The United States armed forces report record retention rates of veteran noncommissioned officers, but with the military’s three largest branches falling short of recruitment goals, there’s growing concern there could be “too many chiefs and not enough Indians” in the ranks.
The Army, Navy, and Air Force say a red-hot labor market and a shrinking pool of eligible, capable recruits are among their most significant challenges in reversing a trend that threatens the nation’s readiness.
But in a March 22 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, undersecretaries of the three branches offered more subtle reasons why young Americans are increasingly disinterested in military service.
Among them: In survey-after-survey of teenagers and young adults, between one-fifth and one-third see military service as “something that is good for the country” but not necessarily for the individual, who must put their lives “on hold” while on active duty.
Nothing could be further from the truth, they said, especially since the draft was ended in 1973 and the all-volunteer military had to compete with colleges and employers for high school graduates to fill enlisted ranks. Record reenlistment rates are testament to that, they said.
The surveys show the armed forces are not doing a good job telling prospective recruits about their educational and training programs, which are geared for careers across hundreds of occupations and professions, whether in the military or in the private sector, said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
“The story we need to tell about military service is [that] it is a building block for the rest of your life rather than a ‘time-out’ for four to eight years,” he said.
“We need to reintroduce ourselves as a career destination of choice, whether they stay in the military as a career or move on to other choices,” agreed Undersecretary of the Army Gabriel Camarillo. “You can do almost any career choice; we will give you the training,” provide career-building support, and “fund some of your education—college and grad school.”
Tough Sell in Tight Market
The U.S. Army in 2022 missed its recruiting goal by 15,000 active-duty soldiers, or 25 percent of its target, leaving the nation’s largest military force 7 percent smaller than it was just two years ago.
The U.S. Navy came within several dozen enlistees of its 2022 goal but only after lowering its recruiting quota, increasing its oldest enlistment age to 41 from 39, and relaxing other standards, including for those with criminal backgrounds.
The U.S. Air Force met its 2022 recruiting goal. But in 2023, it anticipates missing its objectives for the first time since 1999 by as much as 10 percent, said acting Under Secretary of the Air Force Kristyn Jones.
The military faces the “most challenging recruiting environment in the 50 years of the all-volunteer force” for a host of reasons, Chair Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said, most notably “record low unemployment and a strong economy.”
In addition, he said, only 23 percent of Americans between the ages of 17–24 are eligible to serve, or capable of doing so, because of obesity, low test scores, criminal records, and behavioral health issues.
Reed also noted that surveys show “less than 10 percent of the population have a propensity to serve—the lowest [percentage] in decades,” underscoring a growing “civilian and military cultural divide” where more than 80 percent of those now serving in the military come from families of military veterans.
Serving in the military is “starting to look like a family business,” he said. “Today, most Americans do not know anyone personally who served.”
Reed also chastised the services for not responding with marketing campaigns that show “widespread fears [about dangers and hardships] are out of synch with the experiences of veterans. [The military] needs to do better” in touting that serving in the military “benefits the nation and benefits those who serve.”
The hearing before the full Senate Armed Services Committee is among many with military officials that will be staged through spring and summer as Congress works through President Joe Biden’s $863 billion Fiscal Year 2024 budget request.
During a March 15 hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Personnel Subcommittee, representatives of the three military branches, as well as from the Department of Defense, answered the same questions and provided, for the most part, the same answers as Camarillo, Jones, and Under Secretary of the Navy Erik Raven did a week later before the full committee.
Revised Recruiting Programs
Among things the Army is doing, Camarillo said, is expanding its ’Soldier Prep Course’ for prospective recruits. Of 3,300 program graduates, 98 percent joined the Army.
The Army is also assigning “high performers” to serve as recruiters in “communities where they have ties,” expanding its “soldier referral program” where active duty soldiers can get a bonus for referring someone who graduates from boot camp, tailored marketing to “15 high-potential focus cities,” and updated social media messaging to “reintroduce ourselves as a place where you can be all you want to be.”
Jones said the Fiscal Year 2023 budget contains $150 million for the Air Force’s marketing programs, which has fostered a revamp of recruiting materials and website where “we’re already seeing a 90-percent increase in new user traffic.”
She said the Air Force “in-person recruiters have dramatically increased presence” and that it is working “30 lines of effort” that involve recruiting.
“We are evolving standards not lowering them,” Jones said, noting the Air Force has lifted its prohibition on tattoos, its third-highest cause of recruit rejection, allowing more than 2,500 with tattoos to enlist.
Raven said the Navy is employing “a new creative appeal to multiple audiences” and, like the Army, establishing a Sailor Preparatory Course.
He said the Navy and Marine Corps had previously invested heavily in TV advertising but has learned that TV is “not the most productive” venue for recruiting. Now, “98 percent of our advertising is on social media,” he said, because on social media “we can more precisely target those age groups and demographics.”
Raven said the Navy also has a program to “reconnect service members with their high schools” as recruiters and examples of life in the military. It plans more “Fleet weeks” and “Navy weeks” in cities across the country, such as the recent one in Tucson, Arizona.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said the Navy will revert to lowering its enlistment standards and so might the country, noting when the Army did so in the late-70s and early-80s, the result was “a predictable lowering of military readiness. Why is this going to work in comparison with what didn’t work in the 1970s?”
It’s true the Navy now allows five times the number of “category 4” recruits than it did two years ago, Raven said, but the same standards apply in gaining a rate, say as a machinist mate, and advancing in rank.
‘Wokeness’ Not a Factor
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said hearing about “extremism” among active duty military has also got to be a turn-off to some potential recruits, calling it a “self-inflicted, non-factual” issue since “less than 100 members of a 2.1 million force was considered engaged in ‘extremist activity.’ There are probably more extremists in Congress than that.”
“I just wonder if a two-year campaign about diversity, equity, and inclusion [DEI]” and to ferret out “extremists” is contributing to the military’s recruiting woes, Wicker said, noting that in surveys up to 13 percent said the emphasis was hampering their military experience.
Thirteen percent is not an overwhelming component of the active duty rolls but “still a significant number. I wonder if it led to this,” he said. “The evidence is that … the military has decided to address a problem that doesn’t exist—extremism.”
Instead of DEI and hunting “extremists,” Wicker said the U.S. military should tout that “Our military is more diverse than ever before” and is the greatest civil rights program in the history of the world.”
According to an Associated Press survey, “Army leaders said very few [active-duty military] say they are deterred from enlisting due to ‘wokeness,’” with only 5 percent listing it as a reason to not enlist.
“We do not have any evidence that it is impacting our recruiting,” Camarillo said.
“The idea of the military being ‘woke,’” Reed scoffed. “I’ve yet to hear it cited as a reason for not serving or leaving the military. Our military looks more like the nation it represents. America’s strength is in its diversity.”