Why Conservatives Should Oppose ROTC

by Todd Davies

Updated version: February 6, 2011

I do not consider myself a conservative, at least not in the usual sense. But I agree with some principles that conservatives espouse. In the debate over whether Stanford should devote more of its resources to ROTC, e.g. by establishing a full on-campus ROTC program with academic credit and university-affiliated instructors, I oppose an expanded ROTC at Stanford for multiple reasons. Many of those reasons reflect attitudes, from anti-militarism to a belief in transgender equality, that are not usually high on the list of conservative values. But there are also good conservative reasons to oppose ROTC, not just at Stanford but everywhere.

Appealing to aspects of conservatism with which I agree, I will try to make a case against ROTC below, and then suggest how this could inform Stanford's policy response. In what follows, I do not mean to endorse or justify current military objectives, but only to show that even if we accept those objectives for purposes of further argument, ROTC cannot be justified. I do have a lot of affection for the students I have known who have been in ROTC. While I recognize that some or many of them might disagree with the analysis below, I write this as a sincere expression of what I think would be in the interests of students generally, including theirs.

Let's start with a few principles that I associate with conservatism. These are principles with which almost everyone (myself included) would agree, but among conservatives they tend to receive special emphasis:
  1. Taxpayer money should not be wasted.
  2. Government should not control people's choices unnecessarily. 
The Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) pays scholarships for undergraduate education in exchange for training and for a commitment to pursue a commission as a military officer. In addition to a four year degree, ROTC students get training from military instructors, generally both on and off a college campus. Most of the costs of ROTC training are borne by the Federal Government, in addition to the cost of providing student scholarships.

A 2004 study compared the costs to the U.S. Government to graduate and commission an officer from ROTC versus two other possible commissioning sources: a Service Academy (such as the the Naval Academy in Annapolis) and an Officer Candidate School/Officer Training School. The Officer Training School (OTS) is the Navy's Officer Candidate School (OCS). OCSes exist for each branch of the military, and make it possible for college degree holders to become commissioned officers after 10-16 weeks of intensive training, which generally begins after graduation from college. Stanford graduates are eligible to attend an OCS. Therefore a Stanford undergraduate does not have to go through ROTC to become a commissioned officer in the military.

The results of the 2004 study are summarized below ("Comparative Analysis of ROTC, OCS, and Service Academies as Commissioning Sources", Advanced Management Program, Navy Supply Corps School, Tench Francis School of Business, November 19, 2004):

Service Academy

Naval Academy

ROTC (Scholarship)


Federal Government cost per graduate (FY97 dollars)




The above data are similar to those in an earlier study of comparative costs for the three commissioning sources across the Army, Navy, and Air Force ("Officer Commissioning Programs: Costs and Officer Performance", Congressional Budget Office, June 1990). The 2004 study notes that without scholarships, Naval ROTC students cost about half as much as scholarship students. Thus, even without scholarships, ROTC students cost taxpayers more than the OCS/OTS. And these costs are averaged across all colleges where ROTC operates. At an expensive university such as Stanford, of course, the costs of ROTC are much higher.

Both of these studies show that OCSes are significantly cheaper for the government than either the Service Academies or ROTC. Does spending more for ROTC produce significantly better officers? This question has also been studied, and the answer is no. The CBO study did not find major differences across the three commissioning sources in either performance or retention of officers, and later studies also found small or mixed differences between ROTC and OCS trained officers (see "Officer Commissioning Programs – More Oversight and Coordination Needed", Government Accounting Office, November 1992, cited in the above mentioned 2004 study; and Turgay Demirel, "A Statistical Analysis of Officer Retention in the U.S. Military", Naval Postgraduate School, 2002).

From these data, it appears that the military would spend less money training officers, with no sizable loss in officer quality or retention, if it trained all of them in Officer Candidate Schools, at least after the initial increase in capacity for these schools. Anticipating a reduction in the need for officers following the Cold War, the 1990 CBO study concluded that "nothing in the results CBO  was able to quantify suggests that any commissioning program should be protected  as overall officer strength is reduced." This can be read as saying that the more expensive programs (the academies and ROTC) could be replaced with the less expensive OCSes.

Since ROTC training costs more than OCSes even without a scholarship, the government could also pay for the same number of general purpose undergraduate scholarships as ROTC currently provides (including those for Stanford students), on top of OCS training for all of those currently trained in ROTC (and the academies, for that matter), and it would still save money. And these scholarships could all be need-based, unlike ROTC scholarships, giving more students the opportunity to attend college.

Thus a good case can be made that ROTC is wasting taxpayer money, violating conservative principle #1 above. A letter reportedly from a young Army officer, published by the military reform website G2mil, illustrates that some inside the military may be having similar thoughts (although the official studies I have cited are much more cautious about their recommendations, probably for political reasons). The letter reads [bracketed text added]: "Now that I am in OBC [Officer Basic Course] with a number of OCS-commissioned LTs [lieutenants], I wonder why the services even have ROTC or the academies any more. Every one of the OCS grads that I met so far is very mature and highly competent in comparison to the ROTC or USMA [United States Military Academy] grads. The average OCS grad is a few years older (25-30 for OCS as opposed to 22-24 for ROTC/USMA) and most have extensive prior military service (as opposed to very little prior service for ROTC/USMA grads)." The letter continues: "I think that the military should just get rid of ROTC (and dare I say - the academies too) and just go straight OCS. They can expand the OCS program and a ton of money will be saved when ROTC and the academies are disbanded. The services should hash out if candidates should have prior enlisted service." The letter writer ends by saying: "Please do not disclose my name."

