“Aim High.” The slogan used to be “A Great Way of Life,” but last year the United States Air Force decided to change it. “We wanted a new emphasis on the increased technology aspect of the modern Air Force,” explains Captain Maryellen Jadick, who’s in charge of Air Force advertising for an area that includes Washington, D.C., Northern Virginia, and most of the states of Maryland and Delaware. And that’s certainly what most of the radio and television ads emphasize: eager fighter pilots double-checking their electronic instrument panels before slipping the surly bonds of earth; several airmen assembled around a computer print-out; a young black man in headphones peering intently at a radar screen. The themes are unmistakable: excitement, living on the cutting edge of technology, learning a highly marketable skill. “They’re beautiful spots,” Jadick says. “They’ve won all kinds of awards.”
But not so fast. If the nation must persuade young men and women to serve in uniform, it’s only right that it neither mislead them about the work they’ll do, nor waste their talents once they’ve enlisted. Yet that’s exactly why the Air Force’s commercials, award-winning or not, are so disturbing. A closer look at what that service’s 476,000 enlisted personnel actually do reveals that, however much aspiring recruits may strive to “Aim High,” most end up landing in some surprising—and disappointing—places.
The Air Force’s own figures tell the story. Of last year’s 65,000 new recruits, 7,000 are now, well, guarding things. As “security specialists” they keep watch over everything from B-52 bombers to the clubhouse at the base golf course. Another 3,700 are “administrative specialists,” performing work that World War II veterans will instantly recognize for having once gone under the title of “clerk.” Nearly 2,200 have become “inventory management specialists,” performing such chores as ordering supplies and stocking shelves with spare parts. Another 2,000 are “law enforcement specialists,” the Air Force’s version of policemen.
In addition to these jobs—the top four “career areas” for new enlistees in fiscal year 1983—the Air Force turned 1,200 recruits into “fire protection specialists,” more than 1,000 into “vehicle operators,” and 840 into “food service specialists.” About 800 are “personnel specialists.” What do they do? “They handle the paperwork for all the transfers, make sure the military record is complete,” explains Charles Chandler, the public affairs director for the Air Force’s recruiting division. “Oh—and those emergency notification cards. That’s very important. They make sure they’re in the folder, too.”
According to Chandler, most potential recruits aren’t interested in these jobs; they prefer “high tech, electronics, working with airplanes.” But only eight of the 20 largest career areas for new recruits have more than a passing connection to these vocations. Only 3,000 of last year’s 65,000 enlistees became jet engine mechanics or “maintenance specialists” for the Air Force’s fleet of bombers and tactical fighters. Competition for many electronics specialties—and only 15 percent of the Air Force’s jobs are so classified—is so keen that scoring in the 80th percentile on the Air Force’s aptitude and vocational test is almost a prerequisite. And the hardest jobs to get? “I’d say the high-tech, computer jobs,” answers Chandler.
Experienced shoppers might detect something familiar in the Air Force’s recruiting pitch—a tactic the Better Business Bureau refers to as “bait and switch.” In the retail trade, it works like this: Lefty’s House of Discount Appliances advertises a fabulous special—say, a 25-inch color television for just $99. Upon seeing the advertisement, you rush down to the store, only to be told by the salesman—who knows full well the store never had more than two of those sets—that the last one was just carted away by a happy customer. As you start to leave, however, he grabs you by the arm and whispers, “But I’ve got an even better bargain over here!” Fifteen minutes later you’re the proud owner of a combination microwave oven/automatic dishwasher that you’re convinced really is a steal at just $899.
The Air Force says it doesn’t know how often recruits are placed in their career area of first choice; “that would take at least three weeks to find, if it’s even in our computers,” Chandler says. But one conclusion is fairly obvious: many of the jobs so invitingly portrayed in the commercials are about as rare as those $99 color television sets.
