Every Army officer knows this. And that's why many of them want the United States to get out of Iraq.

Sometimes, bigger isn't better.

*[UPDATE: Over at American Footprints, the Armchair Generalist (who knows vastly more than I do about these subjects) links to an interesting piece by Paul Rieckhoff which breaks down and cateogorizes the number and type of specialized forces needed to enhance our military's ability to handle the conflicts likely to be encountered during the next century. Worth the read.]

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