As always, you ask perceptive and important questions.
I have tried to make it clear that my quarrel–and much more important, the quarrel of classic republican thinkers (including many of the founders)–is not about volunteers as opposed to conscripts. Our quarrel is with the disproportionate (to the size of any foreseeable threat) dimensions of the permanent standing forces in peacetime and the attendant ability that creates for the commitment of military forces abroad without engagement of the American people in that decision.
My view is that the return to a pre-Cold War and more traditionally American military force structure–smaller standing force, larger citizen reserve–can be achieved with continued reliance on volunteers. If not, then we must consider universal training with a military/nonmilitary service option thereafter. But the principle issue is not volunteers vs. conscripts. The issue is the size of the permanent standing peacetime forces absent a threat sufficient to justify it.
To attract volunteers to the traditional American force structures I advocate, education and training benefits might (or might not) be offered. If we are to have permanent military structures representing a large social cohort, then we might as well achieve some social benefits–preparation of young people for the job markets of the future–out of it. But this is a collateral point to my argument. The classic republican theory to which I ascribe contends that a direct linkage exists between engagement of the greatest number of citizens in the nation’s defense and concern for the nation’s overall well-being. It is the detachment of service from the duties of citizenship (as, for example, in the late Roman republic) and the delegation of this responsibility to permanent paid professionals that undermines the republic.
Since no budget I am aware of proposes substantially to expand strategic lift (transport planes and ships), I wouldn’t be too concerned with this eventuality. Indeed, how do we justify redirection of funds from new generations of combat aircraft and stealth technology to greater strategic lift in the absence of a clearly defined threat? We are carrying out this philosophical debate in a strategic vacuum. But my idea is to stimulate a philosophical discussion as a means of forcing the strategic question: Why do we have the military we presently have?
What is our “appropriate role in the 21st century”? If someone in Washington (or elsewhere) knows this, I wish they would share it. You suggest we are now the equivalent of the British in the 19th century. Not so. We are not (I hope) an imperial power and, whereas England at least had France to contend with in the early part of the 19th century, we have no such competition today. Until someone defines our role in the 21st century, I am afraid I must continue to contend that the burden remains on those who seek to justify a Cold War military in peacetime to do so on some grounds other than “there is always trouble in the world, and we have responsibility for fixing it.”
Finally, since reserve air units are normally deployed in squadrons, not individual planes and pilots, and on average about 900 ground personnel maintain a dozen planes, it is not entirely accurate to describe air units as “individual skills” operations. Further, contrary to the routine regular Army line, many studies show that guard and reserve ground forces–properly trained and equipped–can be brought to combat readiness levels in a 60-90 day time period. A regular Army concerned to justify its current number of divisions is not an Army eager either to train and equip or certify as ready guard and reserve units for the combat roles it seeks to keep for itself. (I suspect this issue, which is at the heart of the regular-reserve dispute, is not one you and I will ever solve.)
All best regards. I look forward to hearing from you further.