How Volunteer Armies Works

The Economics of Volunteer Warfare

An officer puts a stamp on the arms of candidates during an Indian Army recruitment rally in Allahabad, India.
An officer puts a stamp on the arms of candidates during an Indian Army recruitment rally in Allahabad, India.
AP Photo/ Rajesh Kumar Singh

To understand the demands of running a volunteer army, you have to understand how conscription-based militaries work. With a draft in place, recruiters have access to a large pool of recruits at a low cost. If every able bodied male has to show up to serve his country, then you obviously don't have to waste money on an expensive advertising campaign. You also don't have to offer the level of compensation needed to compete with civilian employers.

Yet nations that engage in conscription generally spend far more on sorting and training their wealth of warm bodies. Still, many recruits will only be suitable for less-skilled or infantry positions, requiring conscript militaries to depend on volunteers for skilled positions and command roles. Finally, conscripted soldiers generally don't stick around any longer than they have to, beefing up training costs with the added expense of excessive turnover.

With a volunteer army, on the other hand, soldiers tend to serve between three and 15 years, as opposed to the typical two to three years of a conscripted soldier [source: Britannica]. Furthermore, the volunteer soldier tends to be more suitable for skilled and command positions.

However, just like any premium product, the volunteer comes with a higher price tag. Unless volunteers join out of patriotic zeal or sheer willingness to survive, recruiters will have to compete with civilian employers for potential soldiers. For this reason, volunteer militaries such as the United States offer not only competitive pay, but also education and job training. And as mentioned earlier, attracting recruits also requires expensive advertising campaigns.

To put a price tag on some of these issues, the U.S. Congressional Budget Office recently revealed that the cost of maintaining one Army sergeant on the ground in Iraq is $500,000 [source: Utley]. That includes salary, benefits, pension and support staff. Keep in mind that this figure isn't factoring in past training costs. As for bringing in new recruits, the U.S. military's annual 2008 budget for recruiting and retention programs was $7.7 billion [source: Vogel].

Is it worth the expense? On the next page, we'll take a look at what critics and supporters of the volunteer military system have to say.