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Recruitment is now a real threat to a frail force facing formidable foes

Navy recruits call their families in the Golden 13 Recruit In-Processing Center at Recruit Training Command (RTC) during Night of Arrival here, Jan. 8. The phone call home lets family members know the new recruits have made it safely to RTC. (U.S. Navy photo/Scott A. Thornbloom)

Challenges to military recruitment aren’t new, but over the last year military leaders have begun to really sound the alarm bells. In this op-ed, Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute makes the case that the issue has now grown to be an existential one, and argues that changes are going to have to happen for end-strength to remain at acceptable levels. 

Citing challenges across American society, military leaders say they’re confronting a historic recruiting crisis and running out of time and available and interested talent. Reasons range from regular citizens’ “knowledge gap” due to a lack of interaction with those in uniform, to an “identity gap” that prevents outsiders from seeing themselves as fitting in, to an all-important “trust gap” where young people are “disillusioned” with the armed forces.

Combining internal Pentagon survey data and the Military Officers Association of America’s approaches forecasts a dreary future for the armed forces. Of the 32 million Americans age-eligible for uniformed service, only 23 percent are initially qualified to serve. Once academic eligibility is accounted for, that drops to just over 10 percent (3.53 million). But wait, it gets worse!

Decades beyond mandatory conscription, the key question now is how many youth are even interested in military service. Only nine percent of eligible young people in the US demonstrated the propensity to serve, according to the survey data, leaving around 321,000 — a brutally low 1.01 percent — of the total age-eligible population both qualified and inclined to join the military.

Broadly, this trend is not new, although the reasons behind it are varied and shifting. Nor is this problem isolated to one service. Each branch has suffered recruitment and retention failures, which are only exacerbated by the inadequate fiscal year 2023 defense budget request and other general factors influencing most Americans, including inflation and COVID-19. The chart below shows active-duty troop levels by military service from FY74 (first year after the draft ended) to today.


A chart showing force levels for the US military. (Mackenzie Eaglen. Source: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller), National Defense Budget Estimates for Fiscal Year 2023)

This isn’t just an interesting data point. US manpower levels are down significantly, at a time when modern administrations have only expanded the military’s mission and operations, while deploying record ratios of Navy ships, thinly spreading Army brigades, and undertraining its pilots.

For the Army, current overall manpower levels are the second lowest in post-draft history, and four of the top five lowest years have been since 2000. Every year since 2007 makes up the 15 years of lowest number of active-duty Sailors, with today’s Navy down over 30,000 troops from 2000. The Air Force will face its fifth lowest end-strength year, adding to an existing decline where 10 of the 12 lowest years for the Air Force have been since 2010. To round it out, the Marines have been steadily declining since 2018, with 2022 among the 10 lowest years for the Corps.

Actively serving personnel have to pick up the extra work, extend their deployments, and train for new missions while waiting for new recruits to fill the gaps — recruits that simply may not arrive. In other words, under-manned units over-operate resulting in an unrested and less specialized force. And the only real solution to this issue is to add fresh bodies to the force. If you can’t do that through recruitment, you end up facing an existential crisis.

How Did We Get Here?

The term “death spiral” gets tossed around with acquisition programs, but it holds true in recruitment challenges as well. When the military shrinks, so too does the population in contact with, which shrinks support of those in uniform — and shrinks the drive to put on a uniform for oneself. This past year, the annual Reagan National Defense Survey reported that the number of Americans who have a “great deal of trust and confidence in the military” fell by 25 points in just three years, and 11 points in only 8 months. This collapse can be credited to the tragic failure in Afghanistan and the broader long wars in the Middle East, politicization of the military, sexual violence and harassment cases, and a score of other issues across the force — but regardless of reason, it is absolutely having an impact on recruiting new members of the armed forces.

Air Force Maj. Gen. Ed Thomas, commander of recruiting, said it clearly in June: “Bottom line, up front, we are in a week-to-week dogfight. We are growing hopeful that we may be able to barely make this year’s mission, but it is uncertain.” As our enemies build record-breaking standing forces [PDF] that intimidate and pressure our allies and partners, not only do these public recruitment failures and declines signal weakness…they actually weaken the US military’s ability to maintain a strong and consistent forward presence and respond with adequately trained and led warfighters.

The struggles to meet active duty end-strength levels are coming at a time that challenges confronting the nation are more numerous and more difficult. They demand not just a maintained force, but a larger one to keep people and national interests protected. This means reforming military culture that disincentivizes enlistment, adequately providing a quality life and pay for service members, focusing more attention on enlisted troops across the armed services, and rebuilding a closer relationship of trust and support with the American public.

In a memo last week, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth and Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville noted this is “not a recruiter problem. This is an Army problem.”

Indeed, it is also a national problem given that, as they wrote, the United States military “exists for one purpose: to protect the nation by fighting and winning our nation’s wars,” and “our readiness depends on a quality all-volunteer force.”

While triaging to meet the moment with lavish bonuses and other benefits — along with reduced standards and various waivers, and even giving new recruits a greater say in where they will be stationed in some cases — leaders must realize recruiting will not suddenly get any easier next year. Relying on healthy retention and the Reserves will not be enough to keep force levels healthy for the next five years and not over-work and over-burden those who are in uniform as a result.

Leaders should consider granting more exemptions for the military’s vaccine mandate for COVID-19, rather than booting out capable and willing service members. To maintain force level stability, the armed services cannot afford to lose out on the 36 percent of Americans ages 18 to 24 who have not been fully vaccinated and could qualify for a waiver. For those already in uniform being asked to do more amidst the recruiting crisis, the secretary of defense should encourage more religious waivers for the vaccine and pause any further forcible discharges related to the mandate until clearer guidance is provided on exemptions, as required by Congress.

As Tom Spoehr of Heritage notes, the President and key Administration officials should repeatedly emphasize the virtues and benefits of military service in their public speaking, among other innovative suggestions. Congress must start holding hearings, asking questions and doing a deep dive on solutions with the executive branch. More funds will help, along with additional pilot programs and targeted updates to standards, streamlining of paperwork, and partnering with America’s schools, communities and industries much earlier than adulthood.

Most of all, though, more attention is warranted at senior levels. Decisionmakers must elevate this recruiting crisis to the top of their inbox and be prepared to tackle it thoughtfully over the next several years, through whatever means necessary.

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