Editor’s note: This article by Thomas Novelly, Steve Beynon, Drew F. Lawrence, and Konstantin Toropin originally appeared on Military.com, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.
Despite a barrage of hefty bonuses, loosened and more progressive enlistment requirements, and even the creation of innovative pre-boot camp programs, the U.S. military mostly fell short in efforts to bring more Americans into the services over the past year -- and it's unclear how or when that will change.
Of the five Defense Department service branches, only two met their active-duty enlisted recruiting goals for fiscal 2023 -- the Marine Corps and the Space Force, by far the smallest services and with the lightest recruiting burden. The others, the Army, Air Force and Navy, fell short. Every service -- with the exception of the Marine Corps, which squeaked by, in some cases by just one person -- missed some element of its target numbers, whether from the reserve, National Guard or officer goals.
The military took a variety of innovative approaches to inspire young Americans to join up, including reviving the Army's 1980s slogan "Be All You Can Be," the Air Force loosening prior tattoo and drug testing policies, and the Navy rolling out record-high financial incentives up to $140,000. But those efforts ultimately did not push the services over the line of their recruitment goals.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, all the military services faced short-term headwinds when their in-person presence was limited at high schools and public events.
While some of those problems still linger and had an effect on numbers in the past fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, experts told Military.com that long-standing issues ranging from the ineligibility of many young Americans to serve, a reduced propensity to serve overall, and other barriers to service are still exacerbating the recruiting problem and looming in the future.
"Being thrown off balance by COVID, I do think it threw them off their equilibrium," Katherine Kuzminski, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank who specializes in military recruiting, told Military.com. "I think this was the last year that they could truly claim that inability to access students on high school and college campuses is what is throwing the overall recruiting environment.
"I think next year will be reflective of longer-term issues," she said.
Worst Recruiting Outcome Since 1999
The Air Force squeaked by to reach its recruiting goals in 2022, but officials knew that the following fiscal year would be the toughest climb in the service's history to reach them again.
Ultimately, the service missed its enlisted active-duty recruiting goals for the first time since 1999, getting only 24,100 of the enlisted airmen of the 26,877 it needed. It did manage to reach its active-duty officer goal of 967.
The Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard faced an even larger enlisted shortfall.
The reserve component pulled in 5,288 of the 7,765 new enlisted airmen it needed, more than 30% behind goal. It also filled only 1,195 of the 1,535 officer spots it needed, about 23% short. The component largely relies on active-duty airmen moving over to the reserves; with high retention rates, it faced a growing gap.
It was a similarly dire situation for the Air National Guard, which filled 7,120 of the 11,745 spots needed for its enlisted Guardsmen, or nearly 40% short. The Guard component did, however, outperform on its officer numbers, reaching 1,421 officers with only 1,196 needed.
The Air Force Recruiting Service has been working hard to turn the tide this year, issuing a variety of policy changes and new initiatives.
Those included offering medals and promotions for recruiting; streamlining the naturalization process so recruits can become citizens during basic military training; offering reserve bonuses for prior-service airmen; reinstating the Enlisted College Loan Repayment Program; allowing certain tattoos on the hands and neck; and even allowing some recruits who test positive for THC -- the psychoactive component in marijuana -- a chance to retest under a new pilot program.
While those programs did contribute some new recruits and added much-needed numbers this past year, officials believe more progress will be seen in 2024.
"We are cautiously optimistic though as we head into FY24," Leslie Brown, a spokeswoman for the Air Force Recruiting Service, told Military.com last month. "We've seen some positive trends, such as the positive growth of our DEP [delayed-entry program], which is double what it was this time last year.
"It's still lower than we want it to be, but we are continuing to see increases," she said.
'Be All You Can Be'
The Army came up some 10,000 new enlistments short, with officials telling Military.com they hit 55,000 of a goal of 65,000 new active-duty soldiers.
While the service saw gains compared to the previous year, much of that movement is attributed to its new Future Soldier Preparatory Course -- a pre-basic training course that targets applicants who come up short on academic or body fat standards and gives them a chance to come within compliance before shipping out to boot camp.
Col. John Horning, director of marketing strategy for the Army Enterprise Marketing Office, told Military.com that, since the service has poured money into fresh marketing campaigns, there has been a significant increase in potential applicants meeting with recruiters and expressing interest in enlisting.
