Is America Safe If the Army Can't Find Recruits?

November 28, 2023 Topic: U.S. Army Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: U.S. ArmyMilitaryArmy RecruitmentRecruiting

Is America Safe If the Army Can't Find Recruits?

Make no mistake, fixing this problem won’t be easy nor cheap, but the alternative compromises the security of our nation.

As the Army attempts to adjust its structure to a smaller size, some have bemoaned the service’s reported decision to reduce special operations force (SOF) units by three thousand soldiers. Shrinking is always hard, and it’s hard to argue the utility of SOF across the spectrum of conflict. But these critics are missing the forest for the trees: the reason the Army must reduce its force structure is because they are losing the existential fight to recruit new soldiers. In 2021 the Army was authorized 485,900 active-duty soldiers. Today that number is 452,000, a drop of 33,900 and in fiscal year 2023 the Army was unable to recruit the necessary number of volunteers to maintain even that reduced size. So, policymaker’s focus shouldn’t be on a relatively small cut to Army SOF, what they should be focusing on instead is helping the Army (and other military services) deal with a manpower crisis with no end in sight.

Anecdotally you hear reports that squads in the 82nd Airborne Division---the nation’s 911 response force---are zeroed out due to personnel shortages or that Infantrymen have been pressed into service to man tanks due to a lack of armor crewman, just a few of the signs the Army is making difficult choices within a force already strained by the operational needs to deter Russia, China and others.  Combine these shortages with the need for the Army to grow new units in order to react to emerging battlefield realities such as counter-drone warfare and the need to deliver longer range fires, and you have the ingredients of a looming readiness crisis.

To their credit, Army leadership are scrambling to optimize their recruiting apparatus to more effectively attract American youth.  They have elevated their recruiting command to a three-star position (although getting an actual three star general will be hard with general officer confirmations currently stalled in the Senate), moved the command directly under the Army headquarters and intend to keep its commander in place for four years, versus the normal two. The Army’s prep school to help volunteers achieve the service entry requirements---rather than reject them---is an unqualified success and is being imitated by the Navy.

Encouragingly the Army is also reaching out to non-traditional influencers, such as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, to ask him to help convey the benefits and virtues of military service.

Within the Army they are changing their traditional recruiting workforce which previously consisted of a mix of occupational specialties to dedicated professional recruiters. One could argue that while prospective volunteers might be more motivated to serve if their recruiter could relate gripping stories of previous service as an infantryman or aviator, versus those of a professional recruiter, but given the Army is in the midst of a crisis, second-guessing isn’t helpful.

Because the bottom .  literally fallen out of the high school graduate recruiting market, reportedly especially among white males, a traditional core constituent of Army recruiting, the Army hopes to broaden its appeal to Americans who are years past high school, those in college or even beyond, in an effort to market to a larger group. Again, one hopes they will be successful in that endeavor, but the potential gains in that group are likely to be marginal. The longer young people are past high school, the less likely they are to pursue a major life change like military service.

When ten years ago Blackberry offered prospective customers $600 to trade in their iPhones for a Blackberry the offer failed; when people aren’t buying what an organization is selling, fixing the sales apparatus only goes so far.

Needed instead are fundamental changes to the way America views its military and military service. Necessary is a whole-of-society, whole-of-government strategy to increase the knowledge of the incredible opportunities the military offers, to adapt the suite of pay and benefits the military offers to what young people value today, and to boost the value Americans place on service.  The military services can help with this, but the effort needs to be led at a higher level.

For just one data point, starting pay in the military is less than what a high school graduate can make in an Amazon warehouse for an arguably more difficult job.

Such a strategy should start by exploring why public confidence in the military has declined to 60 from 80 percent in only the last few years and devise ways to reverse that trend.

Make no mistake, fixing this problem won’t be easy nor cheap, but the alternative compromises the security of our nation. The time to start is today.

Thomas Spoehr is a retired Army Lieutenant General, is a defense consultant who previously served as the Heritage Foundation’s Director of the Center for National Defense

This article was first published by RealClearDefense.