Stuart Scheller took to the pages of RealClearDefense recently to identify a real crisis in America’s military. The all-volunteer force is in great peril, he argued. On that point, Mr. Scheller will find no rebuttal from me—we are indeed at an inflection point and changes within and outside of the military are required.
However, Scheller’s reasoning seems rooted more in politics than relevant data. What’s more, the conclusions are a projection of his well-documented grievance against Department of Defense (DOD) leadership. I argue the root problem is not so much leadership or politics but the recruiting pool itself. More importantly, this problem predates many of the failures of leadership and so-called “wokeness” that Scheller cites in his editorial.
It is no secret the DOD is struggling to recruit young talent. The DOD missed its recruiting goal in FY22, with the Army having the most trouble and missing its goal by more than 10,000 troops. Scheller suggests the primary reason is political when he asserts that “young Americans are not lazy or stupid.” He argues they can sense hypocrisy. “On the one hand, military leaders preach higher purpose, sense of duty, honor, and other noble virtues. But with the other hand, they rack up long lists of failures and double standards.” He argues the pool of 17–24-year-old men and women are opting out of military service because they distrust military leadership.
What Scheller fails to mention is that 77 percent of that recruiting pool is ineligible for service under current entry standards.
Let me repeat that. More than three-quarters of the primary military recruiting pool cannot make it through the door. That leaves roughly 23 percent of potential recruits in the primary target demographic to ponder and analyze the leadership troubles within the DOD before raising their right hand.
Scheller’s other theme is politicization of the military and its leadership. This is certainly an issue and a contributing factor to the problem. A recent poll conducted by The Heritage Foundation found that 65 percent of active-duty service members are concerned about politicization in the ranks. As for the recruiting pool, the majority of recruits (70 percent) have a family member in the armed forces. If 65 percent of active-duty service members are concerned with politicization in the ranks, it’s fair to assume that they may be urging family members to consider other career paths.
While politicization of the military appears to be a factor in the current recruiting woes, it is certainly not the root cause. The problem of recruiting pool eligibility predates both the Biden and Trump Administrations, “wokeness,” and COVID-19. An article in the left-leaning news outlet Vox found that “Before 2014, the call to “stay woke” was, for many people, unheard of.” This provides a general starting point for when the woke movement began.
Interestingly, the same year the woke movement was taking off, the Pentagon was already sounding the alarm that approximately 71 percent of the 34 million 17-to-24-year-olds would not qualify for military service. To be sure, wokeness in the military is concerning to many, particularly on the right. The author shares many of these concerns. But the recruiting problem predates the woke movement, the Biden and Trump Administrations, and other military controversies such as the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021.
Additionally, Scheller points to an all-time low confidence in military officers, citing a 2022 Gallup poll. He writes: “Americans’ faith in military officers has degraded to the lowest levels ever recorded.” What he fails to mention is that the all-time low is particular to Republican respondents. In the same poll, we find that Republicans had record highs in confidence in military officers during the Trump Administration. This suggests Republican views are highly dependent on which party occupies the oval office, and that these numbers could skyrocket back to normal levels if a Republican wins the presidency in 2024.
Scheller claims retention among active-duty service members is another major issue. On this point, however, he shifts his causation from the political to the economic. He runs through a brief economic history of the all-volunteer force, the 20-year pension system, and the new Blended Retirement System.
He cites the latter as a main culprit in retaining talent. He claims that without the financial incentives of the old pension system, why would anybody stick around for “…18-hour days building power-point slides with vague purpose, withstand beratement, and move every three years when other opportunities await?” The job sucks, it’s hard, and there is no incentive to stick around when other opportunities beckon, Scheller tells us.
But as we have seen with recent Big Tech layoffs and other adverse labor consequences of a slowing economy, the alternative to military services isn’t all roses and wealth. Plus, those that do offer a retirement program typically rely on the 401(k). Scheller provides no data on the Blended Retirement System and its effect on retention. He also missed a key piece of data: 83 percent of service members who serve don’t make it to retirement. Thus, it would seem the 20-year pension model wasn’t as effective in retention as Scheller concludes.
Scheller ends the essay with his hypothesis on the DOD’s solution to the recruiting crisis. The powers that be in the DOD will gather in some cigar-smoke-filled basement bunker, twist their mustaches, and come up with a plan to start a war. They will solve recruiting and retention with a quick rally around the flag moment that will send our men and women into harm’s way. On this point, I guess we can only wait and see.
Scheller hits on many real points but misses the mark on root causes. The data and facts point to a shrinking pool of eligible candidates among the target demographic of 17–24-year-olds. The politicization of the force, wokeness, and policies like the COVID vaccine mandate certainly played a role in repelling certain recruits.
But the evidence shows the recruiting pool crisis predates these cultural issues. If we are going to save the all-volunteer force model, we must start by increasing the number of eligible candidates in the 17-24-year-old demographic. We also must tailor incentives and recruiting methods to the current generation of potential recruits. The ways and means to do this are what we should be focusing on going forward.
BONUS: Kamala Harris Should Quit
Brandon Temple, Ph.D., is an Air Force Special Warfare Officer serving as a legislative liaison to the House of Representatives. Prior to this assignment, he was a Defense Legislative Fellow serving as National Security Advisor to a member of Congress. Any comments or recommendations in this article are the author’s personal views. They do not represent the position of any branch of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, or the Department of the Air Force. This first appeared in RealClearDefense.