You Can't Solve the Recruiting Crisis
A leaner Army helps itself and the Joint Force
In the last year and a half, much has been made over the very real recruiting crisis faced by the Joint Force, none more so than by the US Army. Last FY, the Army fell short by about 10,000 recruits. There’s been endless commentary from junior enlisted to Congress on why the Army specifically faces such a shortfall and how to fix it. There were several marketing ideas that failed either due to culture wars, an inability to connect with Gen Z, and in one case, a failure to do a basic background check on now-convicted domestic abuser Jonathan Majors. As it’s suffering the most, I’ll focus today on the Army’s recruiting problems, and why we can’t solve them with some new slogan, changes to standards, medical waivers, or “ending wokeness” (whatever that means). The Army is scrambling to meet demands that it simply cannot service in present market conditions, and for that reason, the only way to solve the recruiting crisis is to dramatically cut the demand for recruits, and focus on a better-armed and leaner US Army. The problem, of course, is that’s not really possible. Let me explain.
“It’s the economy, stupid.”
The Army, whether it likes it or not, contributes to the national workforce. Soldiers respond to demand signals just like any other worker. Despite what the “vibes” might tell you, the economy is quite good. Wages are growing and unemployment is quite low, so from a basic economic standpoint there isn’t much demand from the labor market to seek out the Army, or what we might deem “alternative employment” to the conventional job market. In the conventional market, workers are driven by things like benefits, salary, stability, mobility, work environment, location, and so on. The Army cannot compete in these categories in most cases with the private sector, particularly in a good economy, with the exception of one factor: mission. What is the core mission of the United States Army? Ignore the bullshit, the Army’s mission is to adventure to foreign lands and close with and destroy the enemy, to believe in something bigger than yourself and selflessly serve others. The problem now is that when you have a good economy, uncompetitive benefits and salary, a publicly-documented toxic work environment, and most importantly no major war (the mission), you’re going to have more open cubicles than viable employees. People sign up when a war is on, particularly for combat arms, because of the intangible good of “getting some.” No, I’m not referring to sex, but rather the adventurous idea of going over there and getting in on the fight, seeing combat. That might be oversimplifying it, but quite simply now that Afghanistan is over…there’s not much outside of SOF for the Army to dangle in front of a recruit that competes with that sort of attraction. A fancy slogan is not going to change that simple reality. You’re still going to get the core group of folks that was always going to sign up regardless of economy because that’s what they’re driven by, but in an all-volunteer force at relative peace, that doesn’t meet demand.
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Before I dive into how things could change, let’s talk about the exacerbating factors for Army recruiting.
Around the Edges
First, a lot of folks (myself included) have made the argument that this wound has been exacerbated by the implementation of MHS Genesis, a digital medical records program that was supposed to enhance accountability and smooth recruiting processes. What it has actually done is make it impossible for the Army to overlook many arbitrary, but federally-coded, regulations that deem someone unfit for service. You need a waiver for practically anything, and now the recruiter can’t tell you to just lie about that asthma you grew out of when you were 10. These issues don’t automatically disqualify someone, but they make the process long and painful for an age group that isn’t good with sitting still…particularly in a good market with opportunities elsewhere. But while this certainly exacerbated the problem, it’s not the core issue.
Second, there is the culture war issue. Let’s get one thing straight: the Army is neither woke nor fascist, it is a reflection of the American people. I’ve dealt with all sorts of soldiers from all walks of life, and the scrutiny that they are put under in the social media age by everything from overzealous leaders to members of congress is frankly more disturbing than any content they make day to day. And it certainly affects overall morale and possibly retention, and certainly, the online discussions carry over to potential recruits, but the Army is not a normal corporation and those seeking it out aren’t immediately deterred by that. Some are, for sure, who wants to worry about every day feeling like a family thanksgiving argument…most people just want to do their jobs.
Third, Big Army talks a lot about getting in touch with Gen Z. And to be sure, every generation needs its own messaging. We’re all different, no more or less good, but we’re all different. And yes, the Army stepped in it with Jonathan Majors and a series of just lame advertising ventures. But at the end of the day, that advertising mostly only matters when the Army is competing with the other services (ie, who likes a Marine vs Army uniform, the various mission sets, etc). Marketing is not magic beans that makes people sign on the dotted line, or at least not a significant number to solve a recruiting crisis by itself. Social media marketing works because of a whole manner of things the Army simply can’t do like microtransactions, month-to-month contracts, and fashion trends. If all products had contracts like the US military, we’d be in a deep depression. All conditions being equal, it’s the same reason why (most) people take a lot of time to buy a car they’ll owe years on, but will buy a bunch of skins on Fortnite without thinking about it. The Army is a commitment, and given current conditions, one that is simply not as marketable as it was a few years ago. That’s not a new consumer phenomenon, either. Gen Z isn’t that special.
