The latest episode of The President’s Inbox is live. This week Jim sat down with Nora Bensahel, visiting professor of Strategic Studies and senior fellow at the Merrill Center at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a contributing editor and columnist for War on the Rocks.
Nora Bensahel, a visiting professor of strategic studies and senior fellow of the Merrill Center at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss the challenges the U.S. armed services are having in attracting new recruits and what can be done about it.
They discussed what can be done to reverse the all-volunteer force’s recruiting shortfalls.
Here are five takeaways from the discussion:
1.) The U.S. military is having trouble attracting new recruits. The Army is having a particularly hard time. It missed its goal of new recruits by fifteen thousand last year. This year, it’s on track to miss its goal by twenty thousand new recruits. The Air Force, the Marine Corps, and the Navy are facing similar challenges. Only the military’s newest branch, Space Force, is meeting its recruiting target. Part of that is a function of size. The other services are trying to recruit thousands of service members; the far smaller Space Force needs just several hundred new recruits each year. Space Force also benefits from the high level of interest in all things related to space. While the services are struggling on the recruiting front, they are doing well when it comes to retention. Nora noted that “the people who are serving in the military are choosing to stay at it at higher rates than the past few years.”
2.) The size of the U.S. armed forces is shrinking as a result. The Army, for example, had to cut its active-duty end-strength this year to 466,000 from 476,000 last year because it missed its recruiting goal by 25 percent. This has the Department of Defense worried. As Nora put it, in an era of great power completion, “the risk is if the US military is too small to conduct the kinds of missions that it needs to conduct in future wars, that that will go badly for the United States.”
3.) Many factors contribute to the military’s recruiting troubles. The percentage of Americans of service age who are eligible to serve in the armed forces is the lowest it’s ever been. It dropped from 29 percent in recent years to 23 percent last year. Fewer young Americans meet the military basic fitness standards, and more young Americans have used drugs. While marijuana is legal in twenty-one states plus the District of Columbia, its use is still disqualifying when it comes to joining the military. The decline in the percentage of Americans eligible to serve in the military has become accompanied by a declining interest in service. Just 9 percent of Americans of service age say they want to serve, down from 23 percent a few years ago. A mix of factors looks to be a work. A robust job market reduces the economic incentive to join the military. The political right has raised concerns of “wokeism,” while the political left has raised concerns about far-right extremism among service members. And the military’s well-documented problems in curbing sexual harassment and assault, epitomized by the murder of Army solider Vanessa Guillén, has likely discouraged many young women from wanting to join the military.
4.) Complex problems need multiple solutions. The military has multiple policy options for addressing its recruiting problems. First, it can implement programs that better prepare people to meet existing standards. The Army, for instance, last year started up the Future Soldier Preparatory Course. It helps young Americans meet the academic and fitness requirements needed to join the Army. Second, the military can modify entry standards that don’t affect force readiness. It has done so in the past by relaxing restrictions on tattoos, and it could do so again by not making past marijuana use and certain mental health conditions not automatically disqualifying. Third, the military could make service life more appealing by providing better benefits, creating spousal employment programs, and allowing enlistees to stay longer on the same base. Fourth, the services could advertise themselves better. The Army recently returned to its 1980s campaign, “Be All You Can Be” after previous marketing campaigns didn’t land with their target audiences. Movies and TV shows can also peak interest. After the release of the original Top Gun movie in 1986, interest in the Navy skyrocketed.
5.) An all-volunteer force raises big philosophical questions about American democracy. The all-volunteer force has been a remarkable success. The United States has the world’s most effective fighting force. And despite the recent recruiting troubles, the United States isn’t likely to abandon the all-volunteer force anytime soon. But the burden of the all-volunteer force isn’t equally shared by all Americans. Less than 1 percent of the U.S. population serves; as Jim noted, the military is largely a “family business.” As many as 80 percent of new recruits had a relative in the service, and some 30 percent report having a parent who served. As a result, the burden of military service falls on the same small slice of the population. It’s not obvious that it’s healthy for a democracy to have the vast majority of its citizens with little connection to its armed forces.
If you’re looking to read more of Nora’s work, check out her piece in War on the Rocks back in March about the falling recruiting numbers back and its implications for the future of the all-volunteer force.
The award-winning Why It Matters podcast team released an episode earlier this year on the all-volunteer force’s ability to adapt to a changing international security landscape.