The U.S. Army’s recruiting crisis—active, Guard and Reserve—should spark two important conversations both within the military and, more importantly, among America’s elected leaders.
The first conversation concerns how to adapt the Army recruiting enterprise as well as departmental personnel policies to help meet recruiting goals. This discussion is loud and clear. The second conversation about how to increase the pool of potential recruits across America is near-silent. Both are necessary to prepare for future security challenges. Neither alone is sufficient.
The first conversation is the traditional one over basics: how to attract the right number of high-quality Americans from the recruiting pool. It includes a review of Army policies and standards that affect the definition of “high quality.” The U.S. Army Recruiting Command and the Army secretariat are experts at this.
Since the start, Rand Corp. senior fellow Bernard Rostker says in his 2006 book, I Want You!: The Evolution of the All-Volunteer Force, “personnel managers have used research to help develop, implement, and sustain the all-volunteer force. The research has been a balance of empirical studies and basic research on the very nature of decisionmaking as young men and women decide to join or not to join the military.”
This kind of research and the policy recommendations that flow from it, according to Rostker, have always been a “mixture of different disciplines—psychology, social psychology, sociology, and economics.”
Over the years, the policy recommendations have fallen into four buckets. First, Recruiting Command: how the Army distributes “quality” officers and NCOs to Recruiting Command and how Recruiting Command adapts its practices to better meet Total Army recruiting goals. These actions generally try to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of recruiting—improving recruiting practices as well as using advanced technologies and methods to produce more accurate research and analysis of the generation being recruited.
Second, secretariat policies: identifying policies that must change to increase the probability of meeting recruiting goals. These policies generally centered around improving marketing focus, refining and targeting recruiting goals and redefining “quality.” That is, figuring out the right mix of mental aptitude, physical fitness and legal standards for admission to the Army as well as the list of waivers and other mitigation measures authorized to Recruiting Command.
Third, compensation: specialty pay, bonuses, benefits and other financial incentives.
Last, the funding necessary from DoD or Congress to make the adaptations in each of these categories.
This conversation is full-throttle. Three good examples among many are “Inspired to Serve,” the 2020 report of Congress’ National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service; the commentary “Four ways to begin fixing the Army recruiting crisis” in the Nov. 18 Army Times; and the “Improving America’s Long-term Military Recruiting Outlook” report published in October 2021 by the Heritage Foundation.
As this conversation is going on, however, the pool of qualified Americans is shrinking and has been shrinking for many years. The conversation about the shrinking pool demands more attention and not just within military circles. This is a national, societal and educational issue.
The “Inspired to Serve” report tried to begin this second conversation in 2020 but failed to address key reasons for the shrinking pool. The report discussed ways to improve military outreach, increase opportunities for youth to explore military service, as well as strengthening and expanding civic education, educational pathways for military service and modernizing veterans’ preference policies.
Following through on these recommendations, not yet evident, may help increase the propensity to serve among America’s youth. But none of these recommendations addresses why the pool is shrinking: too few Americans are qualified to enlist.
The Heritage report says only “29 percent of youth meet all of the core eligibility requirements without a waiver.” The percentage fluctuates, so even 29% may be too high. High school graduation levels and criminal records affect eligibility, but these factors are secondary to obesity and mental health.
Obesity in American youth is trending the wrong way. By 2030, obesity in America’s youth is predicted to be slightly over 24%, about 3% more than it is now. Mental illness among U.S. teens also is rising. In 2019, according to the April 23 New York Times article “ ‘It’s Life or Death’: The Mental Health Crisis Among American Teens,” the number of teenagers reported as having a major depressive episode increased 60% between 2007 and 2019. Suicide rates also increased 60% in roughly the same period.
While there are many reasons for the rise of obesity and mental illness among U.S. teens, the fact is that both reduce the pool of eligible recruits.
The most efficient and effective recruiting efforts will not change the propensity to serve among American youth, the realities of growing obesity and mental health issues, the problems of criminality and educational level, nor the direction these problems are headed. And these are not new problems.
In 2009, Mission Readiness—a group of about 90 senior generals, admirals, senior NCOs and two former service secretaries—published a report titled “Ready, Willing, and Unable to Serve” to call attention to the recruiting crisis.