Fourth, a lot of folks in DC love to talk about a decline in patriotism and value of service. I don’t know how many articles I’ve seen even years before this crisis on the need to instill values of selflessness and volunteerism in youth through forced service. We’re an all volunteer force, and in a democracy that is worth a lot. People who want to go back to the bad old days, especially in peacetime, of forced service in the military or civilian sectors simply don’t understand the real value of what it means to volunteer, they just want people to be made in their own image. Just because it was good for you, doesn’t mean it’s good for everyone. I know that’s a hard truth to swallow and I’m sure a lot of folks don’t want to hear it.
No Good Options
So what will change things for the Army and the Joint Force? Well, we have three possible conditions that actually obey market forces of supply and demand and are historically proven to change recruiting shortfalls:
Real reduction in end strength
You shouldn’t seek out conditions 1 or 2, and condition 3 is relatively politically toxic right now. I shouldn’t have to explain why manufacturing a recession or war to increase recruiting numbers is a bad idea, and I won’t. But for condition 3, I’ll dive a little deeper.
By now, you’re probably wondering “But Tony, the other services have varying levels of problems, the Marines even seem OK, it must purely be an Army issue!” Well, yes, the Marines did meet mission this year (barely). But the Marines also have a very clearly defined mission (fight China from the islands) and yes good marketing plays a role, but the Marines are also a smaller, more elite force. A very rough comparison here would be that Army SOF isn’t exactly struggling compared to the rest of the conventional force, either. What I’m trying to say is that the Army of today is struggling to meet mission because its end strength goals are too big relative to the Joint Force mission. We are not at war, and certain other services are now at the center of global competition. That doesn’t mean the Army doesn’t play a role, I wrote a whole article on that last year, but rather it plays a different and leaner role than it did for the last twenty years. Unfortunately, this is not a politically viable solution because of service competition and Congressional district food fights in a very rough budget environment, but the fittest Army for the China fight of the 2020s needs to be leaner, so the Joint Force can be better prepared as a whole. The only way to solve the recruiting crisis is for the Army to stop looking for so many recruits.
It’s not a one-to-one trade (not everyone who wants to join the Army would also join the Navy), but if it were up to me, I’d cut the Army’s end strength goal by a couple brigades, reduce rotational missions in order to reduce force strain, and reinvest those personnel resources in ensuring the Navy can man its ships without total burnout as it has suffered for so many years. Much like how the Army isn’t getting any new divisions any time soon in this budget and political environment (red or blue, no majority of people wants a bigger DoD budget right now), the Navy probably isn’t going to get any massive surge in new vessels. So the second best thing to do is to ensure that the Navy can properly man its ships so we don’t lose any more to accidents, or force them to deploy with burned out personnel or crew shortfalls. Humans and machines can only be pushed so far before their performance falters, and failing to make these tradeoffs does serious harm to national security. The Navy needs the Army’s personnel slots more than Army does right now.
Now, there’s a second part to leaning out the Army that is just as critical: we can fight with fewer people and fewer secondary missions, but the Army (and the whole Joint Force) needs a lot more ammunition. For the kind of fight we face in the Pacific, particularly in the first phase of a conflict, I’d want an Army that is mobile, armed to the teeth, and one where its units actually own the training and personnel they claim on their spreadsheets, rather than half-assed and partially-manned units that are dressed up to look good on budget documents. Ensuring our leaner force is *well-armed* is what separates my vision of a leaner Army from the doomed Army of Task Force Smith. If we don’t sort out our manpower and munitions issues, the Army of today will become Task Force Smith 2.0. Guaranteed. When our budget and politics fail us, and in a conflict where mere hours might mean the difference between victory and defeat, a well-armed soldier beats a dozen with empty magazines. Some day the Army will have to surge numbers for another war, but right now, it can’t match or sustain wartime numbers at peacetime, especially when resources could be pushed to other services who need it more.
Jumping back to reality, the above is my ideal budgetary tradeoff, but these days we’d be more likely to cut numbers and then never get any positive tradeoff for the Navy or ammunition. We face many years of CRs and real-dollar cuts ahead. Quite simply, we can’t solve the recruiting crisis because the driving forces are beyond our control short of another major catastrophe, and the only real solution is impossible because of political realities. And because of our toxic political environment, we are still sleepwalking, unarmed and undermanned, into a catastrophe the world has not seen for a long time.
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