Two recent events have raised massive levels of concern within the Pentagon and the Trump White House regarding the ability of the United States to recruit, train and graduate the required number of personnel to meet the current and long-term staffing needs of the U.S. military.
The most recent event was the 14th annual State of Obesity report from the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation along with a series of articles stating that based on analysis, 71 percent of the roughly 34 million 17- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. would fail to qualify to enlist in the military if they tried. In addition, about a quarter of high school graduates also can’t pass the Armed Forces Qualification Test, which measures math and reading skills. Failing to pass the test disqualifies an individual from serving in the military in any capacity. The fact that 25 percent of applicants can’t pass a basic test of mathematics and reading is extremely alarming for a military that’s becoming more dependent on technology.
Available data indicates that about 180,000 young men and women successfully volunteer for America’s active-duty forces on an annual basis. An additional 110,000 join the services’ reserves and National Guard units. Individual services manage their own recruiting and have the authority to grant waivers to applicants who don’t meet broad standards, according to The Wall Street Journal.
As the quality of applicants wanting to serve in the military declined, recruiting standards were lowered, especially in the U.S. Army. In 2007, only 79 percent of those who enlisted in the Army had completed high school, compared with 90 percent in 2001, while the Army also accepted recruits with more excess body fat during the height of the Iraq War, according to multiple sources. The danger in lowering standards is that performance and mission execution suffer.
According to several government-sponsored studies, today’s high school seniors have less of a chance of being accepted in the military than at any time since the draft ended in 1973. The most qualified students look past the military as an option and instead enter college. Armies require people, lots of them. Without enough qualified candidates to fill the ranks, very bad things begin to happen. Combat units can’t fight. Equipment isn’t repaired. And a never-ending cycle of cutting corners begins.
High-Tech Conscientious Objectors
The other event that has rattled military officials and politicians is the growing issue of conscientious objectors in the high-tech industry. Employees of Google (GOOGL) made headlines in 2018 when they openly protested Google providing support to a Pentagon program code named ‘Project Maven’ that uses artificial intelligence to interpret video imagery which could be used to improve the targeting of drone strikes. Drone strikes are a key tactic utilized by the U.S. to surgically target and kill known terrorists and associates. A petition signed by nearly 4,000 Google associates made its way to senior leaders within the company.
“We believe that Google should not be in the business of war,” read the letter that was addressed to Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai. The letter went on to ask that Google pull out of Project Maven and that Google announce a policy that it will not “ever build warfare technology” according to a New York Times article. Google later announced that it was indeed discontinuing support for Project Maven and that when its current contract with the government expires in 2019, Google will not agree to renew it.
Although the protest effort at Google succeeded, I believe all that was achieved was a Pyrrhic victory that will eventually cost Google far more than the company realizes. The Pentagon and the U.S. government have been put on notice that the only way to mitigate the risk of being at a technological disadvantage is by investing billions to create special units within the Pentagon and throughout the military with expertise in artificial intelligence, machine learning and future technologies that will require no support from civilian companies. The military industrial complex despised by so many at Google is about to become larger and even more secretive.
A chant heard across college campuses and in the streets during the height of the Vietnam War and the draft era was “Hell no, we won’t go!” as draft-age individuals let it be known that they had no desire to go to war. Today on high-tech campuses across the U.S., the chant has been resurrected to “Hell no, we won’t code!” which is an implied threat to high-tech companies, the U.S. government and the military: You need us, we don’t need you. Cave to our demands, or we will take our coding skills elsewhere.
From Bad to Worse
A review of demographic shifts taking place across the U.S. over the next 10 years indicates that obesity levels should decrease slightly but not extensively. Stated another way, the issue of obesity will continue to reduce the number of individuals eligible to serve in the U.S. military. Tragically, it is estimated that in 10 years, 25 percent or more of military applicants will still fail the Armed Forces Qualification Test. The desire on the part of those eligible to serve is projected to continue to decrease.