And many of those jobs—in the tradition of most cheap appliances—aren’t what they’re cracked up to be. Something called “avionics” is the largest high-tech “career field” in the Air Force, employing 30,000 enlisted personnel. The term refers to the interchangeable components—”black boxes”—that control the computer, radar, and communications systems on the Air Force’s most modern weapons. But avionics, while making weapons such as the F-15 fighter more sophisticated than the F-4 it succeeded, have also made much maintenance and repair work simpler, just as solid-state technology has made television sets easier to repair. The vast majority of “avionics specialists” do little more than detect a malfunctioning black box and replace it with a good one; only a few are trained to fix the bad ones. Since private employers are usually interested only in those ex-enlisted men with the latter skill, the typical avionics specialist will find the words of Major General Albert G. Roberts, commander of logistics for the Tactical Air Command, somewhat disheartening. Referring recently to the new generation of Air Force planes, Roberts enthused, “They’re straight-forward, more honest to fix, and require less technical skill.”
Less technical skill? Welcome to the modern Air Force, where more enlisted men provide fire protection and sanitation services than maintain and repair computers, where more serve as “food services specialists” than maintain nuclear missiles, and where the Security Police Academy is, according to a spokesman, “the largest institution of its kind in the free world.” One lieutenant colonel in the Air Force describes it this way: “All those recruiting ads, with the planes and the high tech? Well, it’s the Air Force’s Big Lie. Most people don’t deal with that, and even in the high-tech jobs you’re not really trained, you’re programmed like robots. The people at headquarters know that—after all, they make sure the manuals for these jobs are written so fifth graders can understand them.”
The not-so-surprising result is that many airmen find themselves performing work that’s somewhat different than what they expected when they first walked into a recruiter’s office. An “administrative specialist” at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., recalls, “I wanted to work on computers, but they told me my real aptitude was in administrative work. I spend most of my time typing and filing forms; I could have learned how to do this in a secretarial school.” Charles Moskos, a sociologist from Northwestern University whose specialty is enlisted men in the All-Volunteer Force, recently returned from a visit to several Strategic Air Command bases in North Dakota. “Upwards of 20 percent of the people at these bases are security guards,” he says. “You have guys patrolling or maybe just sitting in a three-quarter ton truck all night with the heater on, watching a plane on the runway. It’s tedious, excruciatingly boring work, and a lot of guys definitely think the recruiters sold them a bill of goods.” Moskos adds, “So much for aiming high.”
It’s one thing to have able, competent people joining the Air Force because their childhood dream was to get a chance to stand watch over highly sophisticated weapons. It’s quite another to have able, competent security guards who enlisted because they really wanted to work with airplanes. The sin of misleading is further compounded, however, by using people unproductively once they’re in their assigned career areas. This not only wastes money and talent, but, over time, breeds a subtle contempt for the system, even among those who like military service.
Having too little real work to divide among too many talented people is one of the modern Air Force’s most vexing problems. It perhaps is best exemplified by the Air Force’s preference for breaking down its jobs into an almost maddening number of specialties. The Navy, for example, puts its people into about 150 different specialties, assigning them to work on its array of weapons—ships, submarines, carrier-based fighters, reconnaissance planes, helicopters, and nuclear missiles. The Air Force divides its work into more than 350 specialties. Where the Navy typically assigns one generalist to repair several different types of weapons, the Air Force will assign several specialists to one weapon system. The firing system on the F-15 fighter, for example, is tended by hydraulic, radar, and electronics specialists.
One result of this system is to make a job that’s dull even more so. Security guards, for example, are occasionally roused from their torpor by a signal from an electronic alarm, which in most cases goes off only because the sensor is malfunctioning. But the security guard is usually not allowed to reset it; that requires an electronics technician to be summoned to the scene.
On the maintenance line, this specialization often results in too many people taking too long to do a given job. One former maintenance officer who’s still in the Air Force recalls how for repair of a malfunctioning radio he had to rely on five separate departments: a crew chief to unbolt a few panels, a team of two or three to pull the seat, a crew of electricians to disconnect the radio, a crew to transport it to the repair shop, and another to fix it. “It was craft unionism run amok,” he recalled. “In between, you did a lot of waiting around. A four-hour job that ended up taking four days seemed to be the rule, not the exception.”
