All‐Volunteer Force

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All‐Volunteer Force. In 1973, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird announced the formation of the All‐Volunteer Force (AVF) and the end of the conscription that had been the major basis of America's Cold War army. Although volunteerism had been America's peacetime military tradition prior to 1940, the AVF represented the nation's first attempt to maintain a standing force on a completely voluntary basis.

The blueprint for the AVF was prepared by President Richard M. Nixon's Commission on an All‐Volunteer Armed Force, appointed in 1969. Driven by political pressure to end the draft and an ideological commitment to free market forces, the commission headed by Thomas Gates had concluded that a volunteer force, supported by the potential to reintroduce the draft, was preferable to a mixed force of conscripts and volunteers, and that, based on labor market dynamics, it was economically feasible to raise a volunteer army. The Gates Commission also believed that the end of conscription would have no major effect on racial or gender composition of the service.

In 1973, the American economy was troubled, youth unemployment was high, entry‐level military pay was comparable to civilian pay, and the All‐Volunteer Force initially appeared to be a success. There were major increases in the representation of African Americans and women. A stand by structure for conscription was retained, but the military became more dependent on the reserve components as its primary base for mobilization. These too experienced major increases in women and minority personnel.

During the late 1970s, funding for recruiting was cut, and the purchasing power of the average enlisted person declined. In 1976, the G. I. Bill ended; simultaneously, a new selection and classification test, which had been miscalibrated, was introduced. Recruit quality declined, and in 1979, the army fell 17,000 soldiers short of its recruiting goal: the worst recruiting year in postwar history. During this period, the force was decried as a “hollow army.”

A recovery in the early 1980s was driven by pay increases and new educational incentives for enlistment. In 1983, on the tenth anniversary of the All‐Volunteer Force, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger announced that on the basis of this success, the Department of Defense would no longer use the title “All‐Volunteer Armed Forces,” but merely “Armed Forces.” In the subsequent decade, the recruiting environment remained relatively poor, and recruit quality was at best stable, in an increasingly smaller force.

The army in 1973 had about 800,000 soldiers; in 1990 it still had 732,000. After the end of the Cold War, President Bill Clinton proposed to bring the army down to 491,000 soldiers by 1999. The total AVF dropped from 2 million in 1975 to 1.5 million in 1996. The smaller volunteer force has been involved in an expanded number of operations in recent years, including the use of 30,000 troops in the 1989 invasion of Panama to seize Manuel Noriega and some 650,000 American personnel (active and reserve) in the Persian Gulf War in 1990–91.
[See also Conscription.]


Jerald G. Bachman,, John D. Blair,, and and David R. Segal , The All‐Volunteer Force, 1977.
John B. Keeley, ed., The All‐Volunteer Force and American Society, 1978.
William Bowman, Roger Little, and G. Thomas Sicilia, eds., The All‐Volunteer Force After a Decade, 1986.

David R. Segal