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The Recruitment Problem the Military Doesn’t Want to Talk About

It’s not a secret: a surefire way for a presidential contender to get votes is to promise to increase the defense budget. It has worked for nearly every president since John Kennedy—and it worked for Donald Trump. Back in September 2016, candidate Trump promised [1] he would not only increase the Pentagon’s budget, he would add more soldiers, sailors, and airmen (and women) to the military’s ranks.

In April, Trump followed up on his pledge by signing a defense bill that not only ended the spending caps, but called for an increase [2] in the military’s size in 2018 by adding 20,000 new personnel—including 7,500 more soldiers, 4,000 more sailors, 1,000 new Marines, and 4,100 more airmen.

Senior military officers, and particularly Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley, celebrated the increase. Since becoming his service’s senior officer, Milley has argued that to meet its obligations, the Army will need 540,000 soldiers in its ranks by 2022, an increase of some 70,000 soldiers over four years. “It is not some arbitrary number,” Milley told a gathering [3] of Army veterans back in August. “We have done the analysis. We need to be bigger, and we need to be stronger and more capable.”

Milley’s goal meant that the Army not only needed to find 17,500 new soldiers every year, it needed to find replacements for those who retire or leave the service every year—about 20 percent of the force. So it is that the Army set its 2018 recruiting goal at 80,000 soldiers. Initially, at least, Milley’s target seemed modest, reachable. It wasn’t.


In April, the Army revised that number—downwards. Instead of recruiting 80,000, it announced that it would recruit 76,500 new soldiers. But even that number might be too high, as the Army notes [4] that it’s recruited only 28,000 in the first six months of the year. The problem, it seems, isn’t that young people don’t want to join the Army—or any of the services—it’s that they can’t. And therein lies a paradox: for while the U.S. military represents the best in America (as its most senior officers claim), it doesn’t actually represent America. For that to be true, two thirds of our military would have to consist of obese, under-educated former drug users and convicted criminals.

Here’s the arithmetic: one in three potential recruits are disqualified from service because they’re overweight, one in four cannot meet minimal educational standards (a high school diploma or GED equivalent), and one in 10 have a criminal history. In plain terms, about 71 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds (the military’s target pool of potential recruits) are disqualified from the minute they enter a recruiting station: that’s 24 million out of 34 million Americans. The good news is that while the military takes pride in attracting those who are fit, educated, law abiding, and drug-free, they’re having difficulty finding them—manifestly because fewer of them actually exist.

Then too, of the pool of remaining potential recruits, only one in eight actually want to join the military, and of that number, fully 30 percent of those who have the requisite high school diploma or GED equivalent fail to pass the Armed Forces Qualification Test (the AFQT), which is used to determine math and reading skills. Tutoring companies produce sample tests and there’s an “AFQT for Dummies” on the shelves. Here’s a sample question [5]: “Five workers earn $135/day. What is the total amount earned by the five workers?” Put more simply, the purpose of the AFQT isn’t to identify the most qualified, but to winnow out the illiterate, the 30 percent who can’t read, write, or count, despite their high school diplomas.

That’s why the numbers are grim: “There are 30 some million 17 to 24 year-olds out there, but by the time you get all the way down to those that are qualified, you’re down to less than a million young Americans,” Marine Corps Major General Mark Brilakis says. In fact, Brilakis might be overestimating the number—if only one in eight of 10 million in this age group actually want to join the military, that leaves a pool of 1,250,000 potential recruits. If 30 percent of those can’t pass the AFQT, that number becomes 750,000.

In addition to winnowing out recruits due to mental, physical, and social ineligibility, there’s a natural cap to the pool. There are, after all, perfectly good reasons why young Americans might not want to serve: the military is regimented, physically demanding, sometimes boring and often dangerous. “When you sign up for the military you don’t just sign up for a new job,” retired Colonel Kevin Benson, a West Point graduate and former director of the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies, notes. “You’re really joining a new culture. It’s a way of life. Not surprisingly, when many potential recruits realize what they’re getting into they decide to do something else.”

