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The US Military’s Greatest Enemy Isn’t Russia or China

Admiral Kuznetsov
Admiral Kuznetsov Aircraft Carrier. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Sure, the U.S. military has a lot of possible challengers these days: think Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and many other rogue states. But the biggest ‘foe’ the Pentagon might have now is a lack of manpower to ensure the nation is protected.

The results are in, and the military’s recruiting crisis shows no signs of letting up. A new fiscal year started this past weekend, and the US Army fell 25% short of its target goal for new soldiers.

Equally damaging as involuntarily shrinking, all the services are starting the newest recruiting year in a tougher position than the last. While retention is a partial buffer, it is simply duct tape on a bigger problem.

Today’s military recruiting crisis is tomorrow’s retention crisis.

That is because as the services struggle to bring in fresh talent, those who are already in uniform are assigned the extra tasks that the new recruits would have picked up. The result is undermanned units that are overworked. Eventually, the overburdened troops decide they cannot do ever “more with less” and bolt for the exits. 

A waterfall effect of strong retention at the expense of healthy recruiting is the potential for a “top-heavy Army, with too many soldiers in leadership roles and not enough new privates to fill in the ranks.” 

Thankfully, Congress is monitoring the situation. In the words of Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) in April, “every single metric tracking the military recruiting environment is going in the wrong direction.”

Addressing the challenge requires firstly honesty about the many reasons for the drop in attractiveness of military service—starting in Washington. To pretend it is just because of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns, a spate of bad press, or more competition from a better paying private sector is a way to avoid personal leadership accountability.

Leaders must remember that the ideal formula for meeting end strength goals consists of recruiting, retention and lowering attrition—not just one of these. The best marketers for public service are those in uniform who love their work, are inspired to continue serving, and are rewarded for their contributions.

Filling the ranks will also require fast-changing and novel solutions in real time that may vary by service and component. Army TRADOC Command Sgt. Maj. Daniel Hendrex recently noted that every year roughly “110,000 individuals meet recruiters with an interest in joining the Army. That number hasn’t changed substantially. What has changed [are] the disqualification rates.”

Disqualification rates of interested youth have increased to such an extent 77% of Americans ages 17 to 24 would not qualify for service without a waiver. Often, they are disqualified within 48 hours of making contact with a military recruiter.

Academic and fitness standards should be revisited and dramatically simplified. The new health care records system must get a re-look. Recruiting authorities must be updated by Congress immediately. And, recruiting budgets will have to increase for the medium-term, with an emphasis on rewarding recruiters for their tireless efforts.

In the words of one official, the Defense Department currently has “really almost 1990’s authorities” that focus on obtaining directory information from telephone books. To deliver more personalized and tailored content to potential recruits while also safeguarding privacy, the military needs better access to data and more modern tools to send targeted advertising to future applicants. 

Military advertising is “incredibly fragmented” and a “system built for when there were ‘three TV channels.’” At a recent congressional hearing, Pentagon leaders said they need the authority to use modern tools and social media to improve recruiting. Witnesses said they must expand and maintain access to America’s high schools, to include student directory lists.

Capitol Hill will also want to consider better screening of instructors and targeted expansion of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) programs. Currently, about 5% of all public schools have a dedicated JROTC—but they contribute a disproportionate number of new recruits into the military each year.

Nearly half of JROTC cadets join the US military. Even more, those simply exposed to JROTC cadets—and who were not themselves enrolled—are more likely to want to join the military later. Air Force Chief of Staff General C.Q. Brown described this phenomenon at AEI in simple terms, stating, “If you’ve never seen it, you never say I want to grow up to be something you’ve never seen.”

Finally, it is time for another presidential commission to review military service. While the last one to do this recommended abolishing the draft, Congress should make it clear the new one will not be an effort to bring it back. Rather, this commission will look across the enterprise and the many different and enduring reasons for the decline in new qualified and interested recruits and offer legislation and other recommendations to address the crisis.

Increasingly undermanned and overworked, our military is heading down a risky path in its recruiting crisis that could quickly become a retention crunch. As troops pick up the slack of what new recruits would have done, servicemembers will choose to leave—shrinking the force further.

Stemming the hemorrhage of people is not exclusively a military task but a countrywide one given the armed forces enduring mission to fight and win the nation’s wars if needed. Congress must ensure this is top of mind, and action, for every senior Pentagon leader and be prepared to establish a national commission on military service in next year’s defense bills.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she works on defense strategy, defense budgets, and military readiness. She is also a regular guest lecturer at universities, a member of the board of advisers of the Alexander Hamilton Society, and a member of the steering committee of the Leadership Council for Women in National Security. This first appeared on RealClearDefense. 

Written By

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Mackenzie Eaglen is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she works on defense strategy, defense budgets, and military readiness. She is also a regular guest lecturer at universities, a member of the board of advisers of the Alexander Hamilton Society, and a member of the steering committee of the Leadership Council for Women in National Security.



  1. Froike

    October 9, 2022 at 11:03 am

    If the US Military keeps emphasizing WOKE Principles over Military Doctrine…The numbers of enlistees of a decent caliber will consistantly decline.
    The purpose of a Military is to defend it’s Country and when necessary, fight. We don’t need The Military to pay for Transgender Counselling and Operations. We need the Military to Train Personnel to Fight and do their jobs well.

