(Adds reporting from Tuesday hearing in paragraphs 7-8.)
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The Defense Department must do more to prepare potential US military recruits amid an enlistment drought not seen since the all-volunteer force was created almost five decades ago, according to the Senate’s armed services panel.
The Pentagon’s personnel chief would have to explain to Congress how the military tutors and assists possible recruits with its aptitude and physical fitness assessments, the Senate Armed Services panel said in a report accompanying the fiscal 2023 defense authorization bill (S. 4543). These programs, usually considered by high-schoolers, are self-guided, with little assistance provided by military recruiters, and don’t have any performance metrics evaluated, the committee said.
“Physical fitness and mental aptitude screenings are major factors in determining whether an interested potential recruit is qualified for military service,” the report said. “The committee has a keen interest in expanding the pool of Americans who are eligible for military service.”
Deficiencies in education, physical or mental fitness, or criminal records, have exacerbated the narrowing potential roster of recruits. Out of 34 million people born after 1997, 4 of 5 Gen-Zers can’t qualify to serve in the largest military service—the US Army, data show. The Pentagon’s enlistment challenges have raised alarm bells for lawmakers who worry that US national security would be weakened if the military can’t attract enough volunteer recruits.
Pentagon statistics that cover the period through the end of March showed the number of active duty military forces had been falling for the prior six months; for the Army specifically, it was down 3.1% compared to a year ago, while Pentagon active duty forces as a whole dropped 1.9%.
Recognizing the challenges, the Army is proposing to dip below 1 million soldiers for the first time in two decades, according to its budget proposal for the year starting Oct. 1. Leaders said they don’t want to lower standards, and are also facing a tight labor market in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Army’s recruiting challenges were brought to the fore on Tuesday when General Joseph Martin, the Army’s Vice Chief of Staff, confirmed to Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) that the Army would fall short of it’s projected 473,000 active-duty soldiers for fiscal 2023 by about 21,000 to 28,000 people.
“That is alarming,” Speier said during a committee hearing.
While the Army may feel the most heat, officials from the five military services characterized this year as “arguably the most challenging” for recruiting when they testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in April.
The Senate defense panel is also pressing the Pentagon to explore changes existing medical accession standards to broaden the pool of eligible recruits who may have experienced a mental health condition.
The Defense Department’s policy on preexisting mental health conditions “further shrinks the number of young people eligible for military service,” the report to the defense authorization bill said.
In particular, Pentagon officials would have to compare how the Defense Department considers diagnosed mental health conditions for the accession of military recruits with standards for retention of currently serving troops. The briefing would also have to review how the Defense Department could change its medical accession standards to broaden the pool of eligible recruits who may have experienced a mental health condition.
The Senate has yet to announce timing for a floor vote on the annual defense authorization bill. Senators will then have to negotiate a final version with the House.
The recruiting woes didn’t go unnoticed when the House adopted its version of the defense policy bill (H.R. 7900) last week.
The House bill would direct the secretary of defense to brief the House Armed Services Committee by March 31, 2023, on military recruiting challenges including societal trends affecting the propensity for military service, recommendations for a recruiting and media outreach, and a multi-year estimate of recruiting and marketing resource requirements.
To contact the reporter on this story: Roxana Tiron in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org