It’s also a system designed to frustrate the conscientious employee. Eugene Behr, a technical sergeant in charge of a B-52 jet engine testing cell at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota, has been in the Air Force for 16 years. “The younger noncommissioned officers really have this attitude of ‘I’m trained in electronics; I don’t do nuts and bolts.'” The result, Behr says with annoyance, “is to slow things down to a ‘get-along’ pace—like a trot on a horse. It’s just a lazy, peaceful day type of thing. If the plane takes off on time, great. If it doesn’t, that’s great too.”
Indeed, behind the appearance of seemingly purposeful activity at a typical Air Force base, former and current airmen attest to a pace of work that’s considerably less than vigorous. Bill Fendley, for example, served one term in the Air Force as an operator of flight simulators used by pilots. He recalls how he sometimes worked a six-hour day, which “absolutely staggered” the career people in his midst. “They told me they were used to working two, three hours a day,” he says. The Air Force gave Fendley nine months of training in how to maintain and repair the simulators. But as a simulator instructor he wasn’t allowed to do such work; instead, he had to summon a maintenance crew, which usually consisted of three to five people. He adds, “The boredom was just unbelievable most days; we developed some of the most proficient ping-pong players in the state of Texas.”
Another former airman recalls how he was fortunate enough to land a job operating computers. But the luck ended there; he worked in the Strategic Air Command’s underground complex at Cheyenne Mountain, spending 15 minutes at the beginning and end of each day checking to see if the computer program was functioning properly. “In between, I tried to keep busy,” he recalls. “It was terrible; I remember going through a backgammon phase when I just couldn’t read another magazine.”
Most enlisted men have more to do all day than thumb through magazines. But keeping busy is hardly the same as doing useful work. As a division manager for Search and Recruit International, a Virginia firm that specializes in finding former enlisted men jobs with high-tech companies, Kevin Beale has quizzed hundreds of former airmen about their work during their term of service. “I’ve never heard one guy complain about working too many hours,” he says. “In fact, I got the impression that a lot of them had about four hours of real work a day.” Sometimes even less. Sid Taylor, now research director for the National Taxpayers Union, retired from a civil service job with the Air Force. One manpower study he worked on turned up an enlisted man assigned the task of building five birdhouses a month for “morale purposes.” “He was building five a month, so the Air Force said he was 100 percent efficient,” Taylor says.
Air Force officials respond to suggestions of make-work and featherbedding in several ways. First, they deny the charge, pointing to their own manpower studies that show the Air Force needs 90,000 additional people by 1988. Secondly, the Pentagon claims that a little slack in the system is preferable in peacetime; if the Soviets were to launch a full-fledged assault on Western Europe, it would be better to have too many people ready to respond than too few. It’s also pointed out that Air Force personnel are subject to special requirements usually not applicable to civilians, such as being on alert 24 hours a day, having little choice but to work where and when the boss orders, and getting no additional pay for overtime.
There’s some merit to each argument—but far less than is initially apparent. It is hardly surprising the Air Force’s own studies justify its present use of people and its future needs. And as one Air Force colonel whose command has been subjected to such studies observes, “No one ever seemed to ask the fundamental questions, like “Should your organization be doing this work at all?'” The need for “surge” capacity to meet a sudden threat has some plausibility, but if it applies to of all the services, it applies to the Air Force least; the number of Air Force personnel is supposedly tied to the number of planes, many of which presumably would be lost in the early days of an all-out war.
As for the extra demands, a retired chief master sergeant—the highest enlisted rank in the military—who now lobbies Congress on behalf of retired enlistees, comments, “I can understand why the general populace gets a little tired of listening to Air Force people go on and on about the long hours and alert duties. Sure there are guys who work the flight line for 12 hours a day. But then there’s comp time; they get off early the next day. And they know how to work the system—they may work overtime three days so they can get a four-day weekend.”
A survey of 54,000 military personnel conducted in 1978 and 1979 by the Rand Corporation confirms this. Air Force enlisted personnel in the middle ranks reported that they worked 30 to 32 regular hours a week. What did they do with their large blocks of free time? About 20 percent of them admitted they held second jobs. Almost 8 percent of the technical sergeants—a rank usually attained by the tenth year of service—said their moonlighting consumed more than 20 hours a week.
