Army recruiting crisis results in soldier shortage, record enlistment bonuses

  • The Army won't hit its target for recruits this year.
  • Fewer young men and women meet physical and academic standard to join the Army.

WASHINGTON – The Army faces the worst recruiting environment since the all-volunteer force was created in 1973. The result: The service won't make its goal for recruits and faces a shrinking force in a dangerous world.

Army recruiting typically suffers when civilian jobs are plentiful. That trend is evident this year with the 3.6% unemployment rate, a figure just above a 50-year low. But new factors have dampened recruiting efforts, experts say, including Americans' new attitudes toward work-life balance formed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The shortfall in soldiers comes as the Pentagon sends troops to reinforce NATO after Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February. In response, the Pentagon has bolstered its force in Europe to 100,000 troops, an increase of 20,000. The largest of the armed services, the Army generally provides the most boots on the ground during such emergencies. 

The latest 

  • The attractive civilian job market and a shrinking pool of qualified candidates has left the Army critically short of the young people it needs to fill its ranks and perform vital tasks.
  • Through April, the Army had recruited 68% of its goal, 8,282 soldiers fewer than its target. The Navy had a shortfall of 1,473 sailors, or 8% short of its goal. The Air Force, Marine Corps and Space Force all had met or exceeded their targets. 
  • The Army is offering $50,000, its highest bonus ever, for recruits who commit to six-year enlistments. For a week in June, the Army rescinded its requirement that recruits have a high school diploma or its equivalent.
  • On Wednesday, Army officials issued a memo on its recruiting problems, noting that not enough Americans understand the Army, can't envision life as a soldier and are losing trust and confidence in American institutions including the military. 

What's about to happen 

Army Secretary Christine Wormuth and Gen. James McConville, the Army chief of staff, bowed Wednesday to the reality of missing the recruiting target and issued a memo announcing initiatives aimed at reversing recruiting trends. The Army expects to end the fiscal year on Sept. 30 with about 466,000 soldiers. That level may dip to 445,000 in 2023 because of the lack of recruits. 

Lt. Gen. James McConville, center, visits troops in Afghanistan in 2013.

Among the initiatives is a pilot program to prepare potential recruits to meet the physical and academic standards to serve in the Army. Another will extend the tours of duty for 420 of the Army's best recruiters.

What they are saying 

  • "The talent pool from which we recruit continues to shrink," Gen. Joseph Martin, the Army's vice chief of staff, told the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.  Martin referred to the population of 17- to 24-year-olds who meet the physical and mental standards required to join the Army. About 23% of that age group qualifies to serve in the Army.
  • "There's a sense that there's something more going on," said Beth Asch, an expert on recruiting at the nonpartisan RAND Corporation. "People's attitudes towards work are changing with COVID, work-from-home and people's expectations about what work-life balance looks like. Some of that is still emerging in terms of understanding  what it means in the context of the military."
  • "This is not a recruiter problem," Wormuth and McConville wrote. "This is an Army problem. We are in a war for talent, and it will take all our people – across all components, families, Army civilians, and soldiers for life – to fight and win this war."

Why it matters

The Army depends on a steady stream of young people to train and fight in its lower-enlisted ranks.

Soldiers are in high demand for deployments around the world. Although the last wartime deployment ended with the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last August, the Army has units in hot spots around the globe, including Syria. It also has rushed soldiers to eastern Europe to reinforce allies on NATO's eastern flank.

Soldiers also are helping train Ukrainian troops to use sophisticated American-supplied weaponry such as rocket-assisted artillery units that have inflicted significant damage to Russian troops in Ukraine's Donbas region.

The Army's record bonuses probably kept a bad recruiting year from getting even worse, Asch said. The Army has solved recruiting crises in the past and maintained the viability of the all-volunteer force, Asch said. It probably will again.

"It's recoverable," she said. "That will take effort. It's not a problem you want to have. The trick is to figure it out."

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