Another recent article showing support within military circles for the idea that ROTC can be replaced with OCSes is "Don't Expand ROTC. Replace It", published in the Washington Post on January 28, 2011. The authors are former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman and former chief of Air Force History Richard H. Kohn, both of whom served on the Independent Review Panel for the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review. Lehman and Kohn advocate eliminating on-campus ROTC training, but their plan would retain four-year scholarships designed to lure young people into the military after graduation. They do not say so explicitly, but they imply that these scholarships would be contingent on military service. This is where I differ with their proposal.

A ROTC scholarship comes with many strings attached for the student who has one. Scholarships generally require approval of a student's major before money is awarded (with changes also requiring approval), and may restrict the recipient to a narrower range of majors than would otherwise be available to them. Students are often restricted in their summer activities as well. After one or two years (depending on the branch), ROTC scholars must commit to between four and eight years in the military following graduation, thus eliminating or significantly delaying the freedom to pursue other career options (see Demirel, 2002, cited above).

The existence of Officer Candidate Schools shows that restricting the freedom of undergraduates in this way is unnecessary. Students c Lould wait until after they graduate, go to an OCS, and receive a commission. Thus, their decisions about both their majors and their careers could be made later, at the same time as their fellow students, and without limiting other options. Competition to get into an OCS appears to have increased recently, so that ROTC may currently provide a surer path to a commission, but this is a function of priorities among commissioning sources within the military and is not immutable from a policy standpoint.

Stanford undergraduates are generally guaranteed enough financial aid, based on need, to complete a four year degree. They should not need ROTC, either to attend Stanford or to become military officers after they graduate. Why, then, would Stanford students give up this freedom? Of course, some families do not feel they can pay what the Stanford Financial Aid office thinks they can afford for an undergraduate education, and merit-based scholarships are one alternative. But beyond that, in my experience, ROTC students are often led into ROTC by family members or by the prevailing culture in the places where they grew up, before they arrive at Stanford. This means that the military is taking advantage of the biasing effects of a student's upbringing in trying to force an earlier commitment to a major and to military life than is necessary, particularly in the case of Stanford students who have other options.

Recalling my earlier suggestion that ROTC scholarship money provided by the government be spent on need-based, general scholarships instead, we can compare ROTC as it presently exists with an alternative in which less government money is spent, providing the same number of scholarships and the same number of opportunities to become a military officer, without requiring premature commitments to majors and a career by undergraduates. ROTC uses the power of the government to restrict student choices unnecessarily, and it therefore violates conservative principle #2.

At this point, we might ask why ROTC continues if it is inefficient and unnecessarily restrictive. I think the answer, as with so much else about the U.S. Military, is that ROTC is a big program with a lot of historical momentum, and that many people enjoy the perks it affords to them. Colleges and universities that receive scholarship funds are understandably attached to this revenue source. ROTC creates military faculty positions at colleges and universities, with extra positions required to staff separate programs on hundreds of campuses, however inefficient that is.  So ROTC is an interest group within the huge and powerful interest group of the military industrial complex. Again, this should trouble any conservative who does not like the idea of wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars. Some in the military would no doubt enjoy being on a campus such as Stanford. That does not mean that a ROTC program should be housed here.

The analysis above suggests at least some elements of a policy position for Stanford. I think the university should declare that it favors two courses of action by the U.S. Government in relation to ROTC: (a) that ROTC programs be replaced by Officer Candidate Schools in all of the branches; and (b) that money which is currently allocated to ROTC scholarships be reallocated to need-based, general purpose grant aid for undergraduates. I would argue for a stronger university stance against militarism as well, but I will make that case at another time.

The case I have made here does not address how Stanford should approach ROTC on our own campus before, or in the absence of, the Federal changes for which I have argued. Again, I will have more to say about that in the future. But if people across a wide political spectrum can agree that ROTC is generally wasteful and unnecessarily restrictive, then we will have made progress.

Discerning readers may notice that the two principles I began with could be used to make "conservative" cases for many other positions not usually associated with contemporary conservatism, with enough empirical backing. Indeed, there are self-proclaimed conservatives (e.g. Andrew Bacevich) who harken back to George Washington's warnings about "standing armies" and who oppose militarism, and/or who favor drug legalization, etc. - positions normally associated with liberals or the left. Although I do not regard myself as a conservative, the fluid nature of philosophical conservatism across times and places, combined with its broad psychological appeal, give the conservative tradition ongoing importance in our political discourse. One of the things I have always admired about some conservatives is their willingness to rethink what it means to be conservative. A discussion of ROTC's overall justifiability is one good occasion for doing that, as is a discussion of the rest of the military budget.