There are a number of possible solutions to the military’s recruiting crisis. The services could lower their eligibility requirements, assign more recruiters to focus on target populations, lower the numbers of military members the armed forces needs—or all three. But lowering standards is not in the cards. “The recruiting numbers look bad,” a retired Army senior officer admits, “but I think the glass is half full. None of the services have taken the easy way out by lowering recruiting standards, and the result is that we have a smarter military than we’ve ever had.” This retired officer (who requested anonymity as he is in a sensitive position in the private sector), cited the impact of a legendary West Point “tank study” [6] of the 1980s that showed smarter tank gunners are actually more accurate tank gunners—that, in effect, smarter soldiers are better soldiers. It’s not simply that smarter recruits are more capable of operating sophisticated weapons systems (like the F-35); they’re better fighters, too, which is, after all, the whole point.

The services have responded to the recruiting crisis by recasting their recruiting strategies. The Navy’s new multimillion dollar “Forged by the sea” appeal is a dual promotion [7] that focuses on what the Navy offers while telling “Gen Zers” what the Navy actually does—an important point, as it turns out, because, according to the ad firm that proposed the appeal, most young Americans don’t actually know. It’s a heavy lift: the Navy will have to retain its current numbers and add 11,400 sailors by 2019 and then increase that number again in order to fulfill the Trump administration’s plan to build a 355-ship fleet. The Air Force faces an even more daunting challenge: the service is 2,000 pilots short and, until recently, the numbers of its recruiters were historically low. It has increased retention bonuses, assigned additional recruiters (100 more this year), and reopened closed recruiting offices. But the tech-heavy service doesn’t just need increased numbers. It also needs more recruits for specific specialties: maintenance, cyber warfare, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and nuclear experts—that is, recruits who don’t walk in off the street.  

In truth, the military isn’t just attempting to address a recruiting crisis; it’s also facing what the retired senior Army officer described to me as “a force structure design issue.” Put simply, the military needs more recruits to offset the continuing demands of the serial deployments that have marked the war on terrorism. An Army of 540,000 soldiers can sustain multiple fights in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria—an Army of 450,000 can’t. Then too, of course, there’s the unmentionable and unquantifiable challenge of recruiting young Americans to serve in wars that seem to go on forever. So the Army has rejiggered its recruiting numbers down because, at least in part, America’s next generation of soldiers are voting with their feet—they’re staying away.

This crisis isn’t new. Back in 2009, a group of retired military officers (including two former Joint Chiefs) started a “Mission: Readiness” campaign recommending that the U.S. government increase funding for local and state early education programs, arguing that [8] “increased investments in high-quality early education are essential for our national security.” Their plea was unprecedented: they implied that the U.S. might better meet its national security threats by spending money on education programs instead of on weapons. “This is primarily a local and state initiative,” retired Army Lieutenant General Thomas Spoehr, the director of the Center for National Defense at the Heritage Foundation, says. Spoehr points out that “Mission: Readiness” has scored successes in selling the benefits of early education and fitness and nutrition programs in a number of local school districts.  

Back in February, Spoehr co-authored a Heritage Foundation “backgrounder” recommending specific reforms to improve education and reverse “the downhill fitness trend.” The goal, as he described it, was to ensure that kids “stay in school, stay fit, and stay out of trouble.” Yet as Spoehr also reluctantly noted in a telephone interview, one of the challenges the military faces is that it recruits in states [9] where America has the greatest fitness and obesity challenge—the Deep South. For while America’s soldiers, sailors, and airmen are educated, fit, and good citizens, they’re also religious, rural, conservative (80 percent of military personnel voted for Donald Trump), and Southern. [10]

“I may have met two or three New Englanders when I was in the Army,” retired Colonel Kevin Benson told me, “but that would be about it.”