Why does any of this matter? Because the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community identifies a significant number of threats to the security of the United States in the coming years specific to technology. For example:
For 2019 and beyond, the innovations that drive military and economic competitiveness will increasingly originate outside of the United States, as overall U.S. dominance in science and technology (S&T) shrinks; the capability gap between commercial and military technologies evaporates; and foreign actors increase their efforts to acquire top talent, companies, data and intellectual property via licit and illicit means. Many foreign leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, view strong indigenous science and technology capabilities as key to their country’s sovereignty, economic outlook and national power.
►Artificial Intelligence and Autonomy
The global race to develop artificial intelligence (AI)—systems that imitate aspects of human cognition—is likely to accelerate the development of highly capable, application-specific AI systems with national security implications. As academia, major companies and large government programs continue to develop and deploy AI capabilities, AI-enhanced systems are likely to be trusted with increasing levels of autonomy and decision making, presenting the world with a host of economic, military, ethical and privacy challenges. Furthermore, interactions between multiple advanced AI systems could lead to unexpected outcomes that increase the risk of economic miscalculation or battlefield surprises.
►Information and Communications
Foreign production and adoption of advanced communication technologies, such as fifth-generation (5G) wireless networks, most likely will challenge U.S. competitiveness and data security, while advances in quantum computing foreshadow challenges to current methods of protecting data and transactions. U.S. data will increasingly flow across foreign-produced equipment and foreign-controlled networks, raising the risk of foreign access and denial of service. Foreign deployment of a large-scale quantum computer, even 10 or more years in the future, would put sensitive information encrypted with today’s most widely used algorithms at a greatly increased risk of decryption.
At a time when our future requires a military that is second to none as it relates to technology, weapons programs and platforms, multi-theatre warfare capability and the need for increased lethality, the U.S. is faced with a future where a large number of highly skilled tech workers refuse to support military programs, and recruiting enough qualified men and women capable of serving in the U.S. military is going to be a near-impossibility. Truth be told, things are going to progress from bad to worse.
Is Bringing Back the Draft the Answer?
This is a tough question to answer. On the surface, an all-volunteer military was supposed to provide a steady stream of qualified applicants to meet the personnel needs of the military. Finding qualified candidates in an all-volunteer military is becoming a significant challenge.
Another challenge is that civilian employment at high-tech companies offer skilled individuals an opportunity to earn a substantial income, far above the compensation they would earn serving in the military.
Finally, the concept of patriotism is shifting in the United States, and interest in serving in the military is decreasing because the economy is so strong and there are so many career options for individuals to pursue.
Technically, a draft would solve the issues I listed, if the draft was managed in such a way that most deferments that existed during the Vietnam War (going to college, for example) were eliminated. The draft was highly criticized for drafting many poor and middle-class individuals, while children of wealthy parents and politicians found a way to creatively use deferments to keep from going to a war zone or entering the military at all. A modern-day draft would have to be far more inclusive.
Should the draft primarily target high-tech companies? No. I have worked for both Amazon (AMZN) and Dell (DELL), and I have completed consulting projects at other high-tech companies. The individuals who work in the high-tech industry come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are liberal and some are conservative. Based on my interactions, I found most workers to hold moderate political views. However, the desire to “make a difference” in society is a major part of the culture within the tech industry. Protesting weapons of war is one of several protests I’ve witnessed.
I have also met many veterans working in the tech industry who are a mixture of liberals, conservatives and moderates. Frankly, I believe the tech industry does a great job of recruiting veterans, and as a former Marine, I strongly advise veterans to explore opportunities at Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and especially Tesla (TSLA). Tesla needs all the hard-charging, never-say-die veterans it can recruit as the company fights for survival.
What is certain is this: Threats to the United States are increasing. In a democracy, the people have a right for their voices to be heard. Individuals in the tech industry protesting the military will continue. However, the military has learned a valuable lesson from the events at Google and other tech companies—the only way to be fully prepared is by having command and control over every aspect of technology, especially artificial intelligence and machine learning. Reliance on tech companies in the coming years will decrease.
Unless changes can be made to significantly increase the available pool of qualified candidates to serve in the military, a draft of some form is a real possibility within the next 10 years.