July 01, 2023

CNAS Responds: The 50th Anniversary on the All-Volunteer Force

Today, the United States celebrates the 50th anniversary of the American All-Volunteer Force. The establishment of the All-Volunteer Force in 1973 represented a pivotal transition from the draft system to a voluntary military, ushering in a more professional and dedicated force. Researchers from CNAS’ Military, Veterans, and Society Program share their insights on the significance of this milestone and its implications for the future of the American armed forces.

All quotes may be used with attribution. To arrange an interview, email awhaley@cnas.org.

Katherine Kuzminski, Senior Fellow and Director, Military, Veterans, and Society Program

The shift to the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) 50 years ago provided the mechanisms to generate the professionalized U.S. military we have today. The anniversary marks an opportunity to evaluate and modernize the policies, processes, and incentives underlying the AVF to ensure its sustainability and credibility for the next 50 years. Such modernization will require analysis of key factors impacting military recruitment and retention, such as evolving perceptions of military service, the role of dual-professional family structures on military service, a growing civil-military divide, and trends in American demographics that have shifted since the AVF’s inception. The anniversary further calls for a clear-minded evaluation of the AVF’s sufficiency to meet operational requirements in potential near-peer competition.

Brandon Archuleta, PhD, Adjunct Senior Fellow, Military, Veterans, and Society Program

America’s All-Volunteer Force (AVF) has proudly answered the nation’s call to service for 50 years. Indeed, the AVF is the hallmark of the U.S. military and a model for liberal democracies around the world. Since its inception in 1973, the AVF has propelled generations of service members and their families into the American middle class with generous compensation and benefits, commensurate with the service and sacrifice necessary to provide for the national defense. Consequently, today's AVF is more diverse, equitable, inclusive, lethal, and ready than ever before. Ensuring the long-term viability of the AVF is a national issue that will require smart Pentagon policies and significant public investment in order to recruit and retain the next generation of uniformed volunteers.

Taren Sylvester, Research Assistant, Military, Veterans, and Society Program

The decision to transition to an all-volunteer military force in 1973 reflected growing social pressure from the public, and within the services themselves, to address rising resentment for a costly, unpopular war. Three decades of conscription had exacerbated the inequalities in the draft system and allowed compensation for service to lag significantly behind civilian pay. The years immediately following the implementation of the AVF saw paltry recruitment numbers compounded by issues with order and discipline. Addressing these shortcomings required nothing short of a revolution in manpower affairs and policy to bring about a fighting force that was professional, capable, resilient, and, above all, an attractive form of employment.

The military today faces similar challenges to those it did 50 years ago. The services struggle to meet recruiting goals as 20 years of forever wars ended with little to show for what they cost in blood and treasure. Trust in the military as an institution is steadily declining as it is used as a political cudgel by all sides in escalating partisan spats. Righting the ship will take similar degrees of innovation and commitment as those that yielded the All-Volunteer Force.

Jason Dempsy, PhD, Adjunct Senior Fellow, Military, Veterans, and Society Program

The All-Volunteer Force (AVF) warrants much broader discussion beyond an acknowledgment of this anniversary milestone. For most Americans, the AVF is foreign to their daily lives. It is something to be celebrated regularly but little understood. This is to be expected. The AVF shifted the burden of service to a smaller, self-selected cohort of citizens and gave most Americans the freedom to be indifferent to their military. As a result, we can expect this milestone to come with declarations about “the finest fighting force the world has ever known” with no acknowledgment of the military’s failures over the course of the longest war in our history. This lack of scrutiny and introspection has been a luxury for both military leaders and policymakers eager to take in the reflected adoration that the public has for its military while avoiding hard questions about its effectiveness and future sustainability. This era of indifference may soon be coming to a close, as the AVF faces the challenges of increasing costs and the decreasing inclination of most Americans to serve in uniform. And with future wars more likely to look like the fighting in Ukraine, with manpower needs and casualty rates that will overwhelm the capacity of the AVF in its current form, we would do well to have these difficult conversations now.

Ayla McBreen, Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Intern, Military, Veterans, and Society Program

The 50th anniversary of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) is an opportunity to celebrate the triumphs of the modern force, while also reflecting on how ending conscription has altered the make-up of the force and its relationship to American society. The overhaul the armed services undertook post-Vietnam resulted in a sleek, nimble force capable of responding to threats rapidly and effectively, making the U.S. military the most powerful in the world. Domestically, however, the AVF has become separated from the general public. There are major geographic disparities in who volunteers as well as a plurality of recruits coming from military families, making the AVF less representative of America as a whole. These realities mean that, compared to 50 years ago, far fewer Americans today interact with the military in any meaningful way. This anniversary raises serious questions about how we engage with and conceive of the military in our society and how we can prevent further stratification between our servicemembers and the public they serve.

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  • Katherine L. Kuzminski

    Deputy Director of Studies, Director, Military, Veterans, and Society Program

    Katherine L. Kuzminski (formerly Kidder) is the Deputy Director of Studies, and the Director of the Military, Veterans, and Society (MVS) Program at CNAS. Her research special...

  • Brandon J. Archuleta

    Adjunct Senior Fellow in the Military, Veterans, and Society Program

    Brandon J. Archuleta, Ph.D. is a U.S. Army Strategist and Adjunct Senior Fellow in the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. His r...

  • Taren Sylvester

    Research Assistant, Military, Veterans, & Society Program

    Taren Sylvester is the Research Assistant for the Military, Veterans, & Society Program at CNAS. Their research interests include issues of civil-military relations, socie...

  • Dr. Jason Dempsey

    Adjunct Senior Fellow, Military, Veterans, and Society Program

    Jason Dempsey is an Adjunct Senior Fellow of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Dr. Dempsey has written on American ...

  • Ayla McBreen

    Former Intern, Military, Veterans & Society Program

    Ayla McBreen is a former Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Intern for the Military, Veterans & Society Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Ayla graduated from Kenyo...