Today, Americans are so accustomed to a large, standing, volunteer-based military that we forget this is an anomaly in the entire sweep of our national history. For decades before the institution of the all-volunteer force in 1973, national security in wartime fell to a large force dependent on a draft. That too was unusual. For well over a century and a half from its founding, the American land power necessary to compete with peer and near-peer adversaries was generated only at time of conflict and through the decentralized mobilization of volunteers into their own units, supplemented with regular and militia leaders. Admittedly, in between significant conflicts our security concerns were managed through the employment of a small core of regulars, and if necessary, state militia. However, when the dogs of war were either unleashed upon our nation or we let them slip to chase national interests, it fell to an evolving system built upon ordinary citizens and local leaders, harnessed by centralized management, to provide the bulk of those fighting for the country.

We could be approaching a time, based on the growing capacity and capability of current near-peer competitors and the greater integration of social tools into society for popular mobilization, when we must again be prepared to rely on mass mobilization in this manner to prepare our sons and daughters for war. This would require a shift in how the military currently conceives and plans for mobilizing its people for war. In short, it may be time to re-assess the military’s current ability for mass mobilization. This includes the ability to centrally control a decentralized process of mass mobilization that must occur in months, instead of years, and that may be required for strategic success against a peer or near-peer adversary.

Mobilization to the Present Day

Military policy for creating land forces in the past evolved as the nation changed, creating variation across the first two centuries of its existence. However, until the First World War, America largely (with the Mexican-American War the only exception) held to the Founders’ vision that its use of land power would be “prudential and defensive,” with its foundation for mobilization residing in three key institutions. First, a very small regular force acting as frontier police and garrisons for coastal fortifications, simultaneously keeping the spark of military knowledge alive. Second, state militias providing a pool of minimally trained recruits for local defense. And third, an undefined pool of men that could be tapped at the time of war—volunteers. This served the nation passably well in its infancy, providing some measure of security from the continental threats of unrest, rebellion, and raiding by Native American tribes pushing back against American expansion.

As conflicts with geopolitical rivals continued to threaten and even boiled to the fore in 1812 against the British, in 1846 with the Mexicans, and against the Spanish in 1898, American land forces were generated by calling forth volunteers, hastily providing them the minimal materiel and training required for regimented infantry tactics, and throwing them into battle to supplement the core manpower provided by the smaller militia and regular forces. (The exception, the Civil War, resulted in riots and social backlash to the concept of conscription.) America’s political leaders—executive and legislative—and the military establishment depended on economic incentives, social pressures, and a sense of duty to produce the additional manpower they perceived would be required for the crisis. This was manifested in various ways, including by state militia quickly taking on volunteers to fill their ranks at the advent of war, or the wholesale creation of new volunteer units. While this tended to create command-and-control and supply issues at the beginning of conflict, it was a decently efficacious method for quickly expanding military manpower to address a national crisis, while simultaneously attempting to unify American society toward a common goal. Additionally, as was seen up to the Spanish-American War, providing for a system of volunteers overcame some of the cultural and structural issues in both the regular and the militia systems to quickly provide the required manpower for war. The regular force was too conservative and jealous of its special skills and status, and the militia was unable to commit the majority of its personnel to mobilization in time of war due to lack of training/fitness or hesitance to leave their states or families.

As the Great War approached, the Department of War’s General Staff, Secretary of War Newton Baker, and President Woodrow Wilson all agreed on the institution of a plan for conscription, though their reasons differed. Understanding the significant unrest created by a series of drafts during the Civil War, General Staff planners in 1917 developed a hybrid scheme, using the benefits of decentralized social mechanisms, as well as a centralized management, equipping, and training system, to build the envisioned four-million-man army for service in Europe. Local civilian officials ran registration boards that fed federally managed camps. These boards ended up registering twenty-four million men and providing 2.7 million men for service in uniform, while others were directed into war industries that supported American power projection across the Atlantic. Every subsequent war (up to the creation of the all-volunteer force in 1973) eschewed the raising of land power via volunteer units, instead mobilizing manpower through conscription built largely on this World War I model of decentralized recruitment and centralized control.

Since 1973, however, military force has been raised for war exclusively through the slow increase of regular and reserve forces based on the all-volunteer force and attendant economic incentives to make it appealing. This has led to a loss of the necessary skills to plan for mass mobilization, with the current paradigm being focused on simply expanding current reserve and regular forces through aggressive recruiting campaigns to address any regional conflicts pertinent to American interests. It is possible, given the changing character of warfare and the rise of geopolitical competitors that can employ highly capable forces in larger quantities than the United States, that we must re-think past practices and assess contemporary tools to mobilize large quantities of new manpower quickly.

Modern Tools for Mobilization

Coming out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—and energized by events like Russia’s operations in Georgia, Crimea, and eastern Ukraine, and China’s buildup of area-denial capabilities and its creation of new bases upon shoals in the South China Sea—national security thinkers have been spending significant energy defining the future character of warfare. The admirable goal is to positively position the United States for any future conflict. Any war with Russia, China, or even North Korea or Iran, will likely not be a quick or easy affair, despite some recent optimistic predictions. If this is the case, the existential nature of the conflict is clear, requiring more than a slow buildup of US land forces under the current all-volunteer force model. It could require a system similar to that created for the Great War in scope—with a focus on locally generated but centrally managed process—if not a re-introduction of the mobilization of volunteer units. To address a need for a new mass mobilization, an updated system would need to utilize modern tools such as social media, big data, workflow applications, massive open online course technology, and additive printing.

