The US military needs a lot more recruits
The withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan marks the end of a war which involved nearly 800,000 American soldiers.
To defend against the new threats, the United States will need to replenish its entirely voluntary force with new recruits – a task made more difficult by the dwindling number of Americans willing and able to serve.
The United States currently has 1.3 million active service members. Due to attrition and retirements, the military must find more than 150,000 new recruits each year to meet its overall goal of “final force”. In 2020, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines all met their annual recruiting goals – but those numbers have been skewed by a historically weak job market as active duty members have delayed reintegration plans into the civilian sector, thus reducing the need for new recruits. Last year’s target of 61,200 new recruits to the military, for example, was 20% lower than in 2018, when the military fell short.
Recruitment is not easy. At least 70% of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are ineligible for military service due to obesity, mental health issues, drug use, criminal records, or lack of a degree high school education. Overall, only 13% of young adults express a positive propensity to serve, with women being about half as likely as men to consider enlisting. The Department of Defense estimates that only 2% of the 20.6 million young people between the ages of 17 and 21 have the desired combination of a strong college education, good physical condition and an interest in serving.
This limited supply compromises national security. In recent years, the military has barely met the Pentagon’s minimum cognitive aptitude test for new personnel. In addition, recruits tend to come from an increasingly small segment of the population – a small number of predominantly southern states and veteran families, a group whose share of the population is lower than at any time since World War II. The armed forces continue to enjoy public support, but this distortion of the recruiting pool risks widening the gap between the military and the citizens they have sworn to defend.
The United States must persuade a wider range of Americans to consider military service. More generous enrollment bonuses should be offered to candidates qualified for critical positions and willing to sign for six-year contracts. Services should extend the reach beyond recent high school graduates to community college and technical college students, who are more likely to have specialized skills and perform better on aptitude tests. More recruiters should be stationed in communities with low military participation, and those who bring in high performing recruits should be rewarded. To attract conscripts from non-traditional backgrounds, more of the Pentagon’s $ 500 million advertising budget should be spent on social media campaigns emphasizing the career benefits of joining the military, such as a new YouTube series for the military aims to do just that.
Stimulating recruitment should not come at the expense of military rigor. Relaxing enlistment standards by opening the force to those with a history of absenteeism or drug use, for example, would be a mistake.
The effort is essential, not only for the preservation of American might, but also for the strength of American democracy.