Inflation and recession at home. Humiliation abroad.
In the wake of the Vietnam War, America was foundering. Yet the seeds of a national resurgence had already been planted by a most unlikely pair: Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman and Melvin R. Laird, President Richard Nixon’s defense secretary.
Throughout most of the Cold War, the U.S. used the draft to fill its military ranks. Previously, we had resorted to conscription only during hot wars — the Civil War and the two World Wars. But Cold War Congresses went along with a peacetime draft because they thought it would be cheap.
The quality of draftees was not great. Motivation and morale were worse. And since they left as soon as their enlistment was up, the cost of training replacements made the move not much of a bargain.
Along came Friedman, who had long argued that a draft was “inconsistent with a free society.” As the head of a presidential commission, he made the case that an all-volunteer force would be more economical and far more effective than a conscription-based military. When Congress ended the draft in 1973, Laird put Friedman’s theories into practice.
That all-volunteer force, combined with President Ronald Reagan’s 1980s defense buildup, turned everything around.
But that was then. We’ve been living off this legacy for almost a quarter-century. Now we are on the verge of tapping out the bequest.
It started at the end of the Cold War when Congress — eager to cash a peace dividend — stopped “modernizing” the military (i.e., buying new equipment to replace old systems before they wear out or become outdated).
Congress then compounded the problem by letting personnel costs skyrocket. Total budget authority for the military personnel account, across both the core defense program and operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, has more than doubled in current dollars since 9/11. Personnel costs now account for more than half the Pentagon’s budget.
On top of that, Congress keeps layering on new rules and directives that make defense spending even less efficient.
A study by the TechAmerica Foundation warns that the Pentagon may soon be hit with the “double tsunami” of a call to divert spending to other purposes as the U.S. draws down in Iraq and Afghanistan coupled with calls for further cuts to reduce the federal deficit.
The double tsunami’s first casualty will be the all-volunteer force. Sure, everyone likes good pay and benefits, but what draws most young people to military service is a sense of mission and the desire to be part of an effective institution.
We can save the all-volunteer force without breaking the bank. Reforms in procurement, personnel management and operations — modernizing logistics alone would save $35 billion — can keep the all-volunteer force healthy and combat-ready, and free up enough money to modernize.
There is no need to gut the defense budget. That would merely squander the miracle wrought by men like Friedman and Laird, leaving the Pentagon saddled with all of today’s inefficiencies and inadequate resources to meet our security needs.
Examiner columnist James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at The Heritage Foundation.