Manning Through Social Media

For recruiting, big data and social media could be used to great effect by understanding granular details of society and supporting positive aspects of American patriotism and desire to serve. Such efforts could funnel volunteers into a recruiting station run by local community leaders for registration. There is much bemoaning of the ills of social media echo chambers and their technological empowerment of the individual to attack the state (whether peacefully at the ballot box or violently through the killing of specific groups of people), but there is also a possibility of using these dynamics on behalf of the state—essentially empowering the state through individuals. Just like ISIS used Twitter and other social media platforms to market themselves to the Islamic world and draw 30,000 foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq, and Turkey supported its offensive into Syria to push back such ISIS fighters with tweets and high-quality imagery, the US military could take a deliberate approach to gathering like-minded supporters at recruiting stations. Or even more radically, the US government could empower social media super-nodes that already possess the requisite skills and meet current requirements to raise volunteer units for training and employment—think of it as a twenty-first-century letter of marque, but for land forces. There is no shortage of individuals, organizations, and even brands that could fill this role: I bet the guys over at RangerUp or Article 15 Clothing could do more then sell t-shirts . . . and their clothing lines would be a great uniform for a brigade raised from their Twitter following. Or even former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander (of gun assembly political ad fame). While this would obviously have significant drawbacks and make current bureaucratic managers’ heads explode, it certainly isn’t beyond the realm of the possible for an existential conflict.

Management Through Applications

Modern workflow and database applications like Slack (and the dozens of tools that can be integrated into it), Dropbox, and Google’s G Suite could help organize the mobilization. They could streamline the coordination of so many new recruits going from registration to mobilization camp, seamlessly manage personnel files, and perform other digital tasks for the quick sharing of data and tasks to support the frequent movement of people. Imagine if every mobilized soldier had a Slack profile integrated into a mobilization district’s group that was also tied to a Google Calendar, a Dropbox folder that contained all pertinent personal and training documentation, Twitter and Facebook to allow for inbound mentions and outbound comments to keep conversation going between recruits and mobilizing officials, and Instagram or Snapchat to share pictures and videos of the experience. It would be like fusing the best functions of personnel management, training tools, and public affairs rolled into a single enterprise. And it wouldn’t require the costly software development efforts that have characterized previous efforts in this vein, such as Integrated Personnel and Pay System – Army (IPPS-A).

Training and Education via MOOCs

For the training and education of new recruits, massive open online course technology can be utilized, pulling in inspirational leaders, renowned educators, and practiced trainers to provide information to recruits (even before enlistment) and between physical training events. Professional development has never been easier to access, with reading courses, online resources, and podcasts in abundance. Additionally, individual and group simulations built on 3D gaming found on today’s smart phones could support downtime between the physical training required to build muscle memory. The key would be providing mobilizing personnel the right information and tools to choose from as driven by their personal background, knowledge, level of expertise, future job, and personal desire. All of these resources could also be managed in a similar way as mentioned in the workflow discussion above, helping to drive conversation and learning with peers, sharing information with those outside of mobilizing forces—for both recruiting value and keeping family and friends informed—and educating society at large, possibly leading to more unity of effort in the overall public’s perception of the conflict.

Equipping By Additive Printing

Finally, aside from supporting manning and training, new technologies could also support a mass mobilization through additive manufacturing. No longer would there be a need for warehouses full of clothing, gear, or certain weapons; they could be printed at mobilization sites for initial issue. This could apply to training aids, as well, reducing the overall sustainment demands from external support for each mobilization site. Imagine walking into a large building that—instead of being composed of stacks and stacks of overused, dated equipment in the wrong camouflage pattern that is useless—looks more like a doctor’s office. You’re first screened by a tech, but instead of temperature and blood pressure, the tech uses a laser to scan for your exact measurements. The next morning, you return to the office to pick up your entire kit of clothing and gear, made especially for you.

A Future Based on the Past

Most of the examples above border on the fantastical solely by virtue of the bureaucratic walls that would inevitably prevent their implementation. However, just thinking through key aspects of the above argument—(1) there will be a large war between the United States and one or more near-peer or peer adversaries that could require mass mobilization of land forces, (2) the US military is unprepared for a mass mobilization, (3) the mobilization model of localized recruitment and centralized control seen in the Great War could provide a framework to consider, and (4) modern technologies and ways of interacting would enhance such a mobilization—could help drive conversation and thought on the issue.

The US military daily conducts intensive planning to address how we would defeat threats based on current resources. If preparation for the future holds to Eisenhower’s old quote that “plans are worthless, but planning is everything,” the United States military would be doing its future force a disservice to not address the possible mass mobilization of its citizens, as well. War prosecution is much more than simply the technologies we employ and the current soldiers we possess. It is the backbone of organization and coordination that can provide the resources necessary to address tomorrow’s fight—big or small.


Nathan K. Finney is an officer in the US Army. He is also the creator and co-founder of the non-profit organization The Strategy Bridge; founding member and executive committee member of the Military Writers Guild; a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations; and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. A PhD candidate in history at the University of Kansas focusing on the mobilization of American Expeditionary Forces during the First World War, he holds masters degrees in Public Administration from Harvard University and the University of Kansas, as well as a BA in Anthropology from the University of Arizona. You can find Nate on Twitter @NKFinney. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the US government.