The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan signals the end of a war that involved close to 800,000 American service members. Defending against new threats will require the U.S. to replenish its all-volunteer force with fresh recruits — a task made harder by the dwindling number of Americans willing and able to serve.
The U.S. currently has 1.3 million active-duty service members. Due to attrition and retirement, the military needs to find more than 150,000 new recruits every year to meet its overall “end strength” goal. In 2020, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines all hit their annual recruitment goals — but those figures were distorted by a historically weak job market, as active-duty service members delayed plans to re-enter the civilian sector, reducing the need for new hires. Last year’s target of 61,200 new Army enlistees, for instance, was 20% lower than in 2018, when the Army failed to meet its goal.
Recruiting isn’t easy. At least 70% of Americans between 17 and 24 are ineligible for military service due to obesity, mental-health issues, past drug use, criminal records or lack of a high school degree. Overall, only 13% of young adults express a positive propensity to serve, with women about half as likely as men to consider enlisting.
The Defense Department estimates that just 2% out of 20.6 million 17- to 21-year-olds have the desired combination of strong academic credentials, adequate physical fitness and an interest in serving.
This limited supply compromises national security. In recent years, the Army has only just barely met the Pentagon’s minimum cognitive-aptitude benchmark for new personnel. What’s more, recruits tend to be drawn from a shrinking segment of the population — from a small number of mostly southern states and families of veterans, a group whose share of the population is lower than at any time since World War II.
The armed forces continue to enjoy public support, but this skewing of the recruiting pool risks widening the divide between service members and the citizens they’re sworn to defend.
The U.S. needs to persuade a broader cross section of Americans to consider military service. More generous enlistment bonuses should be offered to candidates who are qualified for critical positions and willing to sign up for six-year contracts. The services should expand outreach beyond recent high-school graduates to community-college and technical-college students, who are more likely to have specialized skills and score higher on aptitude tests.
More recruiters should be stationed in communities with low military participation, and those who bring in high-performing recruits should be rewarded. To attract enlistees from nontraditional backgrounds, a greater share of the Pentagon’s $500 million advertising budget should be spent on social-media campaigns emphasizing the career benefits of joining the military, as a new YouTube series for the Army aims to do.
Boosting recruitment shouldn’t come at the expense of military rigor. Relaxing enlistment standards by opening the force to those with histories of truancy or drug use, for instance, would be a mistake. New waivers were granted to Army recruits at the height of the Iraq War; the result was higher attrition and lapses in discipline, and the Pentagon was forced to rethink.
Expanding the pool of qualified recruits, to be sure, isn’t a job for the military alone. Addressing childhood obesity, substance abuse and poor academic achievement requires greater investment in the country’s K-12 education and public-health systems. Even so, the forces can do a lot on their own account. The effort is critical — not just for the preservation of American power but also for the strength of America’s democracy.
The Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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