So while the U.S. military is ethnically and racially diverse (with increasing numbers of women), it’s not geographically diverse, even though military officers insist that they recruit everywhere. In fact, when pressed, senior military officers dismiss the notion that the military has a pro-South bias. “The military is Southern because that’s where the recruits are,” a career Army officer explains. That’s one explanation, but there’s another: perhaps the military is Southern because that’s where the military recruits. “Yeah, it’s a dilemma,” Spoehr admits, “because we really lack geographic diversity. But I don’t know exactly how we solve that.” Benson agrees, but argues that recruiters have little choice. “There’s a strong military tradition in the South, it’s where most of our military bases are located and the best ROTC programs are there,” he notes. “Besides, what are we supposed to do, say ‘no’ to someone who wants to serve?”

There was a time, and not so long ago, that a majority of senior military officers competed to name the gravest future threats facing the U.S. For many in the Army, facing down a revived European power, it was Russia. For the Navy, patrolling a vast expanse of the Pacific, it was China. For the Air Force, it was keeping up with endless deployments and aging fighters. For the Marines, it was “Iran, Iran, Iran.” All of those views are now being transformed. The gravest future threat to America, many senior military officers now believe, is that America might not be capable of meeting its gravest future threat. The basis for their view is that the military’s current recruiting crisis has provided them a window into a younger generation of Americans, those young men and women who will become the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and airwomen of tomorrow—but can’t.

Mark Perry is the author of The Most Dangerous Man In America and The Pentagon’s Wars. Follow him on Twitter @markperrydc.

121 Comments (Open | Close)

121 Comments To "The Recruitment Problem the Military Doesn’t Want to Talk About"

#1 Comment By Georgiaboy61 On August 19, 2018 @ 10:02 pm

@ Christopher Burchfield

“This article never came close to the military’s real problem: that a very substantial number of its membership has only 62% the physical strength of the soldiers, sailors marines and airmen who won all our wars. I am referring to what are known as women,sometimes ladies. What is worse: they have no fire in the belly for combat and every officer and NCO in every outfit knows it.”

As Groucho Marx used to quip, “Give that man a cigar!”

You certainly won’t win any friends for being so politically-incorrect, but at least you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you stood up for what is right.

Any civilization which sends its women – its wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers -off to fight its wars when able-bodied men are available is both morally confused and sick.

Women, because they bear children, are the cornerstone of civilization. Or are supposed to be – and were, before feminism poisoned the traditional role of women in society.

Back in the 1970s, rather than open the line military more-completely to females, the Pentagon/DOD should have used middle-aged and older men as a resource instead. Men, regardless of age, function better in a culture which is explicitly male – as our armed forces once used to be – rather than in a mixed-sex and highly-feminized environment, which is what much of today’s military is.

If the powers-that-be want to again attract the best men America offers, especially the best and most-able young men, then the culture of the military must again be made explicitly and unapologetically male.

If, on the other hand, one was looking for a nearly foolproof way to make military service unattractive to young males (of the kind the armed forces have always relied upon to fill the ranks), allowing women into the heretofore all-male parts of the military would be it.

Being an unapologetic traditionalist, I am opposed to the widespread participation of women in the military, except in their traditional support/rear area and medical roles. However, if there “must” be women in all parts of the armed forces, then at least have the good sense to segregate male and female soldiers by unit when they are assigned.

That’s how the USSR did it during the Great Patriotic War (WWII), and that system worked – by all accounts – reasonably well. The Russians still purged women in large numbers from the military after the war was over and the crisis had passed, but that’s a story for another day.

#2 Comment By Georgiaboy61 On August 19, 2018 @ 10:36 pm

@ Robert

“But America still needs to reimpose the draft. We cannot afford to have any longer the situation we have had ever since Vietnam. Namely, a situation where Adjunct Professor Casper J. Milquetoast and think-tank policy wonk Dr. Marty J. Glotzberger indulge their fantasies of neocon global policing at its bloodiest, in the absolute certainty that they themselves will never need to face down so much as a popgun, because the only Americans who will be coming home in body-bags as a result of such global policing will be mere “deplorables” like Billy Bob Bubba from Biloxi and Cletus Coon from Cedar Rapids.”

