The Army reached its goal of recruiting 68,000 active duty soldiers in fiscal year 2019, with roughly half belonging to 10 military occupational specialties and more than 34 percent of the entire recruiting pool destined for combat arms.
The other roughly 65 percent of the incoming recruits are headed for non-combat roles.
The 2019 recruiting goal was itself a slowdown from the roughly 70,000 recruited last year — when the service was actually aiming to recruit 76,500 but missed the mark.
But massive numbers like those don’t tell the full story when trying to determine how well staffed the Army is in critical areas. There were many jobs at the start of the fourth quarter that were struggling with manning levels, including cyber roles and explosive ordnance disposal techs, according to numbers obtained by Army Times from a source familiar with personnel issues and dated to July 10.
The largest career field the Army recruited for was, unsurprisingly, the 11X series, which includes regular and indirect-fire infantry. The total number of recruits heading into those roles was more than 13,000. That career field was followed by 68W, or combat medics, at roughly 3,000 recruits.
The numbers begin to break down much quicker after those two jobs, which make up about one quarter of the entire recruiting goal when combined.
Army guidance pushes its leaders to maintain 100 percent of authorized strength across all brigade combat teams, a baseline that is difficult to sustain during a good economy that can simultaneously curtail new recruits and lure away soldiers who would otherwise remain.
In spreadsheets obtained by Army Times, the service’s fourth-quarter fiscal-year shortages show that the large recruiting target numbers don’t necessarily show the full picture.
Army officials said the numbers shown in the spreadsheets are not an accurate reflection of the force’s manning levels, but officials also declined to provide more specific explanations. The numbers could have also changed since being compiled in July.
“The Army continuously evaluates its current strength with future projections to establish both precision recruiting and retention incentives, and options to address shortages,” Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Robin Ochoa said, pointing to the most recent selective retention bonus update that raised the maximum bonus soldiers can earn through re-enlistment to $81,000.
Though the service would not comment or elaborate on the numbers Army Times obtained, the data set lines up with the massive enlistment and reclassification bonuses being doled out to troops in certain career fields and, in the case of cyber jobs, a congressional report.
The numbers also provide insight into career fields that are difficult to fill out, because of tough requirements for recruits, long training pipelines, high failure rates or all three.
The spreadsheet shows that entry-level Army EOD technicians up to the rank of E-4 were manned at only 44 percent of authorized levels as of July, with a projected manning level of about 51 percent by October. EOD techs at the rank of E-5 stood at 79 percent manning levels in July and EOD techs at the rank of E-6 stood at only 57 percent, with almost no projected improvement by the October mark, according to the spreadsheet.
As with all the figures provided in this article, the Army did not confirm its manning levels or offer different numbers that could be referenced instead.
However, the service is now offering large incentives for EOD techs. Retraining into the 89D EOD tech career field, for instance, can earn top-level tier 10 bonuses if a soldier is a private first class or specialist, so long as the soldier makes it through the schoolhouse.
The Army also recently authorized the EOD career field an aesthetic change that could help recruitment — full-time wear of their EOD brassards.
“EOD relies substantially on in-service recruitment to ensure the Army maintains a sustainable capability to mitigate explosive ordnance threats," Greg Mueller, an Army Training and Doctrine Command spokesman, previously said in a statement on the uniform change. “The brassard serves to aid Army EOD in-service recruitment since it generates questions about its significance and provides an opening for the recruiter to discuss qualifications and EOD career options.”
Cyber and signals
The Army’s multi-domain operations push hinges greatly on the service’s ability to recruit and staff jobs in the cyber and space domains. The numbers obtained by Army Times show a range of cyber career fields experiencing manning shortfalls.
The 17C cyber operations specialist job was one of the largest on the spreadsheet Army Times obtained, with nearly 300 soldiers authorized up to the rank of E-4. However those ranks were only manned at 54 percent in July and were expected to only climb to about 68 percent by October, according to the spreadsheet.
Cyber operations specialists with the right additional skills could earn tier 10 bonuses, the highest selective retention bonus tier, if they re-enlist to work with a cyber protection brigade or the 780th Military Intelligence Brigade. Non-location dependent cyber operations specialists still qualify for tier 9 bonuses, the second highest tier, indicating a continuing need for the troops.
The Army’s 17E electronic warfare specialist career field was also facing shortages, according to the spreadsheets. At the rank of E-5, the service was short more than 150 troops and manned at roughly 23 percent with very little projected growth by October, the spreadsheets show.
The 25D cyber network defender job also appeared to be struggling. At the rank of E-6, the career had a manning rate of about 34 percent and, again, very little growth projected, according to the spreadsheets. At the rank of E-7, the manning rate was 51 percent and not projected to grow. The E-8 rank looked considerably better, with a manning level of about 75 percent, but it was projected to drop to roughly 70 percent by October.
Retraining into the 35P cryptologic linguist career field also qualifies a soldier for tier 10 bonuses. This job requires soldiers to attend the Defense Language Institute, a grueling academic program with a high failure rate.
The number of soldiers in the cryptologic linguist MOS appeared particularly low. Up to the rank of E-4, the career field was manned at 23 percent in July and expected to reach about 25 percent by October, according to the spreadsheet. For those at the rank of E-5, the shortage sheet showed the job as manned at 74 percent with a drop to 69 percent by the end of the year.
An August congressional report by the Government Accountability Office details how two new Army cyber warfare units are seriously undermanned, the 915th Cyber Warfare Support Battalion and a recently activated Intelligence, Cyber, Electronic Warfare, and Space unit.
“For example, the Army activated a cyber battalion in December 2018, and as of March 2019, this unit was understaffed by more than 80 percent,” the GAO report reads.
Combat medics and infantry
The Army’s 68W MOS was manned at about 72 percent in July and expected to reach about 77 by October, according to the spreadsheets. Though, the service’s recruitment of about 3,000 combat medics this fiscal year could have helped put a dent in that projection.
The Army was pushing hard throughout the spring and summer to recruit new infantrymen, as well, offering massive enlistment bonuses that topped out at $40,000 for new recruits and up to $41,000 for soldiers who reclassify.
Similarly, Army Times previously reported that the service was short more than 5,000 junior enlisted infantrymen at the start of the fourth quarter, with the 11B career field alone manned at roughly 79 percent of its goal early in the final quarter of the fiscal year.
To what extent these figures are of significance depends on a range of factors. For one thing, EOD training is known to have a high failure rate for candidates and the training pipeline is relatively long. Even if the Army was able to close the gap on the recruitment numbers, there’s no guarantee how many trainees will graduate the EOD course.
Cyber career fields are also notoriously difficult for the Defense Department at large to staff. Tech-savvy individuals are highly sought after in the civilian sector, making competition difficult.
Infantrymen, by contrast, aren’t typically as difficult to produce in high numbers, but retaining experienced 11Bs after their first enlistment can be challenging.
The Army would not say how, if at all, the numbers for these career fields impact readiness for the service in the long term.
“The Army assesses personnel strength on a continual basis to efficiently prioritize manning across the force," service spokeswoman Ochoa said. "This process ensures a consistent state of readiness. Alternatively, shortages impact recruiting and retention efforts, which comprise overall accessions. Readiness requires a high-quality force comprised of the right people with the right talents, and we remain committed to our structured process that positively sustains our Army team.”
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.