The report began by quoting the Pentagon: “75 percent of young people ages 17 to 24 are currently unable to enlist in the United States military.” That translates into about 26 million young Americans. The authors cited three main causes: inadequate education, criminality and physical fitness.
“Approximately one out of four young Americans lacks a high school diploma,” the “Ready, Willing, and Unable to Serve” report says. Citing the 2007 Nation’s Report Card from the federal Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress, it adds, “69 percent of the nation’s eighth graders scored below proficiency level in math, and 70 percent scored below proficiency level in reading.” One in 10 young adults, the report goes on to say, “cannot join because they have at least one prior conviction for a felony or serious misdemeanor.” And “27 percent of young Americans are too overweight to join the military.”
This 2009 report was a harbinger of the more recent reports and articles on America’s recruiting crisis. The reasons for the shrinking recruiting pool have not changed. A decade later, they are worse. In another decade, absent any concerted national effort, they will be worse still. Army Recruiting Command—or that of any other service—cannot fix the problem of the decreasing size of America’s recruiting pool.
This shrinking pool is made more serious by the evolving global security environment.
America’s Army downsized significantly following the end of the Cold War. As the active Army declined from about 732,000 troops in 1990 to about 426,000 in 2021, Army National Guard and U.S. Army Reserve forces also downsized and became operational reserves.
That means the Army lost its strategic reserve—or at best, the capacity to produce a strategic reserve has atrophied. Risking such a decline was, in the eyes of many, justified, because the Soviet Union collapsed, and the threat of a large war seemed to go away. Everyone wanted a “peace dividend.”
Further, the common belief among many in the 1990s was that future wars were going to be small, decisive and short. Future wars would merely be peacekeeping, peace enforcement operations or some other form of “operations other than war.” Further still, advances in military technology were seen as ways to reduce the size of America’s Army—the beginning of a series of “technology offsets.”
Recruiting is always a difficult task. The difficulty lessened, however, in an era of downsizing. But that era is over—or should be. For, as the National Security Strategy published in October confirms, threats facing America have increased in scope, seriousness and complexity. The strategy also reconfirmed America’s commitment to meet these growing challenges. The requirement to deter war by preparing for major combat operations in multiple theaters, therefore, has returned.
Long-Term Solutions Needed
Translated into recruiting language, the nation’s global strategic requirements mean, first, that the Total Army’s shortfalls must be met with the high-quality soldiers Americans have come to expect. Second, they mean the size of the Total Force must be reexamined. Third, that using the Army National Guard and Reserve solely as operational reserves must also be reexamined. And lastly, as “Inspired to Serve” recommended, the U.S. emergency national mobilization capacity must be reevaluated. America’s strategic reserve will once again come to be an important part of U.S. national security policy.
This is a tall order, a national challenge and not one that can be solved by more efficient recruiting alone. Army leadership, civilian and military, may be able to figure out some near-term solutions to meeting this year’s recruiting goals. Near-term solutions, however, will not aggregate to long-term national solutions to create an Army able to meet the kinds of global challenges the current National Security Strategy projects.
Raising and supporting America’s Army is a congressional responsibility, according to the Constitution. The nation is lucky to have members of Congress whose stalwart support has produced the all-volunteer force and sustained it for decades. Now is the time for Congress to reengage the recommendations from its National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. Senior military and political leaders should help the commission identify specific, near-term recommendations for implementing the commission’s recommendations.
The Army’s recruiting crisis is not the Army’s—or any service’s—to fix. Too many factors lie far outside the military’s capacity to influence. The crisis is a national one and should be treated as such. Army senior leaders have to do their part, no doubt. Equally without doubt, civilian leaders in the legislative and executive branches have a huge part to play as well. Poisonous politics must give way to bipartisan action, or else the pool of potential soldiers will continue to shrink, and the nation will be at risk.
The problems and trends with respect to the recruiting pool are clear; the action plan to address them is not.
* * *
Lt. Gen. James Dubik, U.S. Army retired, a former commander of Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, is a senior fellow of the Association of the U.S. Army. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and is the author of Just War Reconsidered: Strategy, Ethics, and Theory.