Universal Conscription?

Some people have argued for a “universal conscription” in the US for various reasons.  The reasons may be to teach people a “work ethic”, to give them a sense of duty, or to give us all some common experience to bring us together as a people.

Most of those reasons are balderdash.  While there can be advantages to having the entire citizenry trained to arms most of the reasons people cite are not reasonable expectations to get from universal conscription.

And that’s leaving aside my main objection:  the general immorality of forced servitude of any type.

But, let’s presume somebody manages to convince Washington to do just that–to manage to pass (and get past the courts!) a universal conscription requiring everyone to serve for a set period of time when they come of age.  What would that entail?

Well, in 2017, the birth rate in the US was 11.8 live births per thousand population.  The population was 325.7 million.  Doing the numbers that works out to 3,843,260 babies born in the year or just over 10,500 every day.  So we would expect, with our universal conscription that we would have about that many entering into service every day.

Let’s use the shortest of the service branches basic military training as a standard here and figure out how many people would be in that training at any given time.  That would be the Air Force with one week of in-processing followed by eight weeks of training. (Hm.  It was only six when I went in.) Assuming a very low “recycle” rate (meaning someone screws up and has to repeat part of training) 10,500 people entering a day would mean 661,500 trainees at any given time.  That’s a minimum.  Longer training times mean more people in training.  That’s about half the size of the combined forces of the United States Military as it exists today.  And that’s just those in basic military training.

If these trainees draw base pay at current E-1 rates, that works out to just over $13.3 billion every year.  Just to pay the trainees at the lowest military pay scale.  They would also need to be equipped, clothed, housed.  Oh, and they’ll need medical care, transportation to and from training activities, and a host of other “logistics” issues.  Plus leadership to manage and coordinate all that activity.  More money.

We would also need instructors.  When I was in we had a “Flight” of about 50 with 3 instructors, plus we would also go to classes taught by other specialty instructors.  So, let’s call it one instructor for every ten trainees.  66,150 instructors in the NCO ranks.  How much they’ll cost is a bit harder to calculate since they different ranks and experience levels accrue different pay rates.  But by and large it will of an additional $2 billion every year just to pay the instructors.  And, again, they’ll need to be equipped, clothed, and housed.

So we could send all of each new adult through the most basic of military training for the low, low cost of about $15 billion per year, that is after paying the upfront cost of building 100 new military bases the size of Lackland Air Force Base, the much beloved site of Air Force Basic Military Training (among other things).  That’s enough to put two in every State.  How much does it cost to build a military base from scratch?  I have no idea, but I bet it’s a bunch.

That, however, just looks at the cost if we take the people, put them through a brief military training, and then send them home.  If we want to actually do anything with them?

Well, the first cut is simple.  We use the same daily figures:  10,500 and multiply it by the time we’re keeping them in service.  Let’s say a mere 18 months.  That’s still pretty short.  There are career fields in the military where one wouldn’t even be finishing technical training at that point.  But let’s use it.  That would mean our military would have about 5.7 million privates, about 4 1/3 times as large as all our current military combined.  And, to manage that many “new guys” we’d need a correspondingly larger cadre then our current military has, a total military of 7-8 million, and on the order of a thousand new military bases, all the size of Lackland.

How much that would cost is left as an exercise for the student.

The simple truth is, however appealing “universal military service” is to a certain segment of the population, it’s just not practical at all.

And that’s without even getting into the moral question of slave armies.


6 thoughts on “Universal Conscription?”

  1. There are certain optimizations you could do:

    1. Why pay them? It’s not like they could refuse to sign the dotted line. When I was in the IDF I got 60 $/month.
    2. Why train them for that long? In Israel male non-combatant basic training is four weeks. Female basic training is two. If all you’re doing is marking checkboxes to appear useful, that’s enough.

    Of course, using people that badly trained is a problem. But they’re conscripts. They don’t want to be there. They’ll try to be of as little use as possible anyway.


    1. Pay maybe (but they’d still need to be clothed, housed, supplied, etc. and the cadre would still have to be paid–I’m not so sure that the recruit pay is the long pole in that tent) but the rest would basically spoil all the claimed reasons for having universal conscription in the first place.

      Personally, I’d go with updated versions of the original Militia Acts: every household (I’d make it every adult) would be required to keep certain arms and a certain amount of ammunition, and other basic suppliesready to go at any time. Authorize periodic musters where folk would have to show that they have the arms, ammunition, and supplies. Boom. Done.


    2. And, even if you cut the training time in half, instead of 100 bases the size of Lackland, you’d need 50. Again, I have no idea how much that would cost, both to build and to maintain, except “a bunch.”

      The logistics just do not work for a country the size of the United States. If we’d built and maintained the tradition from the start, maybe (although I have doubts it would have survived the westward migrations) but starting now? Don’t think so.


      1. It’s not so much about size, but perceived need. We could afford the expense if we were in an existential war. It’s just that conscription without an existential need tends to become decadent, and take the armed services down with it.

        Peacetime conscription requires a culture that is compatible with it. Switzerland has that, I think. In Israel I was enough to think that Israel might not. The US, with our emphasis on people being individuals first and members of the collective a far second, certainly does not.


  2. Interesting… I touched on this topic as well; however, coming across a study on national will to fight has given me a bit more to chew on before I return to this topic.
    Long story short, my opinion is that if we have to resort to conscription, it will already be too late.


  3. I love it when the Bad Idea Faerie get batted around like a pinata using the most basic of math for dummies. People love to throw out ideas like the universal draft as a great thing, but do not explain/think about how to get “there”. Hand wavium does not get there. Thank you for spelling just this simple oncept out on that.


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