Well-said, sir, well-said!

Today, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is roundly-pilloried in conservative circles for various reasons, many of them valid – but FDR and his family had at least one thing on today’s members of the ruling elites – President Roosevelt sent three of his children into the military.

James Roosevelt became a U.S. Marine and went on to see combat in the famed “Raider” battalion; Elliott Roosevelt joined the U.S. Army Air Corps and flew over three hundred combat missions over Europe; John Roosevelt joined the U.S. Navy and won the Silver Star medal.

Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. – the son of the President Theodore Roosevelt – served in the U.S. Army and saw action in Europe, sustaining a an 8mm machine-gun wound in the leg, before rotating home to recover. Initially rejected for service in the Second World War, Ted, Jr. eventually got the army to relent, and he participated in the landings in North Africa. There, one of the first men ashore, he killed a German in hand-to-hand combat. Later, the 57-year old brigadier general participated in the D-Day Invasion of Normandy, before dying of a heart attack on July 11th.

In that older, better America, even the “American aristocracy” sent their sons into uniform and into battle.

Today, thanks to abolition of the draft, America’s so-called “elites” no longer have to fight in any of the wars the nation is called upon to fight. They have – as the old saying goes – “no skin in the game” whatsoever.

The fighting, dying, suffering and bleeding they leave to soldiers recruited from the American heartland, from little towns they’ve never heard of or bleak inner-cities for whom the military is the only ticket out to a better life. The elites simply sit back and rack in the profits, even as they cut veteran’s benefits again.

Yes, war is a business – and business has never been better for those at the top of American society, the economic-political elites of the ruling class.

It is time to return to an ancient custom – that of kings, chieftains and other rulers leading their armies into battle. We should also insist that those who start wars ought to be called upon – before anyone else – to fight them. I’m sure some sort of system can be worked out to waive the usual age and other requirements in service of this greater good. Every neo-con, calling for someone else’s son to shed blood in battle, will henceforth be handed a rifle and told to stand a post.

Despite its many drawbacks, the draft did serve one vital function – it assured that every stratum of American society participated in its wars. It also assured that at least some of the men in uniform at any given time – those who did not plan to make the military their profession – would look upon military service with eyes not predisposed by institutional biases and careerism.

In closing, it bears repeating that the Founders feared large standing armies, based in part upon their experiences at having British Redcoats quartered in colonist homes. A standing navy and naval infantry force (U.S. Navy and Marine Corps) were seen as vital to our security as a seafaring nation bounded by two great oceans. However, the Framers wanted only a small professional army, with the bulk of our land forces in the form of reservists and militia.

#3 Comment By mrscracker On August 20, 2018 @ 3:40 pm

Georgiaboy61 ,
There’s a place for women to serve their country & I think they can be just as fierce fighters as men-possibly fiercer under the right circumstances-but I don’t think the changes made in the military have been beneficial. Nor in our military academies.

#4 Comment By tom skarda On August 20, 2018 @ 7:12 pm

Some thoughts for why recruiting is so hard right now.

1. The American public have made it clear that they do not want Abu Gharaib, My Lai, civilian casualties, corruption or other criminal/embarrassing incidents.

2. The kinds of equipment being utilized and the tactics demanded to avoid issue #1 require intelligent and ethical people.

3. Due to the high training costs associated with #1 and #2 the services really want personnel to stick around. The last pre-deployment training I completed at Ft Dix cost somewhere around $150k and I was strictly a support guy.

4. Recruitment in the North East is difficult at the high school level for a variety of reasons. One of the biggest is the hostility of the high school administrators to military recruiting. Along with almost non-stop indoctrination about how joining the military is a bad idea. This is frequently even a bigger problem at the university level.

5. Because of items #1,2,3 the military has a very strong “no drug use history” policy. Libertine cultural behavior with regard to drugs in urban areas ends up disqualifying a lot of potential recruits before they ever get to the recruiting center.

