The all-volunteer force is in the throes of what is widely and rightly termed a “recruiting crisis,” having now missed its annual intake goal by tens of thousands of recruits for the second year in a row. Dig a little deeper and the picture gets even darker. The Air Force’s pilot shortage continues to worsen. The Army Reserve has been forced to put active duty officers in command of some of its battalions, because there are insufficient Reserve officers who want the once-coveted position of commander. The Army National Guard narrowly missed its recruiting goals this past year—but 2022 was catastrophic, with only one state (New York) meeting its Army Guard recruiting goal and thirty-one states falling short by more than 40 percent.

The worst may be yet to come. Just like American higher education, the US military faces an impending demographic cliff, a “baby bust” that resulted from the Great Recession (and another from the COVID-19 pandemic, which will be felt in in the 2030s). The number of American eighteen-year-olds is set to peak next year at 9.4 million, before dropping to about eight million by 2029. The pool of traditional military recruits is about to dramatically shrink.

The pervasive politicization of almost all aspects of America life has left the military beset by ideologues on both ends of the political spectrum, with those on the hard right attacking a “woke military” led by social radicals, while those on the hard left dismiss the US military as a tool of oligarchy and oppression. American society is still digesting the effects of twenty years of post-9/11 wars, the global financial crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic, but none of these major and compounding disruptions are likely to be boons to military recruiting.

The recruiting crisis took years to reach fruition; quick fixes will not reverse it. Throwing money at the problem, America’s first answer to all things national security since 1947, has reached the point of diminishing returns. Lowering standards—though already in progress— is not a viable path for a force that must be able to overcome both the physical and technological demands of major conventional warfare. And better advertising, though welcome, won’t save the Army.

There are two primary drivers of the recruiting crisis and the retention struggle to which it is inextricably linked: a shrinking pool of potential service members and the incompatibility of the traditional model of full-time military service with modern American life.

The all-volunteer force’s economic and social model appears archaic to young Americans. Cradle-to-grave employment, the active duty military’s model (albeit with enormous incentives to retire too early), is a thing of the past for most US workers. A 2016 Gallup report found that 21 percent of millennials polled changed jobs that year—triple the number of workers from other generations. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, millennial and Generation Z workers are particularly apt to sacrifice pay and promotion for flexibility, stability, and work-life balance. The all-volunteer force, by contrast, punishes families with frequent moves—a rigid model that also makes meaningful careers for military spouses all but impossible. The pandemic has made the gap between civilian and military life larger and more unattractive.

The most salient number for the all-volunteer force’s survival is not the percentage of young Americans who are eligible to serve, as grim as that number is, but the percentage of Americans who would even consider enlisting—those the US military describes as “propensed to serve.” That number, at just 9 percent, is the lowest it’s been since the worst days of the Iraq War. The cratering propensity to serve is a direct, if delayed, consequence of the all-volunteer force itself.

The end of the draft in 1973 eventually yielded a US military of unparalleled proficiency and professionalism. But these gains came at a grave cost: the creation of a widening chasm between the American people and their military. Civil-military relations experts, and many other Americans, rightly worry about the impact of this divide on basic questions of American national security and foreign policy. But by sequestering the military from civilian life, the all-volunteer force may also have sown the seeds of its own destruction.

After fifty years of an opt-in, all-recruited force, most young Americans have an extremely limited understanding of their country’s military. Millennials, an understandably risk-averse cohort after growing up amid a global financial crisis and post-9/11 terrorist threat inflation, are prone to dramatically overrate the dangers of military service. Understanding of military lifestyles is equally blinkered. Forty-nine percent of Gen Zers in a 2022 poll thought that American soldiers received no personal time and no vacation days.

The people with the best understanding of the challenges and rewards of military service are military families. The children of service members and veterans are far more propensed to serve, to the point that the US military has become a family business. In 2019, nearly 80 percent of Army recruits reported having a family member who served. For more than 30 percent, it was a parent. This nascent military caste is another unhealthy and unsustainable outcome of the all-volunteer force, but it points to a potential solution: lowering barriers between the US military and American society in order to expose more Americans to their military, ensuring better understanding of the force and far broader interest in military service.

The method, in military manpower terms, is permeability: breaking down bureaucratic walls between the military’s active and reserve components and between the military and civilian sectors. Permeability would enable nontraditional military careers, in which American citizens might move, with minimal possible friction, between active service, reserve service, and fully civilian status, as their lives and the national security situation dictate.

Permeability enhances both talent acquisition and talent management, by offering more responsibility and pay to recruits with critical skills, while also better incentivizing some of these key contributors to maintain at least a vestigial relationship with the military, making them far more ready to serve again in the event of a national crisis.

By maintaining that vestigial relationship, and with it, far more information about once and future service members than the Individual Ready Reserve and Selective Service currently provide, the military will be better prepared to effectively mobilize in the event of a true national security emergency. The US military needs both talent and mass. But a military must be built with the worst-case scenario in mind: high-intensity, high-casualty, major warfare.

The services, and Congress, have taken some steps toward increasing permeability in the US military. The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) contained several provisions that could foster a more fluid and capable military force. It authorized career intermissions, later entry for commissioned officers, promotion flexibility, and, most importantly, lateral entry from the civilian sector at up to O-6 rank. None of these reforms have been fully implemented, but together they offer a glimpse of a very different future force.

The United States can also look to allies and partners for examples of permeability at work. Finland, NATO’s newest member, defends itself with a tiny active-duty military and enormous reserves in which most men serve for decades (Finnish women can and do volunteer to serve). Neighboring Sweden has restored gender-neutral selective conscription and returned to a Cold War–era, whole-of-society concept of “total defense.” In Israel, many if not most of the elite strike pilots of the Israeli Air Force are reservists. The current American way is not the only way.

Embracing permeability would be a culture shock for the US military, but a necessary one for the security challenges that may lie ahead. The armed forces will always need some lifers, but both societal changes and strategic geography indicate that full-time, career service members should be in the minority. The Ukraine War is providing a reminder that major wars are seldom short. Talk of sinking the entire People’s Liberation Army Navy in seventy-two hours is as farcical as Vladimir Putin’s army packing their dress uniforms for a supposed stroll into Kyiv two years ago. A major war will be fought and won by a mobilized nation, not by the small active duty force that begins hostilities. America’s providential geography, with the United States thousands of miles from potential enemies and ringed by oceans and friendly neighbors, only underscores this truth.

Permeability is not a short-term panacea for the US military’s recruiting woes. It will probably take a generation to thoroughly conceive, instill, and disseminate a new ethos of American military service, with the organizational culture and institutions to match. The scale of the solution will be commensurate with the scale of the problem. The alternative, the evidence suggests, is a shrinking force, bleeding both talent and mass, increasingly inadequate to the security challenges of the twenty-first century.

Gil Barndollar is a US Marine Corps veteran, serving National Guardsman, and a Lieutenant General Bernard E. Trainor veterans fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Spc. Francis De Leon, US Army