Future Risk & Surge: Nathan Wike

Editor’s Note:  This article differs from the regular format we use at Divergent Options per a request from Nate Freier of the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College.  This article has the writer imagining that they are a Special Assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Defense (SecDef).  The writer is responding to a request from the SecDef for a two page memo that defines or describes strategic and military risk and identifies national security situations that may take place from 2017 to 2027 that would require the U.S. Department of Defense to surge personnel or capability to address.  The entire call for papers can be found here.  

Nathan Wike is an officer in the U.S. Army and a member of the Military Writer’s Guild.  The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. 

13 February 2017


SUBJECT:  The Ability to Surge Personnel in Response to Contingencies

INTRODUCTION:  The Secretary of Defense recently requested a series of position papers that describe national security situations that may take place from 2017 to 2027 that would require the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to surge personnel or capability. This is a critical step in considering the potential threats to U.S. national interests that may arise within the next decade. However, it rests upon a key assumption: that the DoD is capable of surging personnel to respond to a contingency. This topic directly relates to all four components of risk, outlined on page 90 of the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review. This memorandum discusses the means by which the DoD can surge personnel to rapidly expand the joint force in response to a contingency, and the potential risks.

BACKGROUND:  Since the 1970s, the U.S. military has relied upon the all-volunteer force (AVF) to fill its ranks. This force is unquestionably one of the most professional and capable militaries in all of history. The AVF has met every challenge with distinction, and is a credit to the nation. However, the AVF may not be enough to ensure victory against a peer or near-peer competitor in a conflict where vital U.S. interests are at stake. History reveals that in every major war, where the U.S. has faced an existential threat (e.g. the American Civil War, WWI, WWII), more than volunteers were required to achieve victory.

An unfortunate side effect of the AVF is that the methods and skills for utilizing the various means of surging military personnel have atrophied, or completely passed from the lexicon. These means equate to methods of conscription, which are inherently unpopular in any society. However, they are crucial in a major contingency.

DISCUSSION:  A well-conceived and tested system of surging personnel is a strategic capability that serves U.S. national interests. It provides assurance that the DoD can rapidly grow the joint force with the most qualified personnel available. This in turn serves as a deterrent to conflict. The options may be politically and socially difficult to implement, or even to contemplate. But losing a war would be even more so.

There are four primary methods through which the DoD may surge personnel. They may be applied in any sequence, or concurrently with one another. All are governed by the United States Code (USC). These four methods are: involuntary extension, ready reserve mobilization, enhanced recruitment strategies, and military selective service. Each method has various pros and cons that must be assessed prior to implementation.

Involuntary extension, colloquially known as “stop-loss,” is the fastest way to surge military personnel. This method retains a service-member beyond their initial end of term of service (ETS) date and up to their contractually agreed end of active obligated service (EAOS). Involuntary extension, which generally affects junior officers and enlisted personnel, is governed by Title 10, USC, Section 12305(a). This option has LOW operational and institutional risk, as it provides an immediate pool of trained personnel who are already assigned to units, and it has been used throughout the various operations throughout the 21st century. However it entails MODERATE force management risk, especially as is relates to morale and recruitment, and it is not sustainable over time.

Ready reserve mobilization affords the ability to recall service-members to active or reserve component service within 400 days of their ETS. This method affects a broad range of personnel from all ranks and occupational specialties. Ready reserve mobilization is governed by Title 10, USC, Section 12301(a). It has LOW operational risk, since affected personnel are not too far removed from military service, are generally of higher ranks and experience, and may quickly be re-integrated into units. This method has HIGH force management and institutional risk. It has been utilized within the last decade, but only for a minute percentage of personnel, and though all personnel assigned to the ready reserve are legally required to meet certain standards, in practice there are virtually no incentives to comply.

Enhanced recruitment strategies are the means by which the various recruitment apparatuses of the DoD can induce new personnel to volunteer for military service. This method primarily affects initial entry personnel, though it may extend to lateral entry personnel for select occupational specialties. This method has MODERATE operational risk, as it requires compromises in standards, and personnel arrive at units lacking valuable experience. It has MODERATE force management and institutional risk, as it preserves the spirit of the AVF, and the DoD can manage this method within existing structures, provided additional financial and material resources can be made available.

Military selective service, colloquially known as the draft, allows the DoD to draw upon the entire (male) population to meet personnel requirements, for all specialties. This is the most strategically significant option, by far. Military selective service is governed by Title 50, USC, Chapter 49. However it has HIGH risk across all categories. It has not been used since 1973, excludes eligible females, and the DoD no longer has the apparatuses or plans in place to monitor, induct, and assimilate the potentially vast numbers of eligible personnel.

CONCLUSION:  The risk to future challenges is currently HIGH, given that none of the aforementioned options are currently planned for, let alone regularly tested in the context of a major contingency operation. Reduction in risk can only come through a comprehensive review of the DoD’s processes to surge personnel, according to the USC. The options of involuntary extension, ready reserve mobilization, enhanced recruitment strategies, and military selective service must be incorporated into DoD strategic planning, then operationalized as part of exercises, and in practice for select cases. The ability to rapidly surge personnel is a strategic capability that must be preserved and modernized in order to safeguard U.S. interests from 2017 to 2027 and beyond.

DO Partners Nathan Wike Policy and Strategy Risk Assessment U.S. Army War College