The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pentagon is pressed on worsening recruiting shortfalls

The problem is particularly acute in the Army, which set a lofty goal of a half-million active-duty soldiers a few years ago

Marine Corps recruits listen to a drill instructor before going through an obstacle course last year at the service's boot camp in Parris Island, S.C. (Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
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Lawmakers urged the Pentagon on Wednesday to get aggressive and creative in confronting what they warned were dangerous shortfalls in military recruiting, agreeing broadly that the issue threatens national security even as Republicans and Democrats argued over what’s to blame for the deepening crisis.

The issue came before the Senate Armed Services Committee as U.S. defense officials face the bleakest recruiting environment since the aftermath of the Vietnam War, with less than a quarter of Americans ages 17 to 24 years old eligible to serve — and just 9 percent willing to do so. The situation probably will take years to correct, they told the senators, forecasting that the Army, Air Force and Navy all will fall short of their goals this year, possibly by thousands of recruits.

The Pentagon has attributed its difficulties to a variety of factors, including the nation’s low unemployment rate, school closings during the coronavirus pandemic that limited recruiters’ access to high school students and faculty, and a shifting culture in which more teens gravitate to jobs with work-life balance.

The military services have taken a varied approach to the challenge, which is the most serious in the Army. It fell about 15,000 recruits short of its goal of 60,000 active-duty recruits last year, and has set a goal of 65,000 this year that it also anticipates missing. In response, the service has invested heavily in marketing, even bringing back an updated “Be All You Can Be” advertising campaign that draws on Army recruiting pitches from the 1980s.

Army Undersecretary Gabe O. Camarillo told senators that research shows that “most” of today’s young adults are unaware of what it means to serve in the military, with 75 percent possessing little to no knowledge about the service. The Army, he said, “faces a knowledge gap, a relatability gap, a trust gap and a culture gap,” with the most significant barriers to service including fears of death or injury, suffering psychological harm, and leaving behind friends and family.

A few years ago, the Army set out to grow to more than 500,000 active-duty soldiers, but it has since revised those numbers downward several times. By next year, it could have fewer than 450,000, officials have said.

The problem is less serious in the Navy and Air Force but still trending in the wrong direction. Senior Air Force officials said this month that they expect to miss their recruiting goal of about 30,000 by roughly 10 percent. Navy officials met their enlisted recruiting goal of about 33,000 last year, but fell about 200 people short for new officers and have now extended eligibility to thousands who the service previously would have rejected for inadequate performance on required aptitude tests.

The Marine Corps has continued to meet its goals, but “never before have we been as challenged to recruit and retain sailors and Marines as we are today,” Navy Undersecretary Erik K. Raven told senators. (The Navy Department oversees both military services.) He cited the impact of the pandemic, the tight labor market, the shrinking numbers of eligible candidates and people willing to serve, and a fragmented media environment that has made advertising more complicated.

Senators on the committee found common ground on a number of issues Wednesday, including that senior military officials need to look for ways to broaden the population who are eligible to serve.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a former Army officer, said he was worried that the percentage of youths eligible to serve in the military has dropped in the past 10 years from 29 percent to 23 percent. While some senior military officers have cited those numbers “almost as a point of pride,” Cotton said, he urged the Pentagon to “fish in a bigger pool” and look for ways to expand eligibility.

“I and almost everyone else on this committee could tell you a story about what we had to do to help some outstanding young man or woman overcome some supposedly disqualifying injury or condition,” Cotton said.

A waiver process exists to allow people to enlist who are initially disqualified from joining the military. But Cotton said it often takes too long, citing as examples a teenager who temporarily takes antidepressants after his parents’ divorce, or a high school football player who injures a knee and has surgery but struggles to get approval to join the military even after returning to the playing field.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) agreed with Cotton, noting that the length of time it takes to get approval can be a barrier. “Somebody might just say, ‘The heck with it. I’ve got a good offer over here in the private sector,’” King said.

Republicans and Democrats were sharply split, however, on whether the Biden administration’s efforts to address extremism, diversity and equity in the military have driven away recruits.

Sen. Roger Wicker (Miss.), the committee’s top Republican, said the Pentagon spent “a lot of hours” researching extremism when the administration first took office, declining to note that dozens of veterans were among those arrested for actions during the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol. The Pentagon documented 100 cases of extremism across the entire force, Wicker said, concluding that a problem there “doesn’t exist.”

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) questioned whether the national media, including The Washington Post, and some administration officials were at fault for shortages in military recruiting because they “trotted out this narrative that we have all these extremists” in the ranks. There are “knuckleheads” in every organization, Sullivan said, but the vast majority of people who serve in the military to do so with honor and distinction.

The 100 cases of extremism, identified in a study directed by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin soon after taking office, represent less than 1 percent of the more than 2 million personnel who serve in the military, the senator said. “There’s probably more extremists in the Congress than that,” he said.

Sullivan asked whether there is any evidence that such discussions have undermined recruiting, and Camarillo, the Army undersecretary, said there is not.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the committee chairman, defended the military’s work to promote diversity and said that allegations from some conservatives that the institution has become too “woke” do not appear to have resonated with prospective recruits. In a recent Army survey, he said, “only a small fraction, 5 percent of respondents, said they felt the military places too much emphasis on ‘wokeness.’”

“Let me be clear: Diversity and inclusion strengthens our military,” Reed said. “By every measure, America’s military is more lethal and ready than it has ever been. It is also more diverse and inclusive than ever before. This is not a coincidence.”