The bottom line is that the American public has driven recruitment standards to only allow the top quarter of young people into the ranks. Everyone else causes too many problems, degrades operational readiness and serves as a potential source of embarrassment.

This will only change if, and when, the American public decides they are more willing to accept bad behavior, embarrassing episodes and higher casualty rates.

#5 Comment By Gregg Senne On August 21, 2018 @ 1:15 am

I’m trying to follow the arithmetic used in this article. It doesn’t add up.

#6 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 21, 2018 @ 1:26 am

“Has anyone noticed that we haven’t won a real war since 1945? Leave our kids alone, overweight or otherwise.”

No. Not as long as the kids are beneficiaries of the nation they live in.

And I am thankful that we have had not had such a war, we all should be. I don’t think that will always be the case, but anyone begging to race into china, iran russia or anywhere else with cause of threat to the US or her allies . . .

Should be first in line to support a draft.

As for the kids, there’s a price for being a citizen.

You don’t have to love the US, but if you are a citizen some service should be required.

#7 Comment By Allan On August 21, 2018 @ 12:24 pm

Um. It seems as if what we really are worried about is that too many of our youth are uneducated, unhealthy, and criminal. Sounds to me like a social issue that has to be addressed. This is a national security issue that has to be solved socially.

Another problem is that the best and the brightest generally do not want to go into the military. That is not to say that the officer corps is lagging. Some of the finest people I know have been in the military. I just wish that more would see it as a civic duty, rather than going straight to Wall Street or Silicon Valley to earn a fortune. Again, it is a social issue.

And then there is the perception that, to go in the military, you have to want to fight. As such, only those with a certain conservative bent join. But, in reality, the most anti-war people I have met have been general officers of line units. They want to be ready to fight, but want it to be the last option. Again, a social issue.

The country needs our LeMays, McArthurs, and Pattons. But it also needs leaders who are there to serve their country, not just there to fight a war.

#8 Comment By Stan Lefler On August 21, 2018 @ 3:28 pm

I feel that the decision made in 1972 to require promotions by certain times of a career (Up or Out) was wrong. Two soldiers in my unit at the time, one a medic and one a commo guy were forced out. Both were excellent at their jobs and dedicated. Neither soldier had the ability or desire to lead. The military needs the professional “joe snuffy”.

#9 Comment By Stan Lefler On August 21, 2018 @ 3:34 pm

Second comment. The GED requirement is fine, but some soldiers are not students. “Forcing” them to school in order to advance is short-sighted. Another of my medics could not pass the GED requirement and was forced out. He was one of the best medics in my medical platoon. His assigned unit called him the witch doctor and, whenever he appeared at our aid station, everyone dropped everything to see his patient. He was that good. All he wanted was to do his job and soldier on.

#10 Comment By Steve On August 22, 2018 @ 12:22 am

The high rates of rape and suicide in the military are indicative of a culture in which officer careerism takes precedence over the safety and well-being of enlisted personnel. This is why I discourage young people I love to steer clear of the military.

#11 Comment By sayford ford On August 24, 2018 @ 2:29 pm

the problem is our culture is egalitarian,and not elitist,people in New England states are better educated,in order to appeal to an elite,our military should elite units,like England did with it’s “Artists Rifles” (38th Middlesex (Artists) Rifle Volunteers ),which attracted art students,later public school and university graduates,of course it won’t

#12 Comment By gorge Rapht On August 25, 2018 @ 10:36 pm

The system wants to leave all the failures in society and kill off all the healthy boys.

#13 Comment By RFP On August 26, 2018 @ 1:11 pm

Stop vaccinating the kids with 50+ vaccines.
Stop mandating vaccines. Tremendous done to our children principally by injecting horrendous poisons into them before the age of two. Not a surprise, if one knows anything about toxicology and toxicity.
The damage done is principally cause by crap food/pesticides, vaccines and a horrible education system.
It is as if the vaccine companies/vaccine institutions/legislators pushing vaccines were a foreign agent trying to undermine the society.
Build strong, natural bodies.
Embrace nature.

