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.