  2. Matt S

    October 9, 2022 at 11:15 am

    The author avoids mentioning the biggest causes of all. The military’s horrendous embrace of the jab and the military’s emerging wokeism have done more to kill recruitment than every other reason combined. They have completely alienated the families that were the core source of their recruitments.

  3. Scott

    October 9, 2022 at 1:36 pm

    We have been teaching school children for a generation or so that America is evil and not worth defending. Are we now surprised that young recruits are not lining up to defend her?

  4. Don

    October 9, 2022 at 2:19 pm

    How blind can someone be? Don’t interview the “military” brass. You will get symptoms. Interview the soldiers to get to the root cause. You may be shocked to find that the common answer is… look at how veterans have been treated after their tours are through… Neglected at best by the V.A. Uncared for, disrespected and grossly under provided for and left to wither and die by the same military that is seeking new recruits. This is what the population sees and experiences, not what the military brass thinks is happening. Shame on you for writing this article. Shame shame shame.

  5. Joe Y

    October 9, 2022 at 2:48 pm

    Our current president seems bound and determined to buy votes by forgiving loans for college students. Maybe it’s time to get something for that forgiveness, like a hitch in a branch of the service.
    I’ll leave it to someone else to work out the details, but let’s get something in trade for our money.

  6. Chris Kirk

    October 9, 2022 at 5:45 pm

    You nailed it. Servicemembers are being released for refusing an experimental biotechnology with very troubling side effects. Would you join? I wouldn’t. I had to take several immunizations when I was in the army, but NONE of them were administered under an emergency use authorization.

  7. Jacksonian Libertarian

    October 14, 2022 at 12:24 am

    They would have to serve under demented Joe Biden as their Commander in Chief, and a woke Pentagon.

    America’s youth grows up playing video games, they know how suicidal it is to be in America’s industrial age weapon systems, when the smart weapons start flying.

    Offering Defense Dept. sponsored games with “Ready Player One” type interfaces, to remote control future weapons, is the way to recruit them. This would train them in military protocols, tactics, and let the Pentagon line the best up for the moment they turn 18.

    The Defense Dept. should also offer medically supervised body building with steroids, to get all its couch potatoes into top shape.

    Illegal drug use should be punished by heavy physical exercise, like 100 mile hikes with 100lb packs up and down mountains.

    Everyone refusing to get vaccinated against Chinese bioweapons should still be kicked out as idiots.

  8. GhostTomahawk

    October 15, 2022 at 11:53 pm

    Woke started in the 90s with affirmative action. Good soldiers left when bad ones became their leaders due to quota counting.

    Young people today have been barrage with anti American sentiment for most of their lives. Jobs are plentiful and college is going to be free they think… why get in shape and deal with all that??

    Here’s an idea… see which discharged soldiers they can coax back into service. Raise the age for re-enlistment. And by no means make it easier to get in.

  9. Iv72

    October 16, 2022 at 2:52 pm

    The author seems to be completely disconnected from reality. My son is now serving 4th year on his contract, joining USMC reserve immediately after HS. He’s also seriously thinking of leaving ASAP. First of all, the recruiters convinced him that his college education would have been paid for. Never happened. Next, oftentimes units do not have funds to pay for travel – and so service members, or rather their parents, have to pay for flights to attend drills, and the drills themselves are often for completely stupid reasons and do not even involve any training per se. Lastly, he goes to college in Florida. When he transferred from a unit in California to a unit in Florida his paperwork was apparently lost for many months, and *HE* was blamed for that. On top of it he’s forced to take covid vaccines even when they are known to carry significant heart risks for young males. Hopefully you get the picture.

    The problems have absolutely nothing to do with advertisement. Likewise, the idea to relax admission standards is totally stupid – seriously, you want to admit people without HS Diploma (and that is the only academic requirement) and physically/mentally disabled?

    Like I said, find an author who has a clue. Until then I can immediately see how huge defense budget should continue to go down the drain. Essentially the author proposed to pay for a high-tech recruitment advertisement platform and allow imbeciles to join the ranks. Yeah, what a brilliant solution..

  10. Ben d'Mydogtags

    October 16, 2022 at 5:03 pm

    The All-Volunteer Force is largely a “family business.” A very high share of recruits have family ties to those serving currently or in the recent-past. Turning-off those most likely to serve and the family-members most likely to encourage them is a disaster. Top-down forced wokeness in uniform and worse-yet in DoD schools, the vax mandates, the open contempt politicians have for traditional patriots, the disgraceful abandonment of Afghanistan…those are POISON. It may take generations to recover lost trust if we ever even can.

  11. Nunya Bidness

    October 19, 2022 at 1:29 pm

    Our biggest threat is the Woke Left. I served for 30 years in the Army, starting with the Reagan era when America easily fielded a military over 3 million strong during a booming economy, and thru a twenty-year war, where America’s military was called to fight on many different battlefields and in all kinds of conditions. In every case, the youth of America answered the call, and stepped up to serve. This “recruitment crisis” didn’t exist until two years ago. Why? What has changed? Woke leaders, woke generals. Nothing is ever better for having encountered liberalism. They screw up everything they touch. Every. Thing.

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