Here it comes: the big drawdown

It seems that every day brings news about the future of the military, and today was certainly no exception.  The Army, according to a Thomas Ricks’ post in Foreign Policy, is about to start separating officers from the service.  (Click here to read it)

There has been a lot of howling about how sequestration is causing the downfall of the military, and that the danger of a hollow force is only a manpower cuts away, but in all practical reality the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan make a smaller military inevitable.  It happens after every major conflict; the US Army numbered under 400,000 active and national guard troops in 1939, but by the end of the Second World War it had swollen to over 8,000,000. At the start of the Korean War some five years later the army was down to 630,000.

One of the principal reasons that the drawdown in the near future is different from those from prior wars is the composition of the force.  There are no draftees in today’s military.  Each and every Soldier, Sailor, Airman, and Marine volunteered to serve his or her country, and as a result more of them are likely to want to stay in the military than their predecessors.  At the end of the First and Second World Wars the armed forces (which were filled with draftees and wartime volunteers) shrunk naturally as people headed back to the lives they interrupted to go to war.  The same can be said for Korea and Vietnam to certain extent, as draftees were critical to expanding the armed forces to the size needed to fight those wars.

Today, though, we have no draftees.  Instead, we have a highly trained force of military professionals who have dedicated themselves to a career in the military.  Sure, the majority of first term enlistees serve one hitch and get out, but a significantly larger percentage want to stay.

Therein lies the rub.  As the military inevitably shrinks, the number of job slots that military folks can fill will decrease.  For the enlisted component of the armed forces, the length and terms of the enlistment contract can be used to decrease the size of the force; the military branches can make it more restrictive and difficult to reenlist. It is an effective manpower shaping tool.

For officers, however, the rules are very different.  Generally speaking, junior officers (ensigns and lieutenants) serve an initial contracted period (during which they are considered “reserve” officers), which is very similar to the enlisted side.  If they want to stay in, however, instead of reenlisting they compete for transition to from “reserve” to “regular” status.  Once an officer becomes a regular, his contract disappears and his term of service becomes “indefinite”.  This means that they are in until they 1) retire 2) quit 3) fail to get promoted or 4) die.  There is no enlistment contract to use as a force shaping tool.

During stable periods this is no big deal.  The services have staffing models that pretty accurately predict the size that the force needs to be, and they can manage the number of officers based on the number they are allowed to have by law, natural attrition, and accession of new officers.  During unstable times, though, like right now as we finish up a couple of wars, the models come apart like a trailer in a tornado.

The military had to significantly change its shape and size to fight the protracted counterinsurgent wars.  Many more boots on the ground were needed, which means that privates and second lieutenants were getting hired at the rapid rate (meaning much were donning the uniform than usual), and as time went on they got promoted to become sergeants and captains.  Enough time, in fact, that many of the officers became regulars.

Now that becomes a problem.

The enlisted side can be shaped using enlistment contracts, but the regular officers are immune from that shaping tool.  Instead, to reduce the number of officers (which is necessary to retain the proper shape of the force) the branches must figure out a way to get them to leave.  There are a lot of programs that are used to entice officers to leave (early retirement, “getting out” bonuses, etc), but when those do not get enough officers to leave the axe comes out.

In the Marine Corps the axe is the Selected Early Retirement Board (SERB).  Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels who fit a particular set of conditions are considered for retention or retirement.  Even though they can, by law, serve until their service limitations of 30 and 28 years respectively, the Marine Corps does not need them around for that long.  If they are selected for early retirement by the SERB, then they have about seven months to transition out to retirement.  The reason that such senior officers are targeted in the Marine Corps is that by lopping off people at the top it frees those below them to move up.

The Army is apparently about to do the same thing, except for a much junior set of folks: captains and majors. From Ricks’ blog post (a portion of letter sent from a senior officer to his or her juniors):

“You may already know, but there are going to be Officer Separation Boards (OSB) and Enhanced Selective Early Retirement Boards (E-SERBs) for Army Competitive Category Captains in Year Groups 2006-2008 and Majors in Year Groups 1999-2003 beginning in March 2014.

Initial word is that the OSBs and E-SERBs will select less than 10% of the considered majors and captains in year group 2008 and less than 20% of the captains considered in year groups 2006 and 2007.

I am meeting with the officers in the battalion affected that are physically at Ft. [DELETED] to discuss their Professional Development and future officer actions and will provide them an assessment of their potential for future service and potential risk of being selected for involuntary separation, and will help prepare their files for the boards. Additionally they are contacting their HRC Branch Representatives for an assessment. I recommend you find a trusted senior officer to do the same.”

The writing is on the wall.  Despite the promise of an exciting career in uniform, many officers are going to get the axe.  Is it good?  Is it bad?  I dunno.  In the mafia, they say that “it’s just business”.  The military needs to shrink, and it is not sequestration’s fault.  How the shrinking is done, however, says a lot about the moral contract between the institution of the military and those who serve within it.

Food for thought.


6 responses to “Here it comes: the big drawdown

  1. On the positive side, what a tremendous opportunity for the business world, if they can recognize it. This kind of access to proven leaders, mostly college-educated and with extensive OJT in personnel and project management, well this occurs once in a career cycle. The post-WWII separation was largely responsible for one of the largest technological and economic boons that this nation has experienced.

    Orders to Nowhere should facilitate the merger of the two worlds, that of the warrior and that of the suits.

    • I couldn’t agree with you more. Those that I know who have been SERB’d really were not expecting it, and their transitions were tough as a result. I would certainly love to help out those leaving the military, and also those on the other side of the fence who can gain from the talented men and women who can do great things in the business world!

  2. I think the last sentence sums it up perfectly…will our armed forces approach this by acknowledging and addressing the issue in a way that demonstrates moral responsibility, or have our leaders just been paying lip service by calling these folks our best and brightest for the last 12 years? Id like to believe in the high road, but know deep down its all about politics and fiscal legerdemain. Great post…it got me thinking.

    • Thanks for the comment. It is interesting watching things unfold. In the early ’90s the same thing happened as a result of the end of the Cold War. The services were throwing people out left and right, only to realize that using a hatchet instead of a carrot was a pretty bad idea.

  3. I am an officer in one of the the year groups mentioned in this post. I could not be more angry about this move. For example look at the year groups of majors selected, all where commissioned before the wars and most before September 11th. This draw down isn’t a reshaping for pre-war size it’s the most significant reduction since world war 2.

    We served through a grulling decade of war and now we face an uncertain future? This is immoral an there is no other way to say it. If you don’t think so just imagine being a year group 99 infantry officer with 15 years of active service being separated with no retirement benefits. Our leaders should be ashamed that this would ever happen.

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