Supply and Demand: The challenge of maintaining an all-volunteer force.
About the Author

Merry, a native of Southern California, enlisted in the Air Force in 1982 as a Personnel Specialist. He was commissioned through AFROTC in 1989, earning his degree in Marketing from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff Arizona. He holds a master's degrees in Human Resources Management and Military Arts & Science.

After his commissioning, Merry returned to the Personnel career field and served at every level of the Air Force. He was the Career Field Manager for Personnel, Manpower and Services, and was selected as the Air Force's Chief of Compensation and member of the 10th Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation. He has deployments to Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other locations throughout the Middle East.

Merry is a graduate of Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell AFB, Alabama; and was the Senior Air Force Fellow at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California. At the time of his retirement he was the Commander of Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations (AFMAO) responsible for DoD's sole Port Mortuary at Dover AFB, Delaware.

Photo: Basic cadets march on the U.S. Air Force Academy's terrazzol in Colorado Springs, Colo., July 12, 2017. Almost 1,200 young men and women are in the 2nd week of Basic Cadet Training, a six-week mental and physical training program. To become a cadet, they must graduate BCT, a long-established standard for uniformed service members and service academy cadets. (Photo by: Michael Kaplan)

Quality recruits come at a cost. Are we willing to pay it? The Senate defense authorization bill doesn’t look promising.

MOAA’s strategic goal with our advocacy is to “ensure government enacts and maintains policies to sustain a career force of the size and quality needed to maintain a strong national defense.”

We have lobbied to ensure adequate troop strength, but we haven’t devoted as much attention to quality. It is now critical to discuss both. They are inseparable, and they are both in jeopardy.

Why the alarm? Because our nation has relied on the all-volunteer force since 1973, and all that time we have taken the volunteer pool for granted. That’s about to change — because the pool has changed.

Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, commanding general of the Army’s Recruiting Command, identified the crux of the problem in a November 2016 interview with the Arizona Republic : “The problem that we are facing is that so few actually can meet the qualification requirements to join the military. … Only three in 10 of today’s youth can actually meet the requirements.” That number gets even smaller, around 20 percent, when you take college-bound young people out of the equation.

This problem stems from a bigger picture: 

  • There are approximately 20 million 17-21 year olds in America.
  • Of those, 11.3 million meet academic requirements.
  • Only about 4.4 million of those are even eligible to join.
  • Assessing propensity to join, we are left with about 465,000 truly potential recruits
  • From that pool, DoD needs 250,000 a year.

Adding to the challenge: 52 percent of parents would not recommend military service for their children. This likely cuts the pool of potential recruits even further.  

Our nation is facing a basic — but significant — supply and demand challenge. While President Donald Trump and several members of Congress support an increase in our troop strength, they do so in an environment constrained not only by the budget, but also by the pool of qualified and interested recruits whose top reasons for joining are centered on pay and education benefits.

In this environment, it defies logic for the Senate’s version of the FY 2018 defense authorization bill to propose a reduced military pay raise of 2.1 percent, versus the 2.4 percent raise that would be consistent with the Employment Cost Index — the legislated benchmark. 

Further, the Senate proposes to eliminate a dependent-rate housing allowance for military couples stationed together with children. This erosion of military compensation is out of touch with today’s demands of repeated deployments and a worsening recruiting environment. This is an immediate problem, warranting contact with your members of Congress.

Meanwhile, a similar problem might loom in the near future: the 13th Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation (QRMC) and the President’s charge to the Secretary of Defense to assess the adequacy of military compensation and, essentially, decide if a salary system would be more effective for recruiting and retention. 

This government study of military compensation is required by law and must take place no less than every four years. The findings of this study will result in a report to Congress. The focus on the potential for a salary system is of concern to MOAA if it is used to continue reducing military compensation in any way.

Our nation’s ability to field the most effective armed forces, of the size and quality needed, is in jeopardy, and there are two key aspects of this problem: First, the supply is dwindling. This is a national problem, which Congress cannot fix. Second, the compensation and benefits that help motivate people to join and stay are eroding. This is a problem Congress can — and must — fix.

Share your concerns with your members of Congress here.

Rate this content