The reluctance of the chief master sergeant to speak for the record is not unusual; there are good reasons enlisted men in uniform or those lobbying on their behalf don’t speak out much about the widespread misuse of people’s time. One is the fear that superior officers will punish them for their candor. Another is that many servicemen don’t really want challenging work, high-tech or otherwise, and the Air Force obligingly accommodates them. Those recruits who’ve always had a yearning to play the tuba will doubtless be glad to know today’s Air Force has 1,100 slots reserved for the career field “band.”
But there’s a bigger reason for the general silence of those enlisted men who’ve found their visions of working on state-of-the-art fighters transformed into early-morning patrols around the perimeter of a supply depot. To put it somewhat crudely, the Air Force manages to maintain silence among most of its enlisted men with a simple strategy: bribing. As one security guard at a SAC base in North Dakota puts it, “The job’s lousy, but I have to admit I’m probably overpaid. How much could I expect to get on the outside for doing this kind of work?”
The answer—the minimum wage—works out to a lot less than what the Air Force will pay. One of the most persistent myths about the modern military is that its members are paid starvation wages; a Youth Tracking Survey conducted by the military recently found that 37 percent of potential recruits thought beginning pay was less than $75 a month. The first day an enlistee joins the Air Force, his pay is more than seven times that—$573 a month to be exact, which doesn’t include free room and board, or generous tax-free allowances for food and housing if he lives off-base.
The working conditions provide further consolation. The Air Force has a well-deserved reputation of offering the most comfortable billets in the military: most of the work is indoors, 80 percent of the jobs are in the continental United States, and even those who make the Air Force a career rarely spend more than a year separated from their family. From the beginning of his service, the airman also gets used to regular working hours. He is not asked to perform guard duty—that’s now a career field—nor is he subjected to that traditional bane of the serviceman who’s low on the totem pole: kitchen police. K-P, which has never been widespread in the Air Force, has vanished, save for an occasional stint during the six weeks of basic training that every airman receives. It now goes by the more refined title of “mess attendant duty.”
Then there are the benefits available to all military personnel. There’s a full month’s paid vacation every year in addition to regular national holidays; and like many union members and civil servants, airmen observe United Nations Day on the fourth Monday in October. Most personnel have access to a commissary, where they can buy groceries, appliances, and other goods at discounts of at least 25 percent.
By the end of his first four-year term, when the airman is typically 23 years old and a sergeant, his annual compensation will exceed $15,000, including the value of his housing and subsistence allowances. If married, an additional $1,000 in housing allowance is provided, regardless of whether or not the spouse works. (Almost 10 percent of enlisted personnel are now women.) Those who decide to remain in the military can expect to make about $30,000 by the time they’re eligible for early retirement after 20 years, an option most exercise—the average age of retiring enlisted personnel is 39 years. It’s not exactly what a Wall Street lawyer would expect, but it’s an enticing enough package that last year, more than 70 percent of all first-term airmen re-enlisted, far more than the Air Force had planned for.
Those who make the Air Force a career are provided with additional reasons for not complaining. By definition, those who decide they want to stay in the military are generally satisfied with it. Few feel inclined to protest obvious signs of waste, much less ones that make their own jobs easier. “I’ve got a wife, three kids, and a mortgage,” observes one master sergeant. “I’m paid well, and I want to put in my 20 years and retire.” They also know not to complain about the less-than-diligent working habits of superiors. Taylor recalls one Air Force colonel he worked with in the Pentagon who was dubbed “Handball Harp.” He says, “From 11 to 2 every day he’d be down on the court; he’d come back all tired and flushed and red in the face and fall asleep in meetings. But it was dangerous to criticize him; besides, they always said, ‘Physical training is part of the Air Force’s mission.'”
Quality for the Taking
Yet wasting money is not the biggest expense of luring people into the Air Force under misleading pretenses, and then giving them too little to do. The real damage that’s done lies in compromising the excellence of our entire military force, in a manner that at first glance seems quite paradoxical. The commercials and the relative comforts of Air Force life have proved too alluring; as a result, the Air Force now enjoys a disproportionate share of the high quality recruits for which all the military services must compete.
