50 ways the military has changed in the last 50 years

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December 14, 2018
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50 ways the military has changed in the last 50 years

Half a century ago, the nearly 15-year-old Vietnam War was in full swing with a new Commander-in-Chief: President Richard Nixon. The draft for men was in effect, women were decades from achieving full military status, and the social perception of the U.S. Armed Forces and the government was at an all-time low.

A lot has changed since then. The Armed Forces have pulled out of Vietnam and engaged in several conflicts since, from the invasion of Panama and the Gulf War to the war in Afghanistan and the American-led intervention in Syria. Over the years we've also seen huge advances in military technology, and seismic shifts in an array of long-held policies. In many ways, the United States military looks entirely different than it once did.

Stacker rounded up 50 of the biggest ways the military has changed over the last 50 years. From doing away with conscription to allowing LGBTQ individuals to serve openly, read on to find out how the military is different than it was five decades ago. 

ALSO: Do you know your military traditions?

Doing away with the draft

Perhaps the biggest way the military has changed over the last 50 years is conscription, or the draft. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, primarily during the Vietnam War, the draft was a hugely controversial fact of everyday life. Young men between the ages of 18 and 25 could be called for service at any time. These days, participation in the military is entirely voluntary—although all men between 18 and 25 years old are still required to register in the Selective Service System should a draft be reinstated.

Role of the National Guard

In the days of the Vietnam War, joining the National Guard was seen as a way to dodge the draft. Most National Guard units never saw action—President Lyndon B. Johnson was fully against calling them into action—so joining one was a surefire way to fulfill your requirement as safely as possible. These days, the National Guard is a key part of our military forces. Making up most of the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the National Guard now holds key duties, like combat engineering and air refueling, to ensure that they’re a more active part of the armed forces.

Decrease in eligibility

According to Maj. Gen. Mike Davidson, former assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the National Guard, 75% of men aged 18 to 22 are not eligible to join the U.S. Armed Forces today. Factors like obesity, a criminal record, and a lack of education eliminate a large percentage of the citizens from eligibility. This is a departure from the prevailing notion in the 1960s and 1970s that nearly every able-bodied man was eligible to join the military.

Decrease in overall defense spending

In 1968, the United States Government spent $449.3 billion on national defense, or roughly 10% of the country's GDP (or $3.2 trillion in today's money). In 2018, that number was at almost double the amount but represented just 3.8% of U.S. GDP.

Change in force size

The overall number of active duty military personnel is down. In 1968, there were 3.5 million active duty soldiers. In 2017, there were 1.3 million with 800,000 reserve forces. Even with the military engaged in conflicts all over the world, the number of active duty servicemen remains lower than in previous generations.

Women in the military

While overall active duty numbers are down, there is one group enlisting more than ever: women. In 1973, women represented just 2% of the enlisted forces and 8% of the officer corps. Today, women make up 16% of the enlisted forces and 18% of the officer corps.  

Women in combat

Women in the military aren’t just filling desk jobs. In 1991, Congress authorized women to fly in combat missions and serve on combat ships. Women responded well to the new legislation: During the Vietnam War, only 11,000 women were deployed. During Desert Storm, 41,000 women were deployed. In 2016, all combat positions were officially opened to women.

75th Ranger Regiment

The 75th Ranger Regiment is the Army’s premier force, made up of their most elite soldiers. In order to join this exclusive group, a prospective Ranger has to pass a series of grueling physical challenges in austere environments. Since its beginning, the unit had been composed of only men. The first woman completed the Ranger Regiment's Ranger Assessment and Selection Program II in December of 2016, and became the first woman in the 75th Ranger Regiment in 2017. This milestone (along with others, such as a woman in her late-30s passing Ranger school in 2015), opened the door to women being eligible for elite training in all areas of the U.S. Armed Forces, including Special Forces.

Don't ask, don't tell

The armed forces have become increasingly diverse over the past 50 years. One major step in that process was repealing the long-held "don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that kept LGBTQ people from serving openly. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, gay and lesbian service members would either be barred from serving or would have to serve while lying about their sexual orientation. A single slip-up, and they could face discharge. That is no longer the case today.

Transgender policies

While the repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell” allowed gay and lesbian soldiers to serve openly in the armed forces, transgender Americans didn’t have the same opportunities or protections. A policy was established in 2016 that allowed transgender individuals to serve. The policy also set standards for medical care, outlining the range of services provided. President Trump tweeted in 2017 to repeal this policy, putting the future of it in question. Most recently, a U.S. appeals court ruled in favor of Trump's transgender ban barring certain personnel. The Supreme Court will be next to issue a decision.