In March, the Army resurrected the popular and long-running 1980s and 1990s-era slogan, "Be All You Can Be." The new ad replaced the previous "What's Your Warrior" marketing effort, which encouraged young Americans to enlist into a force with a diverse range of high-tech fields that would make them desirable job candidates in the civilian world one day.
But struggles continue to grow outside of the Army's active-duty ranks.
The Army National Guard missed its recruiting goal -- though narrowly -- bringing in 29,457 new part-time soldiers out of its 30,880 goal, nearly 5% short. Some states are struggling more than others, according to internal data reviewed by Military.com.
The Guard has become one of the most visible components of the military to the American public in recent years following massive back-to-back domestic missions, including the responses to numerous natural disasters, the COVID-19 pandemic, protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, and the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection on Capitol Hill.
The Army Reserve also had dire recruiting numbers, gaining just 9,319 reservists of the 14,650 it needed, according to Army officials. It was a shortfall of nearly 38%.
Looking to next year, the Army announced sweeping recruiting reforms. Those include a new specialized recruiting career field that will eventually replace the 79R recruiter military occupational specialty, or MOS, and likely end involuntary recruiting assignments. In addition to a new MOS, the service is also introducing a new warrant officer field and exploring the idea of a new officer path for recruiting.
The Few. The Proud.
The Marine Corps successfully reached its recruiting goal for this year in all categories, including the reserve and for troops with prior military experience going into the Corps. It made its goal by 351 Marines.
The Corps said it set out to recruit 39,153 Marines and ended up bringing in 39,504. Of the 39,504, 11% had prior military experience, according to the service's numbers.
"While arguably facing the most challenging recruiting environment since the establishment of the all-volunteer force, our success is a direct result of the hard work of Marines serving on recruiting duty," Jim Edwards, a spokesperson for Marine Corps Recruiting Command, told Military.com on Thursday. "They have not relaxed the high standards Americans expect of their Marine Corps, and they address challenges head-on to accomplish the mission."
The Corps squeaked by in some individual accession categories for new recruits. It reached exactly its goal for reserve enlisted recruits -- 4,402 -- this year. For reserve officers, it made its goal by just one Marine. Active enlisted recruits were just 21 Marines over the mark.
Last year, the Corps achieved its active-duty enlisted goal by just eight Marines.
In January, the service announced that it would be incentivizing recruiters with thousands in cash bonuses to extend recruiting assignments by as little as three months or up to 12 months.
Military.com asked Marine Corps Recruiting Command whether the service had to tap into its delayed-entry program, a system that allows the Corps to stack and forecast its shipments of Marine hopefuls to recruit training. It did not answer by publication. The Associated Press previously reported that the Marine Corps did not expect it would have to dip into that program.
"I'm mindful of how challenging an environment this is and want to publicly give credit to our professional recruiters and all our Marines who uphold our rigorous standards 24/7. They are setting the example," Gen. Eric Smith, commandant of the Marine Corps, said late last month when the Corps announced it had met its goal.
Kuzminski said one major contributing factor to the Marine Corps' recruiting success is its consistent messaging, showcasing the service's amphibious mission and the physical toughness of its ranks.
While the other services seemed to wrestle with their messaging, the Marine Corps has remained consistent, she said.
"I think that is instructive, because that's kind of always been the message for the Marine Corps," Kuzminski said.
From the Sea to the Super Bowl
Over the past year, the Navy has tried a mix of options to gin up recruiting numbers -- old tried-and-true ways and also novel methods. None of them enabled it to meet its goals.
The service spent millions on high-profile advertisements at events like the Super Bowl and offered record-high enlistment bonuses to recruits -- including tens of thousands of dollars just to quickly ship out to boot camp.
It was also generous in granting exceptions "to consider individuals who may have previously been disqualified" over "tattoos, single parents or positive drug and alcohol tests," according to a service statement about the recruiting results.
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Last winter, the Navy even raised the maximum enlistment age to 41 and loosened entry exam rules -- both changes aimed at widening the pool of possible enlistees.
But the sea service still fell short.