The military gauges “quality” on the basis of a battery of intelligence and aptitude tests, the most basic of which is something called the Armed Forces Qualifying Test. The AFQT, the military’s equivalent of the SAT test, divides recruits into five categories of intelligence. Of last year’s Air Force enlistees, 50 percent—compared to only 35 percent of the rest of the population—scored in the two highest categories, I and II. At the low end of the scale, only 2 percent— compared to 30 percent of the rest of the population—scored in categories IV and V. “We’ve never seen such extremely high quality,” enthuses Lieutenant Colonel Dee Miller, who commands the recruiting squadron that covers the Washington D.C. area. “Sometimes my colleagues and I shake our heads and say, ‘Boy, we’re lucky we got in when we did, because we couldn’t if we applied today.'”
Common sense suggests there’s a danger in too much quality; bored enlisted men who harbor deep resentments about being steered into a dull job can create morale problems for the entire unit. “That’s something we’re definitely watching for,” Chandler says. But if memos are circulating inside the Pentagon, or studies being conducted to determine if the Air Force now has too much of a good thing, they’ve yet to be made public. The “right” amount of quality still seems to be as much as the Air Force can get. As G. Thomas Sicilia, the Pentagon’s director of Accessions Policy, remarks, “All the services tend to ask for x percent quality, and when you ask why, they just say it’s because they had x-minus 1 percent last year.”
Even so, it would obviously be unrealistic—if not self-defeating—to ask the Air Force to compromise its search for excellence in its recruiting efforts. Good organizations always put a priority on getting the best people. There’s also the matter of institutional self-interest. The day the Air Force unilaterally lowers its standards, or reduces pay and benefits to deliberately steer people to the Army or the Marines, will be the day its top brass abandons the MX missile and concedes that the Navy’s submarine force is a better nuclear deterrent.
But the analogy to the MX is an apt one; just as nuclear policy should be based on overall strategic needs, so should the use of able, competent people be based on the needs of the entire military. And since quality matters far more in a war than in peace, it’s vital that the best fighters be placed where they can make a difference—not behind a Xerox machine, photocopying the previous day’s casualty reports.
Yet, to an alarming extent, that’s exactly where far too many of them are right now. In a conventional war—the kind of war we should expect and be prepared for because it’s the only kind we’ve ever fought—the most important jobs are on the front lines. That includes tank commanders, soldiers and NCOs in rifle squads, artillery gunners, first lieutenants who lead the assaults on the beaches. “Perhaps the most unnatural act in the world is to convince yourself and your men to move out of the relative comfort of the foxhole and charge into enemy fire,” observes one retired Army colonel. Yet it is just such unnatural acts, multiplied thousands of times over, on which battles and wars have turned.
Who should be put in the rifle platoons and tank battalions? Here it’s worth taking a look at the personnel policies of what is arguably the best trained and effective military of its size in the world: Israel’s. All Israeli officers are selected from the enlisted ranks, and the idea of new recruits selecting a “career field” is completely foreign. But most important, Israel deliberately assigns those who score highest on its battery of intelligence and leadership tests to combat specialties. Intelligence obviously isn’t an automatic guide to performance in battle, but by and large, Israel has found that the higher the scores, the better the performance under fire. Indeed, studies of battlefield behavior conducted after World War II by the U.S. military reached similar conclusions. But we no longer make assignments on that basis; as Colonel Reuven Gal, one of the Israeli military’s chief psychologists, observes, “It’s now the reverse here in America. People with the high intelligence go for the more sophisticated jobs, like electronics, and those with the low levels go into combat jobs. This is what happens when you regard military service as an occupation.” Gal adds, “The problem is, what will motivate the soldier to fight when it comes to going into combat?”
