After missing its congressionally-authorized end strength number by 20,000 in fiscal 2022 due to faltering recruiting, the Army is betting more on what’s been working — retention — to bolster its falling numbers, the service’s top general said Wednesday.
“Retention is at a historical high, [and] we don’t take that for granted,” said Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville at an Association of the U.S. Army event.
McConville added that commanders across the service have even higher retention goals than last year, despite the fiscal 2023 defense policy bill setting the Army’s end strength goal at 452,000 troops. That’s a decrease of 12,000 from the roughly 465,000 soldiers who were on active duty at the beginning of October, and McConville acknowledged that the drop is “a function of our ability to recruit.”
Army Times requested service recruiting and retention goals and performance data for the first quarter of fiscal 2023 from Army public affairs officials on Jan. 12. The data was not made available before this article’s publication deadline.
“This year, the retention mission that we’re putting on commanders is extremely high,” the chief of staff said, explaining that they’ve set a retention goal “well above” last year’s objective.
Though the task may appear daunting, the active duty Army has exceeded its retention goals every year since 2017, according to Military.com. McConville noted that in fiscal 2022, the service attained around 105% of its desired retention goal.
Many soldiers who choose to stay in the Army do so for bonuses and benefits. Others re-up for a new job or to pick a new duty station — though some ask to stay where they currently are stationed.
The picture isn’t rosy for the service’s reserve components, either.
The Army National Guard has had a tougher job recruiting and retaining soldiers in the wake of widespread activations in 2020 and 2021, and the Army Reserve hasn’t met its end-strength target since fiscal 2016.
The Army is trying to improve recruiting across the board, with efforts ranging from a soon-to-be rebooted slogan, “Be all you can be,” to a preparatory course at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and Fort Benning, Georgia, where hopeful soldiers who don’t meet academic or fitness standards can train on a probationary basis in an effort to shape up and ship out to basic training.
The service is also considering establishing a recruiting referral ribbon and other non-cash incentives for current troops who refer applicants who go on to finish training.
Until those efforts, and an ongoing review of the Army’s accessions practices, bear fruit, retention counselors will play an outsized role in keeping the service’s numbers up. Or, as McConville put it Wednesday morning, “We’ve got to man the Army.”
Defense News land warfare reporter Jen Judson contributed reporting to this story.
Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army. He focuses on investigations, personnel concerns and military justice. Davis, also a Guard veteran, was a finalist in the 2023 Livingston Awards for his work with The Texas Tribune investigating the National Guard's border missions. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill.