A Changing Active Duty

There’s a lot of chatter these days about force reductions around the military and the impacts on morale and operational strength. With this being the case, we wanted to do some digging into how the active duty population has changed over the past 50-ish years. Are the current large-scale force reductions normal or is there something really unique happening right now? If we have such credible threats in our world, why reduce the force?

Total Active Duty Population Changes

I was interested to find that at the peak of the Vietnam War (1968), the United States had over 3.5 million active duty personel, and now we’re at less than half of that (~1.3 million) in 2016. Although the chart doesn’t show it, I also found that the active duty population during World War II (1945), was over 12 million (almost 10 times the 2016 population).

Active Duty Population by Year

This shows us that while we are low in overall active duty numbers, the trend isn’t off when it comes to decreasing the force. Our Compounded Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) for the past 50 years is -2% annually (~75K active duty each year). If we were to continue with this same rate of growth for the next 50 years, we’ll only have 475 thousand active duty members by 2066. Does this make sense? Well, would it have made sense to active duty members in the 1960s that they would go from 3.5 million to 1.3 million 50 years later? I doubt it.

Changes to Population by Branch

We all know that technology changes the way we fight wars, which brings me to my next thought – how has representation within each of the military branches changed over the past 50 years?

The biggest changes here come from the Army and the Air Force. The Army has reduced by over 1 million members since 1968, while the Marine Corps has been the most unchanged at nearly 200 thousand in each year for the past 50 years. You can see in the chart below that we’ve scaled down our Air Force representation significantly over the past 50 years. This is a direct result of the wind-down of the Cold War and the Nuclear age, as well as advances in technology that have revolutionized the way the Air Force operates. The current Air Force population is less than 1/3 of what it was in the 1950s.

Active Duty Population by Branch

It’s obvious from this data that force reductions are nothing new. However, if we continue to reduce the Active Duty force like we have for the past 50 years, are we still going to have a reliable force? I wouldn’t say it’s impossible to continue down this path given the shift of focus to Cyber warfare, drones, and self-driving cars… but who knows? Will Air Force representation pick back up to battle cyber threats? If we have less than a half a million active duty forces in 50 years – does it make more sense to consolidate services? Will lasers become the weapon of the future? These are all questions I don’t have the answers to – but if you think you do let me know.

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