This is exactly why the Air Force’s surplus of high-quality people should be of such concern. Volunteering for a unit that might someday find itself faced with the necessity of charging an enemy machine gun, much less actually committing that act, is hardly a decision reflecting enlightened self-interest. Yet the very lodestar of the All Volunteer Force is just that, a message that starts with the recruiting ads themselves, from “Aim High,” to the Army’s “Be All You Can Be.” Volunteers are encouraged to choose the career field they want, and the training they think will do them the most good later in life. And though a few combat jobs have sufficient prestige to attract high-quality people—Air Force fighter pilots actually being a good example—in general, the military has found that it must pay large bonuses—again, bribes really—to convince people to take those jobs that would be most critical in a war. That shouldn’t be surprising with an all volunteer force; it doesn’t take a military psychologist to tell you that most people prefer a pleasant, 9-to-5 job to a nine-month tour of duty on an aircraft carrier or combat maneuvers in the Mojave desert.
The result is that those people whom the military considers of highest quality gravitate to the jobs that are interesting, comfortable, or both. This has meant a preference for the Air Force in general, and noncombat and high-technology jobs in particular. How pronounced is this tendency? In March 1983 the Pentagon actually boasted to Congress that of the Army’s noncommissioned officers in combat arms, “only” 60 percent were now drawn from “below-average” categories of intelligence. For the Marines, the figure was “only” 66 percent. “This is a definite improvement over previous years,” testified Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb.
The Draft’s The Thing
This problem will continue as long as the services compete against one another for available recruits, and as long as one of the main inducements to service is giving those who score highest on tests the most choice in selecting a career field. There is only one way to redress the problem that is so graphically illustrated by the Air Force’s “success” in attracting quality people, and its tendency to then misuse and squander their talents.
That solution is the reinstitution of a fair and equitable peacetime draft. The most obvious advantage of a draft is, of course, the savings that will result from not having to pay new recruits such high wages. Conscripts would be given room and board and paid a reasonable sum, say $200 a month, for expenses. For the whole military, savings in pay and benefits alone would be several billion dollars a year, money that could be better used for necessary spare parts and weapons. But even greater savings would be realized by readjusting the pay scales of careerists, which have climbed in step with the dramatic increases for first-term volunteers. Senior enlisted personnel now make six times what those of the same rank made in 1964, and officers make almost five times as much; in the same period, the cost of living has tripled.
Perhaps the greatest savings would be realized by the wholesale consolidation of jobs. Many jobs such as guard duty, food service, fire protection, and runway repairs could be easily shared among conscripts. The presence of so many people serving involuntarily, and at relatively low wages, would also put pressure on the Air Force to consolidate many of its specialties. Most conscripts would want to make their time pass as quickly, and be as worthwhile, as possible. Rather than wanting make-work jobs, they’ll want to be given enough broad responsibility that the skills they acquire will be truly useful once they leave. It’s worth noting that Israel’s Air Force, which has one-sixth the number of combat planes, also has one-20th the number of people in uniform. “We break the jobs down into much larger units,” says Gal, “and it’s not unusual for people to put in 16-hour days if they’re needed.”
But most important for the nation’s defense in a time of emergency, a draft will allow the military to assign people based on its own needs, rather than individual preferences. The Air Force would have to justify why it needed a Category II recruit as a radio operator more than the Army needed him as a rifleman. No doubt commanders would still inflate their job requirements, and each service would continue to fight for as much quality as it could. But at least the decisions would be made with the needs of the entire force in mind. Gone would be the commercials, misleading and otherwise, and diminished would be the tendency to use people badly. It would be much harder for the military to keep its misuse of personnel hidden from the public, silently acknowledged but unpublicized among well-paid careerists. Civilian ranks at all levels would contain people who knew what military life was really like.
With recruiters having so much success, it may seem like the worst of times to propose a revival of the draft. But there’s actually no better time. Recruiting will become much more difficult in the years ahead—the traditional recruiting pool of 18-year-olds will decrease by 20 percent in the next decade—and the pressure will only intensify among the services to try to maintain the quality they’re now enjoying. The advertisements will no doubt get slicker, and the pay and benefits will increase accordingly, both to keep people in, and then to keep them quiet.
The draft addresses all these problems, as well as reestablishes the principle that the defense of the country is something that should be equally shared among all classes of citizens. But most of all, it promises to give us a military that’s still filled with qualified, highly trained, and patriotic men and women—but a military that, when put to the test of war, stands a much greater chance of meeting it.