The development of Navstar GPS

Between 1989 and 1994, the U.S. Department of Defense developed a major advancement that would change the face of war: GPS technology. With the completion of the Navstar GPS in 1994, military personnel in certain areas no longer had to rely on physical paper maps. It was now possible to navigate foreign terrain at night and during storms. It also meant that Rangers who came across foreign troops could pin down those troops’ exact location, making attacks easier to carry out. That doesn't mean soldiers today don't still undergo map training in every Army school: GPS doesn't work in remote Afghanistan and many other locations, so it's imperative that soldiers be very familiar with paper maps.

Use of drones

GPS isn’t the only major technological advance that has caused major changes in the military. Unmanned air vehicles (or UAVs), also known as drones, have had a major impact on war strategy. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration approved drone usage beyond the operator’s range of sight in 2002.

Rifle combat optics

Changes in technology and strategy have necessitated changes in basic training. One place this is seen is in rifle combat optics. In the past (and continuing today), soldiers have been taught to target their enemies with the iron sight at the end of the barrel on their service rifle. These days, they additionally undergo rifle combat optics training. Using a red laser dot in place of an iron sight allows for more accuracy from a greater distance. But because optics can and do break, all soldiers still go through training in rifle combat optics and iron sighting.

Being pushed to the edge

Basic training is brutal. Drill sergeants push new recruits to their breaking points on the theory that a more demanding training produces stronger soldiers. These days (after dealing with multiple abuse charges), the Department of Defense has made adjustments to ensure soldier safety. That has not stopped training from being intense: This year, the Army plans to extend one-station unit training for Infantry Soldiers by eight weeks.

Cell phones permitted

Fifty years ago, arriving at basic training would be like cutting off all communication with the outside world. You’d be allowed one phone call to your family to let them know you’d arrived, and one more at the halfway point before graduation. These days, a recruit can bring his or her cell phone along to training camp—and immediately turn the phone over to the drill sergeant. That drill sergeant decides when phones can be used, and in what capacity (calls, texts, or social media).

No smoking

Once upon a time, soldiers would receive small packages of cigarettes in their C-ration packages, and smoking on base was commonplace. As of 1994, smoking was limited to designated areas only.

Involvement of private contractors

The use of private contractors dates back to World War II, but in the last 50 years, reliance on private contracts has increased exponentially. Since 2009, the ratio of private contractors to U.S. troops has risen substantially. Spending on these contracts routinely surpasses 10% of all mandatory and discretionary government spending. Using private companies to fight public wars brings its own set of issues and challenges; however, the United States could not remain a military superpower without these essential personnel.


Defense Manpower Data Center

An entirely new military office has popped up since the end of the Vietnam War. In 1974, the Defense Manpower Data Center (DMDC) was created to track personnel, training, financial, and other data for the Department of Defense. Part of the office’s job is to find better ways to allocate spending. Another major task is Veteran Services.


Number of overseas troops

While the White House (and in turn, the rest of the government) no longer officially discloses the number of troops stationed overseas—citing safety concerns—data pulled by the DMDC suggest that it has dropped significantly over the last 50 years. In 2018, the DMDC reported that there were fewer than 200,000 troops stationed in countries overseas—the lowest that number has dropped to since 1957. This number might only be low because the number of private contractors is so high, but the United States’ international military presence is on the decline nonetheless.

Homogenization of the military

A conscripted force had many weaknesses and was an unfavorable option for many reasons. One strength that it did have was diversity. The draft didn’t care about race, ethnicity, geographical location, or affluence. Today’s volunteer force is much more homogenous than the force of 50 years ago. Most recruits come from the South and Mountain West, have a median household income of $38,000–$81,000, and an overwhelming majority are white or Hispanic, leaving the armed forces little room to find strength in differences.

Homogenization of officers

Perhaps not surprisingly, the leadership of the U.S. Armed Forces lacks diversity as well: 77% of officers are white, and 85% of them are men. While diversity is up from the ‘70s, when 100% of officers were men, and an even larger percentage were white, there is still a clear need for wider representation.

Use of special forces

The use of special forces has dramatically increased since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In 2017, the U.S. deployed special forces to 145 countries—about 75% of the world’s nations. They also deployed 8,300 commandos a week, up from 2,900 in 2001, and budgeted $12.3 billion versus $3.1 billion. This is a marked increase from the use of special forces 50 years ago.

Active defense

The way the military engages in conflict has changed radically over the last 50 years. One of the first major changes came in 1976 when active defense was added to the "Field Manual 100-5.” Active defense states states that it is acceptable for the military to engage in limited offensive action in order to prevent the enemy from holding a position or gaining ground.

AirLand Battle

1982 saw another major change in conflict strategy: AirLand Battle allowed the army to launch offensive operations. The system coordinates land forces—who were conducting an aggressive maneuvering defense—and air forces, who were launching attacks on the enemy forces, providing reinforcements to the front line.

