Beefing up manpower
In seeking to upgrade military pay by proposing an unusual 5.32 percent salary hike costing $2.2 billion in July and a likely hike (with the amount yet unspecified) planned for next October, President Reagan is taking an important first step in revitalizing America's volunteer military establishment. The pay boosts come on top of an 11.7 percent raise last October. Despite these raises, specialists question whether such short-range steps alone will be enough to redress the manpower shortages increasingly evident in US force levels.Skip to next paragraph
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Whatever the social and economic advantages of relying on a volunteer military, the United States is definitely out of step with most of its NATO partners. Belgium, Denmark, France, West Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and Turkey, all rely in part on conscripts. Although terms of service vary -- ranging from eight months to about two years -- the principle of "citizen service" is well established, and the result has been that those armed forces basically reflect the socio-economic makeup of the nations themselves.
By contrast, the US volunteer military, despite some decided strengths, is increasingly made up non-high-school graduates with minimal skills, as well as disproportionate numbers of minority groups in combat units where there is the greatest likelihood of facing enemy fire. Yet all this is occurring at a time when the American military machine comprises an array of super-sophisticated technological weaponry. While society at large is demanding that its work force become more skilled to man the space age technologies of US industry, the military is asked to muddle through with whatever manpower it can muster.
For reasons such as these, the Reagan administration's long-range military plan, while committing billions of dollars to new weapons systems, does not sufficiently address the manpower question. In fairness, it must be said that Mr. Reagan is at the outset of his administration ratcheting pay and compensation levels sharply upward, something that the Carter administration was slower in undertaking. Yet the "manpower gap" -- the shortages of skilled personnel and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) -- is perhaps the most pressing military issue that must be resolved by the public. Reserve forces, too, have been troubled by manpower shortages.
Recruitment and retention problems under the volunteer concept could actually worsen during the 1980s. The reason? According to demographers, the pool of available young men and women of military age is expected to drop sharply. That means that the Pentagon will be under mounting pressure to compromise recruiting standards.
Overriding the Pentagon's difficult recruitment problem is its difficulty in retaining current forces. The flight from service is particularly severe in middle-officer and NCO ranks, where personnel often have young families, and where the effects of inflation are pummeling household budgets. This flight from service is having profound impact on programs. Case in point: Mr. Reagan has proposed sharp increases in the Navy in the 1982 budget, including restoration of two battleships and development of a new nuclear carrier. Yet, the Navy is already short 20,000 petty officers.
The US thus seems to face an inescapable and difficult choice:
1. If it chooses to retain the volunteer military system, compensation will have to be hiked even more substantially over the years ahead, especially for mid-level career personnel, where salaries are greatest.