ONE OF THE FEARS voiced when the draft was ended in the 1970s was that the military services would not be able to attract enough competent and motivated men and women to do their jobs well. It was a reasonable enough fear. In the late 1970s, the quality of military recruits was disturbingly low, and the numbers of men and women volunteering and reenlisting were well below desired levels. There was talk in some quarters -- and down some corridors in the Pentagon -- that we should go back to the draft.
You hear less such talk today. The latest figures released from the Pentagon show that the quality of new recruits is, if anything, slightly higher than in the early 1980s and that the reenlistment rates have declined only slightly in the past three years. Those are significant numbers. It takes a while for an economic recovery to generate more of the entry-level jobs that are in effect competing with the recruiters for recent high school graduates. But the economy had recovered enough by 1984 that the services might have been expected to have difficulty reaching goals they had achieved in the trough of the recession.
During the past 15 months, over 90 percent of the recruits have been high school graduates, and more than 90 percent have achieved what the services regard as satisfactory scores on the Armed Forces Qualification Test. It's possible that underneath these figures there is a deterioration in the quality of recruits. But so far there's nothing to confirm such suspicions.
Perhaps even more important for the maintenance of strong volunteer military services is the reenlistment rate. Recruits cost money to train, and trained service men and women are more likely to find attractive job opportunities in a private sector in the midst of an economic boom. But the most recent reenlistment rate of 66 percent is only slightly below the 68 percent of recession year 1982. About 220,000 servicemen are reenlisting each year, well above the 190,000 level of 1976-79 -- a level that forced the services, especially the Army, to accept larger numbers of less qualified volunteers.
Just why recruitment and reenlistment have held up during the recovery years no one can be sure. One hypothesis is that there's an upsurge of patriotic feeling among a significant segment of young Americans. However, when you look at the longer term and ask whether the military will be able to continue its current recruiting success, you have to weigh against this debatable hypothesis the undeniable fact that the age cohort of young people -- the pool from which volunteers are drawn -- is going to grow smaller and smaller into the 1990s.
Current recruitment and reenlistment rates, unlike those of the late 1970s, don't raise the question of whether a return to the draft is necessary to provide competent military manpower. But they're no guarantee that the question won't be raised, even if no one particularly wants to face it, some time in the years ahead.