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.

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.

2. Alternatively, the US could return to some form of universal conscription.

Universal conscription, assuming that deferments were granted only under the most unique cases (unlike the situation during the Vietnam war when thousands of college-age youths escaped service, while blacks and less- affluent whites were drafted) would obviously go far in expanding manpower in the lower ranks of the military (and into reserve forces), while also ensuring a steady stream of skilled recruits. But at the same time a draft may have only marginal impact in ensuring that middle-level officers and noncoms reenlist. The most pressing shortages, it must be emphasized, occur not at the entry (private) level, but in middle ranks. Yet these mid-level positions are usually filled by second-, third-, or fourth-term personnel.

That is why, in the final analysis, the compensation question becomes so important. Payroll costs continue to spiral, now eating up half the entire Pentagon budget. Yet there is little dispute that pay for most servicemen has lagged behind inflation. According to Senator William Armstrong, regular compensation (base pay along with housing and food allowances) has dropped 20 percent relative to the cost of living over the past eight years. For the most technical positions military pay is totally uncompetitive with comparable civilian jobs, which explains why the Air Force and Navy have such difficulty retaining pilots. In updating benefits levels, Congress might also want to consider restoring the education benefits of the GI Bill, dropped in 1976.

Should the US scrap the volunteer military outright? That depends on one's reading of the effectiveness of the volunteer force itself. Opinions vary widely. Many professional military men argue that a draft is needed not only to fill ranks with adequate numbers of skilled personnel, but to demonstrate America's resolve to defend its interests in the world. Also, at a time when many young people seem to be drifting aimlessly, there is something to be said for the sense of purpose that military service can instill -- each individual doing his or her part to support the nation for a short period of time.

President Reagan, for his part, has indicated strong support for the volunteer military concept. Advocates of the volunteer forces in general note it is a remarkable accomplishment that the US has been able to build a military establishment of over 2 million persons on a volunteer basis to begin with. Returning to a conscript military, it is argued, runs the risk of a return of the strident disruptions that wracked the nation in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when much of the public, and young people in particular, expressed hostility to the military. Since that time, in large part because of the concept of volunteerism, the Pentagon has once again been able to garner strong support from the public at large. That is probably one of the most important strengths of the American military at this time. The effect of perhaps destroying that national consensus must therefore be carefully weighed.

One point seems clear. President Carter was both correct and courageous in reinstating registration so that in case of national need the US could move quickly toward a draft. Registration should be continued, and in fact, Congress should ensure that a more formal selective service mechanism (such as the old board system) rather than the current relatively informal process is put in place througho ut the country.

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