#14 Comment By Tim On August 27, 2018 @ 4:57 pm

The problem of women in the military goes well beyond that they don’t want to fight, and that they are weak. They also cost a future in medical attention.

The military is becoming a home for unwed mothers. I don’t know a single, married-with-children in the military. All the enlisted females have illegitimate kids.

#15 Comment By A Moderate On August 30, 2018 @ 12:20 pm

I am an overweight former drug user (marijuana). The Air Force still let me join, as long as I got my body fat below 25% and promised not to do any more drugs. It wasn’t even a problem for my TS/SCI, I just had to be honest about it.

#16 Comment By Alex On October 8, 2018 @ 2:02 pm

I was born in 1990. I am educated. I graduated in 09, have my degree in General Science. Went to State for Swimming. Considered top physical athlete. Scored high on the ASVAB. Qualified for the Mensa. Problem is, I have a criminal record.

Smoked Marijuana in Arizona, essentially the equivalent to homicide.

Got a DV charge against my Psychotic Ex GF;

Most guys I know who want to get in, have what it takes, but low income areas, the recession and the lack of jobs simply make guys my age bored, which in turn gets them in trouble.

We have what it takes to get in and we have what it takes to be a highly effective asset to the Military, but this is not 1965 anymore. Its post 2008.

The most dangerous fighting machines are not able to join.

Crime towards society is one thing. Being criminal is another, for the rules are not determined by those who break them. Rules are subjective. So when Potatoes become illegal, are you going to stop eating french fries?
No. But that would make you criminal.

If you have a spout of rage because of the reaction to injustice, does that determine you are unfit?
No, just Human.

Many guys my age have taken risks, chances, because there is nothing left to lose.

Instead the military focuses on being PC, and the next wave of soldiers are going to be complacent.

Isn’t war simply a high risk game?

#17 Comment By ThomasPain On December 13, 2018 @ 12:07 pm

I’m 41, I can more than pass the PT test and the ASVAB. I would be proud to have another chance to serve my country. I’d rather go to war and protect my family than send my kids. I also happen to be from an age of men and morals. Masculinity was something to take pride in, not be resented for. PC culture and the scourge it brings is destroying our men and our country.

#18 Comment By Career12series On February 10, 2019 @ 8:22 pm

I didn’t read all of the comments but chuckled at some. First I’d rather serve with a woman or someone with a different orientation that wants to be there than someone that doesn’t.

Second, the gentlemen from New England somewhat hit it on the head. Poverty drives a lot to join the military. It’s not just the pay, it’s the benefits. That is why the deep south has higher recruitment. It has traditionally been one of the poorer parts of the country.

Third, New England also has fewer recruits because it has seen more war than any other part of the country. Since the Revolution and even 2 decades before that, Ne and the rest of the mid Atlantic over to the Mississippi has seen war. But, education and opportunity lead it. I, myself being from New England and in the military would also say that the majority of the NE states have no clue what is happening in the rest of the world.

Lastly, if you don’t want endless wars STOP VOTING FOR THE SAME PEOPLE OVER AND OVER. What’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

#19 Comment By Venkatesh On April 13, 2019 @ 6:39 am

The problem of women in the army goes far beyond what they do not want to fight and that they are weak. They also cost a future in medical care. The army is becoming a home for single mothers. I do not know any single woman married to children in the army. All the females listed have illegitimate children.

#20 Comment By Stuart On May 27, 2019 @ 1:23 pm

Women are weak..physically..mentally? Of course its to be expected that social conservatives dont want women in the military..i doubt they want women in the workplace either..home, kitchen and family

#21 Comment By Bob On June 2, 2019 @ 10:58 am

Let me help out those of you who aren’t sure if you want to join.

Be aware that if you get hurt, the VA will deny you effective pain medication. If your pain is severe enough, you will suffer until you die or kill yourself. This I know first hand. The VA PCP doctors are worthless, arrogant, egotistical, morons that couldn’t support themselves in the private life. Don’t put yourself at risk. Enjoy you life without suffering. It’s just not worth it.