Information Operations

Another major conflict strategy change came in 2006, with the introduction of Information Operations. As computers and technology advanced and became major players in war, the armed forces needed more defined rules around how to engage with them. Information Operations uses electronic warfare, computer network operations, psychological operations, military deception, and operations security to disrupt adversaries’ attacks and protect cyber safety—decidedly not a focus of the Vietnam War-era strategy.

National Missile Defense

Strategy isn’t the only thing that’s developed rapidly over the last half-century—there have been significant weapons upgrades, as well. Established in the 1990s and re-named in 2002, the National Missile Defense is a program designed to protect the U.S. and allies from ballistic missile attacks. Fear of a missile strike peaked during the Cold War, with today's largest threat coming from North Korea. We've also gained emergency alert systems (not always used correctly), meant to notify civilians of potential risk.

Pulsed Energy Projectile

Another weapons upgrade came in 2002 with the development of the Pulsed Energy Projectile. The non-lethal laser can temporarily incapacitate an enemy without any lasting injury, and has changed the way the military handles civil disturbances.

Discussion around PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder has long been a pervasive challenge among soldiers in the U.S. Armed Forces. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that PTSD affects 31% of Vietnam War veterans, 10% of Desert Storm Veterans, 11% of veterans from the war in Afghanistan, and 20% of Iraqi War veterans. Fifty years ago, the military and society at large did little to acknowledge the illness or help those who suffered from it. These days, the military has stepped up its response and support programs for military members who struggle, by offering counseling, support groups, and therapy for PTSD-afflicted vets.


Counterinsurgency—the action taken against a small faction of guerrillas or revolutionaries—played a major role in the Vietnam War. It wasn’t until 2006 that the U.S. officially accepted and instated a counterinsurgency doctrine. Field Manual 3-24 Counterinsurgency established three objectives to defeat an insurgent uprising: a government must provide security, establish a political system, and build an economic infrastructure. This doctrine has been a primary player in more recent conflicts and engagements.

Survival rates

Survival rates for wounded soldiers have increased dramatically over the last 50 years. In the Vietnam era, a wounded soldier had a 62% chance of survival. Today, a wounded soldier has an 88% chance of surviving injuries, thanks to extremely high-end military hospitals in war zones like Afghanistan, surgeons with extensive experience and exhaustive training, and huge advancements in technology and medicine.

Equipment evolves

In 1968, a fully outfitted enlisted soldier carried 35 pounds of weight in gear worth an estimated $1,856. Today, a fully outfitted enlisted soldier carries 75-plus pounds of gear, worth an estimated $19,454. Items that contribute to this added weight? Body armor, night vision devices, GPS systems, and 16 pounds of batteries.

Body armor improved

During the Vietnam War, military personnel were issued armored vests designed to protect from grenade fragments and pistol rounds. These vests, called "flak jackets,” did not, however, protect a soldier against rifle rounds. In 1980, the military developed body armor made of steel plates and Kevlar fabric that could stop a rifle round. Called Personnel Armor System for Ground Troops, or PASGT, these vests continued to develop, becoming slimmer and lighter over the years, and are still worn by troops today.


Combat helmets

Ask any Vietnam vet or military gear aficionado about the helmets troops wore in the 1960s, and you’ll hear all about the infamous "steel pots.” Barely protective, these helmets stopped almost nothing from piercing them and were notoriously uncomfortable to wear. Today, soldiers wear combat helmets that can withstand multiple bullet strikes and shrapnel hits, are internally padded, and allow for attachments like night vision gear and cameras.

Camouflage uniforms

While camouflage and the army seem synonymous today, during the Vietnam War the vast majority of soldiers wore a standard olive-colored uniform. It wasn’t until 1980 that the army adopted its woodland camouflage battle dress uniform (the one that G.I. Joe wore). This uniform would remain the standard until 2004.

Army combat uniforms

In 2004, camouflage uniforms changed to the Army Combat Uniform (ACU) that is worn today. This camouflage pattern looks more digitized, and is designed to blend in even more seamlessly with combat surroundings. It was specially adapted to the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan where military personnel were being deployed in large numbers.

Cybersecurity efforts

In 1968, the CIA added a computer security subcommittee to the U.S. Intelligence Board. The division was new, not well-funded, and under scrutiny. Today, $8.8 billion of the military’s annual budget goes toward cybersecurity, marking a definite change in the value placed on cybersecurity.

Salary changes

In 1968, a brand-new enlisted private was taking home $109.50 a month ($767.55 today), or $1,314 a year ($9,744.50 today). In 2018, after accounting for the 2.4% pay raise soldiers received at the beginning of the year, a newly enlisted private takes home $19,960 a year. While both salaries are low compared to other industries, there has been a marked increase in the take-home pay for the military overall.

