- The U.S. military’s difficulty in meeting recruitment targets has caused concerns about the country’s wartime security.
- A strong civilian economy is among the factors that contribute to enlistments being down.
- The military branches have made attempts to adjust their policies to better fit the current culture, such as allowing for some tattoos and conducting retests for cannabis use.
- Despite these efforts, the outlook for recruitment remains uncertain.
The United States military is facing hardship in recruiting new members, which has elicited worry about the nation’s security should the U.S. find itself at war.
Last month, U.S. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said during a discussion at George Washington University that the Army fell short of its recruiting target last year by about 15,000. Due to the Army projecting that it would again not meet its recruitment goals for 2023, Wormuth and Chief of Staff General James McConville recently said $1.2 billion would be shifted to initiatives related to enlistments.
The other U.S. military branches have also reported difficulty in reaching their recruitment targets. The topic was taken up during a September congressional hearing, during which Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, warned that by the end of 2022, “the active U.S. military will be at its smallest size since the creation of the all-volunteer force.”
Michael Bloomberg, former New York City mayor and presidential candidate, wrote about the topic on his media company’s website in an August op-ed that ran under the headline “Military Recruitment Woes Endanger National Security.” In the article, he offered suggestions on how to improve enlistments while arguing that “[c]ombating the threats to global order requires an American military that’s second to none.”
Joining Bloomberg in this sentiment are John Ferrari and John Kem, both retired Army major generals. In a November story for Army Times, they characterized the Army’s enlistment issues as “a major threat to our national security.”
“Calling the Army recruiting shortfall a crisis is like saying that the Titanic had a ‘small’ problem in its crossing of the Atlantic,” Ferrari and Kem wrote.
Rose Riley, spokesperson for the U.S. Air Force, told Newsweek that the branch had made its recruitment goals for the 2022 fiscal year by “a narrow margin” but weekly accessions continue to fall short in 2023.
“Record-low unemployment rates and steadily declining familiarity with the U.S. military today leaves us uncertain whether we can achieve our goals this year,” Riley said in an emailed statement. “We are starting to see some positive results of our training programs, policy changes and our enhanced marketing efforts, but military recruiting will remain a long-term challenge.”
Marine Corps Recruiting Command spokesperson Jim Edwards told Newsweek that while the Marines continue “to experience one of the most challenging recruiting environments since the establishment of the all-volunteer force,” the Marine Corps nonetheless “remains on-track to accomplish the Fiscal Year 2023 accession mission.”
The U.S. Army and U.S. Navy were also contacted by Newsweek for this story but did not respond as of press time.
Dr. Beth Asch, senior economist at RAND who has studied military recruitment for nearly 40 years, told Newsweek that military branches who said they’ve made their targets might have recently lowered their recruitment goals.
“There is a little bit of adjustments to make things look more positive than maybe they actually were,” she said.
Asch also spoke about some of the things that could be—and some things that likely aren’t—affecting recruitment.
“There are some things that are being blamed in the media for these problems, which are probably red herrings,” Asch said. “You might have heard military leaders, pundits and observers say, ‘Well, it’s because less than a quarter of American youth are eligible for military service and enlistment standards.’”
She said the fraction who qualify for military service has been low for years, so “while it’s certainly an area of concern,” that explanation can’t explain why the Army missed its recruiting mission “by historic proportions.”
Asch said another factor that’s being wrongly blamed is “positive propensity.” The Department of Defense measures the propensity for how likely young people are to join the military, and some pundits have mentioned that the positive percentage—those who say they will enlist—is only 10 percent.
However, she said propensity has been low for decades and that when survey data is merged with enlistment records, the results show that “most of the recruits who enlist actually come from the negatively propensed group.”
“That’s one reason why recruiting is so difficult, because you have to convince these negative people who have negative attitudes to have a positive attitude and join the military,” Asch said.
But why is recruitment so low? Like Riley, Asch said economics plays a big factor.
“We know that when the civilian economy is strong, military recruiting becomes a lot more difficult to enlist the type of people the military prefers,” she said. “It’s not just that the unemployment rate is very low. It’s that we know that fewer young men are participating in the labor force. They’re not working, and they’re not even looking for work. They’ve left the labor force.”
Asch said that explanations for this lack of enthusiasm toward work includes the emerging gig economy, the opioid crisis and the decline of manufacturing, as well as the changing attitudes about work-life balance that arose during the pandemic.
Surveys also show the public’s trust in the military—along with trust in most major institutions—is low. Reasons cited for this are scrutiny over how the U.S. handled the withdrawal from Afghanistan, reports of military sexual assaults, incidents of white supremacists joining military ranks and claims of the military becoming too “woke.”
Asch said “there’s not rigorous analysis if any or all of those factors explain the decline in confidence.”
As for what can be done to help persuade more people to join the military, Riley said the Air Force has a team “examining existing policies and procedures to ensure they reflect the service members needed for the future.”
In one policy move to reflect changes in American culture, Riley said the Air Force recently updated its policy to allow for some hand and neck tattoos, since having body ink was found to be “irrelevant to war-fighting.”
Another area in which military branches are easing up on the rules is cannabis use. As medical and recreational marijuana becomes legal in more states across the country, a growing number of people who are of enlistment age have likely experimented with cannabis.
As a result, Asch said the Army, for one, now allows new recruits to retest after a short period if they test positive during their initial physical exam.
Other steps have also been taken to ramp up recruitment. Signing bonuses have been offered to new recruits, while new marketing initiatives have been implemented. For the Army, the latter includes returning to a tried-and-true formula. After two decades of experimenting with new slogans, the Army returned to the popular “Be All You Can Be” motto early this month.
As the U.S. military becomes more technologically advanced with unmanned weapons such as drones, the various branches likely require less people. In addition, such work as IT services and jobs like painting ships can be farmed out to civilians. Despite this, Asch said military recruiting requirements “reflect the technology.”
But does this mean national security is at risk? Does the military lack the forces needed to defend the nation if it were attacked?
For the time being, Asch said, that’s not a major concern. She said if a military branch is lacking in manpower, “what will happen is they’ll just be delayed on lower priority things … It becomes more of a problem of operational capability if this is an ongoing problem for a few years … If the recruiting problem is sustained for a while, maybe even the higher priority units will start having issues potentially.”
Newsweek has reached out to the Department of Defense via email for comment.
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