Some novel ideas to fill military ranks

Military's worst manpower slide in 20 years prompts a rethinking ofoptions - from higher pay to reviving the draft.

One idea is to let people enlist in the military for 15 months instead of four years, as is most common now.

Another is to have civilians act as military recruiters, trolling campuses in suits and ties, in place of the services' own pitchmen.

A third is to reinstitute the draft - peacetime or not - to get more of the Net generation out of low-rider jeans and into fatigues.

These are just some of the ideas surfacing to stem one of the military's worst manpower slides in more than two decades. Ranging from the radical to the predictable, they are coming from people inside and outside the military as a way to allow the United States to continue its role as the world's global policeman in the 21st century.

While experts disagree over many of the ideas - and some aren't politically tenable - nearly everyone agrees that better recruiting and retention alone won't solve all the military's problems.

"A structural change has got to come about," says David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland in College Park. "Salami slicing won't get it."

The draft is one of the most provocative and controversial ideas - as it has been throughout history. Some believe the US now needs at least a partial return to conscription to sustain its military.

Col. Clyde Slick, a retired Marine Corps recruiting commander, says a large infusion of money to improve military pay or bolster recruiting efforts won't fix the problem. He argues the US doesn't have an "all-volunteer" force anyway. In an era when military recruiters spend hours persuading people to enlist, Mr. Slick calls it an "all-recruited force."

Yet a draft isn't likely to come about either. Congress, military officers, and others who've followed the problem consider such a move politically unfeasible. For one, the public probably wouldn't support it short of a major war. For another, no major presidential candidate is likely to champion its return.

Short of a draft, experts say, Congress and the Pentagon face difficult choices.

*Lower entrance standards. The risk is a return to the erratic post-Vietnam military, where racial problems, alcoholism, and drug abuse were common.

*Further shrink a force that many career officers say is already too small to fulfill US obligations around the world.

*Spend billions to make the military competitive with the private sector in pay, housing, and health care.

*Significantly reduce global commitments. The Army, for example, has deployed 34 times since 1990, more than three times the number of missions it took on during 40 years of the cold war.

The lagging interest in the military may force the issue. Will young people take an oath to serve and protect if it means 60-hour work weeks, spotty health care, and absentee parenting? "My question is, in the 21st century, is an all-volunteer force viable?" asks Rep. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, House Armed Services Committee member.

The former Air Force officer argues it may be possible to reverse the situation by fixing decrepit housing, boosting salaries, and upgrading medical care. But he estimates that would cost hundreds of billions of dollars. "Either your wallet has got to be opened or ... you've got to say to young people: 'You're coming in whether you want to or not.' "

Congress is in the midst of reversing a 15-year trend of declining defense budgets. It has pledged to raise military pay by 5 percent and restore retirement pay cut in the 1980s.

But what if those measures don't work?

Among the unusual ideas being considered are partnerships between the military and private sector to share workers.

Perhaps industry should reimburse the Defense Department for the thousands of pilots and mechanics it provides for the commercial sector every year. Such an arrangement might let the two manage scarce resources while also feeding the commercial aviation business a trained work force.

The Army also has concluded there aren't enough skilled workers to feed a high-tech military and a high-employment economy.

Maj. Rick Ayer, who heads Army recruiting research at Fort Knox, Ky., says his service is crafting proposals to work with US companies that could come to the military for workers after they've been trained there.

Though still experimental, the idea would be for the military to act as a funnel for the private sector. Young people could join the Army for two to four years, then go directly to companies like Ford and Pepsi. "They cut their costs of training and get older, more mature workers," Major Ayer says.

ANOTHER idea is for the services to "outsource" noncombat jobs, such as recruiting and many maintenance and logistics functions. Others envision a larger role for the National Guard and Reserves, which increasingly are being called to relieve beleaguered active-duty forces overseas.

Mr. Segal says few realize how dire the personnel problem is. He suspects that sometime in the near future, at least one member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will say what many rank-and-file troops privately fear: that the US can no longer fight and win two regional wars at one time.

Still another concept is to shrink the time recruits are required to stay in uniform in hopes more will join. Some doubt how committed such soldiers might be and whether short hitches would produce a force with limited knowledge and experience.

Charles Moskos, a sociologist at Northwestern University, is proposing 15-month enlistments, in which recruits would be trained for six months, then sent overseas for nine months.

It's also possible that federal college-loan money soon may be tied to national service, Mr. Moskos says. That would allow the military to enter universities, a recruiting market that produces about one million new workers a year. "The status quo won't get it any more," he says. "It's a new world now."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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