The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pentagon bedeviled by recruitment failures as solutions prove elusive

Lt. Gen. Caroline Miller, deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel, and services for the United States Air Force, appears at a Senate hearing on military recruitment and retention. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Military officials and lawmakers on Wednesday painted a grim picture of recruiting efforts within the Defense Department, as a recent study suggests worrisome shortfalls could grow worse if more women decline to serve over restrictive abortion laws in many Republican-led states where U.S. personnel are based.

The Pentagon has characterized the head winds in stark terms, saying its recruiting environment is the worst it has been since the end of the Vietnam War. Some of the military services will just barely meet their goals as the fiscal year ends later this month, officials said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. The Army, the armed forces’ largest branch, will miss its target by 30,000 soldiers, said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said there is little evidence to suggest the outlook will improve any time soon, adding bleakly, “There is no sunlight on the horizon.”

Military leaders teach a three-word mantra — “adapt and overcome” — to every service member. It’s part reminder and part road map for how to meet challenges head on.

But during their testimony, military officials offered a litany of reasons why factors outside of their control undermined recruitment efforts, with vague promises to consider potential solutions and problems raised by the committee.

Further, it was unclear from Wednesday’s hearing whether the Pentagon has prepared for the possibility that some of the military’s biggest draws — including the GI Bill, which offers generous educational benefits in exchange for military service — would one day prove inadequate in the face of waning public interest.

Only one in 11 people ages 17 to 24 have a “propensity to serve,” said Lt. Gen. Caroline Miller, a senior Air Force personnel official.

The confluence of problems they described include: High school closures during the coronavirus pandemic that strained access to military prospects; a competitive job market luring talent away; and obesity and other health problems drying up an already small pool of Americans who physically qualify for enlistment.

Some prospective solutions, like an Army program that sends motivated recruits who perform poorly on tests to remedial training ahead of enlistment, have shown some promise, officials have said. But outfoxing competition from the private sector has proven elusive, particularly in cybersecurity jobs, even though the military offers tens of thousands of dollars in bonuses for such billets.

On Wednesday, panelists from each of the military service summarized their outlook ahead of the fiscal year’s end Sept. 30. The Air Force will make its goals with a “narrow margin” but miss its target for reservists, Miller said. Vice Adm. Rick Cheeseman said the Navy has met its goals for bringing in new active-duty sailors, but not in the Navy Reserve. The Marine Corps “only slightly” adjusted its original recruitment goal and met its mission, said Michael Strobl, a personnel official.

The officials did not offer much insight into how the Supreme Court’s decision this year ending the constitutional right to abortion may further strain the desire to serve among women. A recent study by the Rand Corp. said that of the 201,000 women serving on active duty in the continental U.S., about 40 percent are stationed in states that either have or will have the highest restrictions, with potentially thousands running into complications in seeking reproductive care by needing approval from commanders to travel long distances.

Women already exit the service at higher rates than men, according to the Rand report, which was sponsored by the Pentagon. “It is not unreasonable to expect that both women’s propensity to serve and their subsequent retention intentions will decrease” further, it says.

The National Guard, the force of part-time troops who over the past two years have been activated for missions ranging from hospital support staff to driving buses, is facing similar recruiting and retention challenges. The Army National Guard expects to be short 6,000 soldiers of its target strength, officials said this week. The Air National Guard will come up 3,000 fewer than the 108,300 it projected.

Additionally, the Army Guard said that next year it could lose as many as 9,000 soldiers who have refused to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. Officials are awaiting guidance on how to proceed with those dismissals, and have not yet discharged any personnel who have said they will not get inoculated.

National Guard Bureau Chief Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson acknowledged that limited benefits for Guard members, compared to their active-duty colleagues, can make service unappealing. Guard members don’t have military health insurance unless they are activated for federal duty, and 60,000 members don’t have coverage through a civilian employer, he said in a call with reporters on Tuesday. Guard troops also face limitations on access to federal student aid compared to active duty service members, Hokanson said.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) chastised the panel over general statements about the problem of sexual assault, which climbed to unprecedented highs despite long-standing promises from the Pentagon to get the problem under control.

Warren said a failure to bring the numbers down can undermine interest for women to enlist and sour the career for those already in uniform. Low conviction rates and ineffective prosecution, Warren said, send the message that sexual crimes are tolerated.

“I would just suggest an ounce of humility, because this is an area where we do not excel,” Warren said, asking for better solutions. “I don’t want something defensive, I don’t want something declaring victory.”