For active-duty enlisted sailors, it reached 30,236 of its 37,700 goal, almost 20% short. It also recruited 2,080 officers, almost 18% short of its 2,532 officer goal. It also missed its reserve goals by a wide margin, hitting 3,000 enlisted reservists, or almost 45% short of the 5,390 it wanted. Reserve officers also fell short by 40% hitting 1,167 of the 1,940 goal.
The Navy also emulated a successful Army program that takes recruits who struggle with meeting either the physical fitness or testing standards and gives them additional training or academic practice ahead of boot camp.
In one of its more dramatic and unpopular moves, the Navy also tried to increase the working hours of its recruiters to six days a week and considered taking steps to extend the orders of recruiters already in place for up to a year. The backlash to those ideas, however, was swift, and they were abandoned after about a week.
One approach the Navy did not take this year was dipping into its pool of delayed-entry applicants like it did last year, a spokesman said. This group of enlistees -- known as the Delayed Entry Program (DEP) -- is essentially people who have already signed a contract but are waiting to ship out to boot camp to give the service more flexibility and control of the flow of recruits.
The result was a reserve of recruits that was at its lowest point in 40 years, and most new recruits had no choice but to start boot camp immediately.
Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Richard Parker confirmed to Military.com that the DEP pool is still "lower than in previous years" and "Navy recruiters are working hard to enhance those numbers to increase both quantity and quality of future sailors in the program."
Semper Supra: Always Above
The Space Force, which does not have an Guard or reserve component yet established, had incredibly small numbers to hit in fiscal 2023.
Of the 472 enlisted prior and non-prior service members it hoped for, the Space Force pulled in 537 new Guardians. On the officer side, it fell short of the 42 it needed and reached 30.
The Space Force is the smallest and newest service branch, coming in at about 8,600 military personnel -- with nearly an equal number of enlisted Guardians and officers. Since it was created in 2019, recruiters had brought in approximately 1,000 Guardians prior to the last fiscal year.
Officials say that due, in part, to the service's size, it often has more applicants than spots available. Additionally, a large majority of its ranks comes from service transfers, such as from the Air Force and Army.
Kuzminski said the Space Force’s recruiting success "isn't applicable to any of the other services," pointing out that it is pulling heavily from other branches and that its overall size makes it an anomaly." She noted that will change some at some point, and the Space Force will have to recruit from the civilian population as it continues to grow.
The service wants to grow the number of Guardians by nearly 10% and hopes to offer almost $5 million in new bonuses to recruit and keep them in the ranks under its 2024 budget request.
The Department of the Air Force's wish list details hopes to eventually grow the newest service branch to 9,400 Guardians, which would add 800 personnel to its active-duty number of 8,600 under the 2023 budget.
Looking to the Future
It's clear to the Department of Defense that Gen Z, those born roughly between 1997 and 2012, are key to the future of the enlisted force. What's unclear is what will persuade them to sign up.
This past July marked the 50th anniversary of the American military moving to an all-volunteer force, doing away with the draft, lotteries and conscripting young men into service. Since then, the military has had to work to make service a value proposition, offering a wide range of bonuses and benefits, as well as removing previous barriers to enlistment in order to hit the needed recruitment numbers.
But during the past few years, the U.S. civilian sector has seen some of its lowest unemployment rates in decades, which has fed the military recruiting woes. Added to that, the Pentagon has released studies showing that only 23% of American youth are eligible to serve due to being overweight, using drugs, or having mental and physical health problems.
And those in Gen Z who are eligible for service may not be encouraged to enlist by the same motivations of their parents' or even their grandparents' generations.
In a speech in April, Ashish Vazirani, deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said about 75% of enlistees have a family history of service. But that number is shrinking, as only 13% of younger Americans have a parent who served in the military, down from 40% in 1995.
He also said that 74% of American adults had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the military as an institution in 2018. But by 2022, that had dropped to 64%.
"Among youth ages 16 to 21, the share with a very favorable impression of the military dropped from 46% in 2018 to 35% in 2022," he said in his remarks.
The Pentagon, as well as the military branches, is continuing to evaluate barriers to service and analyzing what is keeping Gen Z out of the ranks. But that may be a challenge that persists for years.
"The way we as Americans kind of approach civic engagement has really shifted over the last 50 years," Kuzminski said. "So, I think relying on old assumptions about, you know, broader civic participation and specifically about military service, that may be a generational challenge."
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