From Conscripts to Volunteers

By Williams, Cindy | Naval War College Review, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

From Conscripts to Volunteers

Williams, Cindy, Naval War College Review

NATO's Transitions to All-Volunteer Forces

Since the Cold War ended, twelve of NATO's twenty-six member states have suspended compulsory military service or announced plans to phase it out, thus joining the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Luxembourg in the family of nations with all-volunteer armed forces (AVFs). Most of NATO's other members are deeply reducing the number of conscripts they call up each year, relying increasingly on volunteers to fill their military ranks.1

The national decisions to halt conscription were motivated by a variety of factors. Whatever the paths to those decisions, however, advocates of military reform-including senior leaders in NATO-hold that the volunteer militaries will be better suited to NATO's post-Cold War missions and can deliver modern, high-technology, expeditionary capabilities more cost-effectively than can their conscript counterparts. Some hope that switching to the "small but solid" volunteer model will free up money in payroll and infrastructure accounts that can be reinvested in new military equipment, thus narrowing the capabilities gap that has grown up between the United States and its NATO allies.3 Unfortunately, as the United States discovered when it ended conscription in 1973, the benefits of shifting to an AVF do not materialize immediately, and the period of transition can be more costly and difficult than anticipated.

Ultimately, within a decade, the United States got through its transition with good pay and educational benefits, professional recruiting, improved conditions of military life, and other measures aimed at attracting and keeping high-quality people. Like the United States at that time, European countries are seeking creative solutions to recruit, retain, and motivate the high-quality uniformed volunteers they need and to encourage them to depart when their services are no longer required. The economic, demographic, labor, and social environments within which militaries compete as employers for qualified people differ from country to country, however. As a result, both the appropriate solutions and the difficulty of transition will vary, and the military benefits of AVFs may be more difficult, more costly, and longer in coming in European countries than they were in the United States.

This article looks at the transition to all-volunteer forces in the militaries of NATO. It begins with a brief overview of changing conscription policies and the factors that motivate the shift to an AVF. It then describes some of the problems the American all-volunteer force encountered during its first decade and the initiatives the United States embraced to solve them. It continues with a look at the problems encountered by Europe's militaries as they shift, followed by a discussion of key differences that may make U.S. solutions less effective in NATO Europe. It ends with an overview of initiatives in several European countries and a brief summary.


The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Luxembourg share a decades-long tradition of all-volunteer service. Since the end of the Cold War, six nations-Belgium, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain-have ended conscription. The Czech Republic, Italy, Latvia, Romania, the Slovak Republic, and Slovenia plan to phase conscription out within the next several years (see table 1).

The decision to end compulsory service is a national one. A look at the factors motivating the decisions to end conscription reveals both similarities and differences among European countries and between Europe and the United States.

In the United States, the choice was rooted in domestic politics and concerns over social and racial inequities stemming from the draft system that prevailed during most of the Vietnam War. Nevertheless, the deliberations that preceded the decision were informed by studies of a far richer set of issues: social and demographic factors, military effectiveness, economic efficiency, the role of women in the military, the role of and prospects for reserve forces, and other related concerns. …

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