(Updates throughout with lawmaker comments from hearing.)
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The US military is facing the greatest recruiting challenge in almost half a century, since the inception of the volunteer service, Pentagon leaders are warning Congress.
“The Department anticipates we will collectively miss our recruiting mission despite accessing more than 170,000 remarkable young men and women” in the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, Stephanie Miller, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military personnel policy, said Wednesday in prepared testimony before the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee. “This constitutes an unprecedented mission gap and is reason for concern.”
While all the military services struggle to attract new recruits, the Army’s hurdles in particular paint a troubling picture for Pentagon leaders. Despite reducing its recruiting goals, the largest military service is falling more than 10,000 soldiers short this year, and is projecting a gap of at least 21,000 active-duty troops in 2023.
The US depends on strong, all-volunteer forces to carry out its foreign policy and defend strategic interests. Military leaders often say their services are only as good as their people. With operations shifting to the realms of cyber, artificial intelligence, and hypersonic weapons, and China and Russia challenging US leadership globally, the lack of qualified recruits could become a fundamental national security handicap.
Military services have had to contend with recruiting hurdles such as mental and physical health posed by the coronavirus pandemic, and now must compete in a tight labor market against private companies that often offer more alluring benefits.
“There is no sunlight on the horizon,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (N.C.), the panel’s top Republican. “It’s becoming clear the all-volunteer force that has served our country well over the last 50 years is at an inflection point.”
Obesity a Challenge
Creating a “uniquely challenging environment” for recruiting are several factors, including, a declining veteran presence across society, and uninformed messaging by non-military organizations that “unduly highlight the risks of military service,” Miller explained in her prepared testimony.
Pentagon data show 77% of youth 16 to 24 years old aren’t qualified for military service without waivers. Almost 44% of such youth are ineligible for service for multiple reasons, the most prevalent being overweight, according to Miller.
“The Department is examining our standards and entry programs, but alone, there is very little we can do to positively impact this issue,” she said.
Ineligibility aside, Generation Z also isn’t interested in serving in the military in large part because of a misconception about what it means, Miller added, and for the first time, the majority of youth — 52% — have never even considered the military as an option.
“Of greater concern is the number of youth who believe military service will harm them in some way,” she wrote in the testimony, pointing to young people’s belief that military service will leave people with psychological problems, or difficulties adjusting back to everyday life.
Between 11% to 20% of troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, in a given year, according to the Veterans Affairs Department’s National Center for PTSD. That compares to about 6% of the US population as a whole that will have PTSD at some point in life, and about 12 million adults who have it during a given year, the agency said.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), the panel’s chair, said those who served report positive experiences. “They end up with more education, higher household income and greater level of civic engagement than their peers who did not enter military service, and veteran unemployment is lower than the general unemployment rate across the country,” Gillibrand said in her opening statement.
Army in Dire Straits
The Army is facing the most acute recruiting problems. The service will will finish fiscal 2022 with about 466,000 active-duty soldiers—10,000 people below target, according to Lt. Gen. Douglas Stitt, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for personnel.
The decline doesn’t stop there: Service leaders project that active-duty numbers will fall to between 445,000 and 452,000 by the end of fiscal 2023. That’s down from the 473,000 active-duty soldiers the Army projected in its budget request for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.
“Our objective is to regrow our end strength to 460,000 or more as quickly as possible, and we will pursue this objective aggressively,” Stitt said in prepared testimony. “However, we will not sacrifice quality to meet end strength.”
In contrast, the Navy is likely to meet its active-duty recruiting target but is falling short with recruiting into the reserves by 1,800 people out of a goal of 7,400. Officer recruitment is also facing trouble, according to Vice Admiral Richard Cheeseman, the chief of naval personnel.
Meanwhile, the Marine Corps is facing “significant enlisted recruiting challenges,” but has been able to make up the gap by “an exceptional retention year,” said Michael Strobl, the Marine Corps assistant deputy commandant for manpower and reserve affairs.
The Air Force will meet active-duty recruiting goals for this year “by a narrow margin with a minimal bank of ready recruits for 2023,” Lt. Gen. Caroline Miller, the deputy chief of staff for manpower, said in prepared testimony. The Air Force National Guard and Reserves are expected to miss 2022 recruiting goals by approximately 2,400 and 1,400 people, respectively, according to Miller.
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