US Military Services Face Biggest Recruiting Hurdles in 50 Years

The US military faces its biggest recruiting challenge in nearly half a century since volunteer service began, Pentagon leaders are warning Congress.

“The Department expects that despite having access to more than 170,000 remarkable young men and women during the fiscal year ending September 30, we will miss our recruiting mission altogether,” said Stephanie Miller, assistant assistant secretary of defense for military personnel policy , in prepared testimony before the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee on Wednesday. “This represents an unprecedented mission gap and is a cause for concern.”

As all military services struggle to attract new recruits, the Army’s hurdles in particular paint a troubling picture for Pentagon leaders. Despite reducing its recruitment targets, the largest military service is short of more than 10,000 soldiers this year and forecast a gap of at least 21,000 active soldiers in 2023.

The US depends on strong, entirely voluntary forces to conduct its foreign policy and defend strategic interests. Military leaders often say their services are only as good as their people. With operations shifting to cyber, artificial intelligence and hypersonic weapons, and China and Russia challenging US leadership worldwide, the shortage of qualified recruits could become a fundamental handicap to national security.

Military services have had to contend with recruitment hurdles such as mental and physical health raised by the coronavirus pandemic and now have to compete in a tight job market with private companies that often offer more enticing benefits.

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A military recruiting center stands in Brooklyn on September 4, 2020.

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Obesity a challenge

Several factors create a “uniquely challenging environment” for recruitment, including a declining presence of veterans in society and uninformed news reports from nonmilitary organizations that “overemphasize the risks of military service,” Miller explained in her prepared testimony.

Pentagon data shows that 77% of youth ages 16-24 do not qualify for military service without waivers. According to Miller, nearly 44% of these youth are off-duty for a variety of reasons, the most common reason being obesity.

“The ministry is reviewing our standards and entry programs, but on our own we can do very little to positively impact this issue,” she said.

Ineligibility aside, Gen Z are also uninterested in serving in the military in large part because of a misunderstanding of what it means, Miller added, and for the first time, the majority of youth — 52% — have never thought about the military as an option.

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“More worrying is the number of youth who believe that military service will harm them in some way,” she wrote in the testimony, pointing to young people’s belief that military service harms those with mental health problems or difficulties adjusting to life will leave everyday life behind.

Between 11% and 20% of soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan will experience post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, in any given year, according to the Veterans Affairs Department’s National Center for PTSD. About 6 out of 100 people (or 6% of the US population) will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. About 12 million US adults have PTSD in any given year, the agency said.

Army in Dire Straits

The army is facing acute recruitment problems. The service will end fiscal 2022 with about 466,000 active-duty Soldiers — 10,000 people short of the target, according to Lt. Gen. Douglas Stitt, the Army’s deputy chief of staff.

The decline doesn’t stop there: Military leaders are forecasting the number of active duty soldiers will drop to between 445,000 and 452,000 by the end of fiscal 2023. That’s fewer than the 473,000 active-duty soldiers the Army forecast in its budget proposal for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

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“Our goal is to increase our final strength to 460,000 or more as quickly as possible, and we will aggressively pursue that goal,” Stitt said in a prepared statement. “However, we will not sacrifice quality to achieve ultimate strength.”

In contrast, the Navy is likely to meet its active duty recruitment target but will miss recruiting 1,800 out of 7,400 into the reserves. Officer recruitment also faces problems, according to Vice Admiral Richard Cheeseman, the chief of naval personnel.

Meanwhile, the Marine Corps faces “significant recruiting challenges,” but “an exceptional year of retention” has made up the gap, said Michael Strobl, the Marine Corps deputy deputy commander for personnel and reserve affairs.

The Air Force will meet active duty recruiting goals for this year “by a narrow margin and a minimal number of ready recruits for 2023,” Lt. Gen. Caroline Miller, the deputy chief of staff for manpower, said in prepared testimony. According to Miller, the National Guard and Air Force Reserves are expected to miss 2022 recruitment targets by about 2,400 and 1,400, respectively.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roxana Tyron in Washington [email protected]

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anna Yukhanov at [email protected]; Robin Meszoly at [email protected]

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