Monday, September 18, 2006

What if we needed 100,000 more troops?

There has been a lot of discussion about the stretching of our armed forces, and - if Iran heats up as I suggest below - there undoubtedly will be more. Last week, the issue came up again because of this article by Bill Kristol and Rich Lowry calling for more US troops in Iraq. That spurred a number of related posts over at The Corner. Search the archives for the past week or so if you want to get a feel.

There are lots of issues raised here, and touching on all of them would be a lengthy task. My style, however, with topics such as this will be to deconstruct them, focusing a single post on one aspect of the issue (with future posts to potentially hit on other parts). This isn't because the other parts aren't important, but because few people want to read chapter-length disquisitions on a blog.

In that vein, I want to look at one statement that is made at the end of this email to Rich Lowry: "You simply can't say 'we need more troops' without reinitiating the draft. That will never happen." Put aside for a moment whether or not we need more troops. If we do, can we get them short of reinstituting the draft?

It's generally recognized that the military has slimmed down since the Cold War. I don't think, though, that the extent of this is completely appreciated. Take a look at this chart that I put together:

The figures for active duty personnel come from here (alas, only through 2002), while the population figures come from here (Table 2). What this tells us is that the "military participation rate," if you will, has dropped from ~0.9% in the 1980's to ~0.5% today. With a population nearing 300 million, each 0.01% equals almost 30,000 troops.

There are other forces at play, obviously; more detailed work would need to account for the portion of the population of appropriate age, the higher level of female participation in the military now versus in the 1980's, etc. However, the directional conclusion remains the same: a participation rate nearly twice today's was sustained throughout the 1980's without the use of a draft.

Today is, of course, different: we are at war, unemployment is lower, more people choose to go to college, etc. Yet the scale of change in the participation rate necessary to bring in, say, an additional 100,000 soldiers (and I don't hear anyone saying we need another 1 million) is so modest in a historical context, that it begs the question: what would we need to do to recruit those incremental soldiers in a non-compulsory manner?

And so here is an initial, humble suggestion: if we do decide that we need more soldiers, be they 100,000 or some other figure, let's try to recruit the very best we can and do that the same way a business might look to attract additional (qualified) employees. If we can't fill the positions as they are, then let's pay more, or make other changes which would, at the margin, change the number of people who choose to volunteer. People join the military for much more important reasons than pay or benefits, but to suggest that those things play no role in the decision of many is simply untrue. I don't know how sensitive the marginal propensity to enlist is to changes in salary, but I do know it would be easy enough (albeit potentially expensive) to find out if necessary.

We may have too few troops, we may have the wrong mix of troops, we may have troops that we are deploying poorly, and we may be having trouble finding people who meet our current criteria. All that could be true (although I don't agree with it all), but it still tells us almost nothing about whether or not we need to reinstitute a draft.

UPDATE: Welcome Instapundit readers. This blog is about 2/3 politics and 1/3 finance/economics. Feel free to check out some of the other posts if you enjoyed this one.

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