Monday, April 19, 1999 • THE HARTFORD COURANT
Voluntary Force Could Win, Solving A Political Problem
Speaking of the crisis in Kosovo, President Clinton has declared, “Ending this tragedy is a moral imperative.” Many military leaders and theorists believe it will be impossible to achieve NATO goals there without sending in, or credibly threatening to send, ground troops. However, our national interest in the situation is not sufficiently compelling to order U.S. troops into battle. For situations like this, it is time we take the volunteer army one step further and create a volunteer combat force.
Clinton and other NATO leaders, wary of the political fallout that would result from Allied casualties, have so far refused to commit even one soldier to combat in Yugoslavia. American servicemen volunteered to join the armed forces to defend the United States. However, that doesn’t mean they would agree to go abroad and fight for something less than our nation’s vital interests. If ordered, they would have to go. But nobody, and least of all our civilian National Command Authority, is sure they want to send Americans against their will to die in Yugoslavia.
In this case, a volunteer combat force would solve a lot of our problems. Active-duty U.S. forces train year-in and year-out to maintain a state of combat readiness. They spend weeks in field exercises and endure perpetual drills and tests. They do so understanding that at any time they could be called into action in a remote theater to fight an aggressive enemy. The elite U.S Special Operations Command consists of thousands of combat-ready specialists. It takes years of intense training just to join the exclusive units in this Command – Army Rangers, Marine Force Recon, Navy SEALs, and Air Force Combat Controllers – and rigorous exercise to stay in the state of peak readiness expected of them. The men of the Air Force Pararescue, who were probably those called in to rescue the downed F-117 pilot near Belgrade, must complete three years of demanding instruction just to join a rescue unit.
Although rescue missions behind enemy lines are extremely dangerous, such special operatives are notorious for their eagerness to participate in live action, often engaging in turf wars with other units for the right to take missions. They are the military equivalent of extreme sportsmen.
Take aside 100,000 combat-ready soldiers, and tell them, “We are creating a volunteer unit to deploy to Kosovo and defeat the 40,000-strong Yugoslav Army there. You are familiar with the risks of casualty or capture. Each of you can decide individually whether you want to go. You will be given all the logistical and air support the United States can offer in such a large-scale, conventional operation. Furthermore, your rules of engagement will not extend beyond the Geneva Convention.” We would roll into enemy territory with an overwhelming force sufficient to dominate on the ground, and would only deploy if there are enough volunteers to do so. Not only would you find yourself with more volunteers than you could use, but also those who volunteered would probably be the best prepared for combat.
The United States enjoys a state of near air dominance; no rational enemy will fly aggressively against us. Our level of air superiority has brought us to the point of all but eliminating air-to-air combat. The opposite is happening on the ground. Poorly armed and poorly trained troops run roughshod while we stand on the sidelines. They know that for all our military prowess, we will not engage them because there is a severe political cost for losing even one man. If these troops knew that we had a volunteer combat force ready and willing to act, and a president willing to let them deploy, no sooner would the tanks start rolling over the border than the enemy would acquiesce. The very willingness of the force to engage in combat, and the political willingness of our leaders to let them do so, would reduce – in some cases even eliminate – the risks of ground war.
The American public does not think twice about extreme skiers or balloonists attempting to circle the globe, in spite of the well-publicized risks. Why not “extreme soldiers?” A look at the risk of death from climbing Mt. Everest or from around-the-world sailing shows that such diversions are at least as risky as military combat. Yet extreme sports carry no real social value and are purely recreational, while for military activity there is humanitarian value in the risks taken.
The U.S. military is a volunteer force, which means that soldiers not only have chosen this as their profession, but also have spent years training full time to fight. If a group of skilled volunteers is prepared to enter into combat, and if they declare that they are as aware of the risks and as willing to take on those risks as the balloonist or the mountaineer, we should let them do so. If we stand to gain something from the act, we should give it both financial and public support. The credible threat of a powerful volunteer combat force will intimidate opponents and reduce the risk of having to deploy or engage in a protracted war.
David Bookstaber, a senior Air Force ROTC cadet, studies computer science and mathematics at Yale University.