Abrams main battle tank

America has long struggled to provide its military with tanks that are easy to maneuver, well-armored, and as light as possible while still packing a punch. The M60 Patton was the best offering in the 1960s, but it was far from perfect. It could go up to 30 miles per hour, featured 10-inch-thick armor, and only required a crew of four. It was rendered obsolete in 1980 when the M1 Abrams battle tank was introduced. Able to travel at speeds of 45 miles per hour, carrying a more powerful gun, and sporting thicker, lighter armor, this tank is still used by the military today.

Gun power

In Vietnam, the most popular gun used by soldiers was the M-60, which fired 550 rounds in succession. In 1987, the M-60 was replaced by the M-249, which fired 800 rounds per minute.

B-52 bomber

B-52 bombers were introduced during the Vietnam War to a devastating effect. The B-52 is still used today, but the plane has undergone major upgrades. They now feature offensive avionics systems, accommodate crews of five, and carry 70,000-pound payloads.

Stance on sexual assault

Fifty years ago, sexual assault in the military went unreported much more frequently, with the prevailing attitude of brushing it all under the rug. Today, a new light is shining on this pervasive issue with programs like SAPR in the Department of Justice, and SHARP for the Army and Navy. Soldiers are encouraged to report sexual assault, as more perpetrators are held responsible and more initiatives are being championed to increase visibility and treatment for survivors.

Veteran care

When troops came home from Vietnam in the ‘60s and ‘70s, they weren’t offered much assistance in returning to their normal lives as private citizens. The Department of Veterans Affairs had a much smaller reach and offered far fewer programs. Today, it is is the largest integrated health care system in the United States, with 1,243 patient care facilities and a 24-hour crisis line for those in need of urgent mental health assistance.

Service academy enrollment

Non-enlisted officers all come through one of the five national service academies: the United States Military Academy, the United States Naval Academy, the United States Air Force Academy, the United States Coast Guard Academy, and the United States Merchant Marine Academy. Enrollment in all five is up from the 1960s, in part because women have only been able to apply since that time. Officer Candidate School and the ROTC are also means by which to become an officer.

U.S. Army Sniper School

The first incarnation of the U.S. Army Sniper School was formed in 1955 but only lasted a few years before being disbanded. The present sniper school was formed at Fort Benning in 1987. The five-week program is one of the most strenuous and challenging programs in the army, with only a small percentage of students successfully graduating. A graduate of the school needs, on average, 1.3 rounds to kill an enemy soldier. A Vietnam-era soldier needed an average of 50,000 rounds to kill an enemy soldier, in comparison.

Night vision technology

Soldiers in Vietnam used early versions of night vision technology. Night vision scopes faded in and out and were useless as sighting devices. Other options required things like six-pound batteries in order to see a mere 50 meters in front of you. Today’s soldiers wear night vision cameras clipped to their helmets that run off a single AA battery and have a wide-angle view. The AN/PVS-14 Monocular Night Vision Device is a huge jump up from Vietnam-era night vision options.

A decline in fragging

Fragging attacks, during which soldiers killed their own officers and NCOs, were alarmingly high in the Vietnam era: 42 soldiers and 15 marines were killed in such attacks throughout the course of the war. Thankfully, an increased emphasis on mental health, as well as an entirely volunteer force (rather than a conscripted one), were proven to be major keys in the decline of fragging attacks over the last half-century. Insider attacks in places like Afghanistan, in which the Afghan National Police or military attack American personnel training and working with them, continue to be a problem.

An increase in discipline

After the end of the Vietnam War, morale and discipline were at an all-time low. A dismissal of hundreds of "problem soldiers” in the 1980s, revamped basic training, and a wealth of resources and money poured into the military helped to renew morale and increase overall discipline.

Goodbye to up or out

In an effort to attract and keep top talent and leadership, the U.S. military has begun to do away with "up or out” rules. In the past, the only way to stay in uniform was to move up the ladder of leadership. Too long in one post translated to grounds for dismissal. These days, the rules have been relaxed to retain those who perform well, but lack the skills or desire to achieve the next rank. Meanwhile, the Defense Department in November 2018 codified a 12-month "deploy or get out" policy that removes service members who have been non-deployable for a full year (or, in the Army, six months).

New army PT test

In July 2018, the army announced a new PT test. The next-generation physical fitness test won’t have different requirements based on gender or age, and has done away with push-ups, sit-ups and running. Instead, new recruits will have to deadlift between 120 and 142 pounds, complete a power throw, perform a sprint-drag-carry, and complete a two-mile run, among other physical challenges.

U.S. Space Force

In August 2018, the United States government announced that the U.S. Space Force would become the sixth branch of the military. While the force hasn’t been fully developed yet, the announcement recognizes that many see outer space as the battlefield of the 21st century. True to form, America is working to stay ahead of the curve, and lead the way when it comes to military strength and prowess.


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