Several lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed similar concerns in recent days as grim recruiting numbers continue to circulate throughout the DoD and Congress. The Army is at 66% of its goal for the fiscal year ending in September, and the Navy is at 89%, based on data compiled from October 2021 through May 2022. Even with Marine Corps rates of 100% , Air Force and Space Force, which leaves the department with a total rate of only 85%.
Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, called on the Pentagon to “do more” to support the military and encourage young Americans to join the military.
“That means better pay, better training, opportunities, relationships and benefits. And by deepening partnerships with traditionally underserved or overlooked communities to tap into our country’s entire talent pool,” Brown said in a statement. “Recruitment and personnel are at the heart of our preparation. We must take this seriously.
Meanwhile, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-California), who chairs the military personnel subcommittee, said the Pentagon had “not developed” a recent batch of numbers it sent to Congress, and that she wished to hold a joint hearing with her panel. and the Preparedness Sub-Committee on Recruitment Issues.
“I would say we need to dig deeper into why the numbers are going down,” Speier told POLITICO. “I think we need to have an audience to kind of explore that.”
It’s unclear in the short term what Congress can do, as several military officials say they face broader cultural and lifestyle trends that make military service less attractive for the overwhelming majority of eligible recruits. .
Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), a former Army Ranger, told POLITICO the Pentagon should promise more money on top of the growing enlistment bonuses the services hold up to potential recruits. “We’re going to have to provide enlistment incentives and bonuses, and I think we also need to educate people … about military service, what it looks like and what it means.”
This misunderstanding of the military is a major concern, as headlines about sexual assault, post-traumatic stress and accusations of “woke” military leaders have been a constant over the past few years.
Recent briefing slides obtained by POLITICO show that senior Pentagon leaders are alarmed by low enlistment numbers and that the military “is currently facing the toughest recruiting market since the advent of the all-volunteer force. , with multiple services and components at risk of missing the mission in FY 2022,” according to the slides. The United States terminated the project in 1973.
“Tough market conditions are likely to persist going forward as the market is not likely to self-correct,” he added.
Recruitment numbers typically plummet when the economy is doing well, and the Covid-19 pandemic has prevented recruiters from physically visiting high schools, colleges and sporting events, all standard places to find potential recruits.
In addition to the economy and Covid, the sharp decline in entry-level troops can be attributed to young people’s concerns about the physical and psychological risks of service, as well as other professional interests, the possibility of interference with college education and aversion to the military lifestyle, according to a survey of DoD youth from last summer featured in the slides. The briefing also cites declining confidence in the army as an institution, as well as the army’s high standard for recruits.
Former and current DoD officials, as well as experts, also pointed to the Pentagon’s vaccine mandate and Republican criticism of the military’s “wake-up call” as contributing to the problem — and department leadership knows it. The military recently cut some 40,000 National Guardsmen and 22,000 reserve soldiers who refused to be vaccinated against Covid from some of their military benefits and prevented them from participating in military duties.
Mackenzie Eaglen, an expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, argued that the vaccine mandate has “unquestionably negative” impacts on recruitment.
“Maths and logic are simply not enough to let troops unwittingly go on the vaccine while at the same time announcing historically high bonuses for new recruits (which the US military did this winter),” a- she declared. “It is much more time-consuming and expensive to fire those with experience than to bring in new, untrained staff.”
“If you’re sitting in the state of Georgia or Texas and you see they’re kicking out 40,000 members, you’re going to scratch your head a bit and say, ‘why should I join?’ “said a former senior DoD official. “And if you don’t want to get vaccinated, you’re definitely not going to join.”
The top Republican on the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee, Florida Rep. Mike Waltz, joined 49 other Republicans on Tuesday in sending a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin asking the Pentagon to reconsider the warrant. of the ministry regarding the Covid-19 vaccine in response to the recruitment crisis. Waltz is a former Green Beret and current member of the National Guard.
“At a time when the Department struggles to recruit qualified young men and women fit for service to fill the ranks, and as China embarks on a massive military buildup that threatens American interests around the world, we should not not hamper our own preparedness and capabilities by punishing and expelling experienced and dedicated guards and reservists,” the letter reads.
Meanwhile, the services began rolling out their own initiatives and redesigning old ones to bring in new troops. “It’s a challenge right now,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday. He said the service had moved away from running TV commercials and gone all-digital, specifically targeting the gaming community for the skills gamers could bring to the service that dovetails with new unmanned technologies that the Navy is developing.
The service has also reduced restrictions on tattoos, expanded programs for single parents and is considering eliminating the “zero tolerance” rule for potential recruits who admit to ever using marijuana. “It’s a competitive environment in terms of recruitment with a low unemployment rate. We need to try to break into new demographics that have no family service history. So player awareness is an example of that,” Gilday said.
While the active duty recruiting shortfall is severe, the picture for the reserve component is worse. The National Guard achieved only 66% of its objective; the army reserve 63%; the Navy Reserve 66%; the Air National Guard 69%; the Air Force Reserve 74 percent. The Marine Corps Reserve is the only one to exceed its target, reaching 111%.
Army leaders say they are well aware of their recruitment problems. Gen. Joseph Martin, the army’s No. 2 general, told the House Armed Services Committee this month that the army could cut its numbers to 445,000 next year from 466,000 now.
He cited “unprecedented challenges with both a post-Covid-19 environment and labor market, but also competition with private companies that have changed their incentives over time,” to offer working arrangements more flexible and salary incentives.
The military is reportedly launching several initiatives to address the problem, including offering $35,000 bonuses to new recruits ready to undergo basic training within 45 days and establishing a training course for those who want to join but don’t. do not currently meet the physical and physical requirements of the service. academic standards.
For the Air Force, one of the main shortcomings is the lack of pilots: at the end of 2021, the service faced a shortage of 1,650 airmen, compared to 1,925 the previous year, the spokeswoman said. of the Air Force, Rose Riley, in a statement.
The Air Force and Navy also offer enlistment bonuses. For career fields where recruits are difficult to find, such as cyber or maintenance, the Air Force offers signing bonuses ranging from $3,000 to $50,000 for a six-year commitment.
Across the military, an underlying problem is that the propensity to serve hit 9% in the summer of 2021, its lowest point since 2007, the slides show.
The main reasons why young people do not want to enlist are the risk of physical injury or death, the possibility of post-traumatic stress disorder or other psychological problems, leaving family and friends behind , as well as other career interests, according to the DoD Youth Survey. . But 34% of respondents also cited a dislike of the military lifestyle and 28% pointed to the possibility of sexual harassment or assault.
“For young people, the risks of the service are front and center and degrade the positive value of the benefits and opportunities offered by the service,” according to the slides. “That is unlikely to change in the current environment.”
Defense officials also believe the problem may be related to declining confidence in the military as an institution. The slides highlight a Gallup poll from this year showing public confidence in the military has fallen 8% in just two years, from 72% in 2020 to 64% in 2022.
At the same time, more than three-quarters of young Americans are disqualified from service, largely due to the military’s strict standards for physical and mental fitness – a percentage the former DoD official described as shockingly high. Eleven percent are disqualified for being overweight, 8 percent for substance abuse and 7 percent for physical health reasons.
The overall pool of young people who are both eligible and not currently enrolled in college is just 12%, according to the slides.
“Thoughtful leaders must humbly consider all possibilities as contributing to this challenging recruiting environment and be flexible and innovative to meet the moment,” Eaglen said. “There is no indication that the numbers will improve in the last two months of the recruitment exercise. More honesty and drastic actions may be the only solutions.
Connor O’Brien and Lawrence Ukenye contributed to this report.