Calling the Army recruiting shortfall a crisis is like saying that the Titanic had a “small” problem in its crossing of the Atlantic. The Army’s shortfalls, at least six years in the making, are an existential threat to the Army and, by extension, a major threat to our national security.
Right now, Russia, Iran, China, and North Korea are cooperating in a manner that increases regional instability and could open up a multi-front mix of hostilities up to and including war, at the time and place of their choosing. And, this all comes at a time when our Army is shrinking precipitously.
The three service secretaries recently penned in a Wall Street Journal piece the ways in which the American public can assist them in manning the force. What has been missing from the discussions is what the Army can do to help itself, since recruiting is bar none, the first essential task that the Army must perform.
Without new recruits, there is no Army. Yet time and again, the Army takes its proverbial “eye-off-the-ball” and feigns surprise when the “crisis” emerges, even blaming the national press. Instead, the Army must look internally and take the following four actions to demonstrate its seriousness to fix this problem.
First, the Army must put its best and brightest into Recruiting Command. Today, it is an open secret in the Army that the path to promotion lies in any assignment other than recruiting. We send our best and brightest young and mid-career leaders from tactical unit to tactical unit to training center staff rotations multiple times in succession but rarely to recruiting units.
Recent operational force structure changes, such as the creation of the Security Forces Assistance Brigades, or SFABs, continue to siphon off mid-grade officer and NCO talent, the heart of the recruiting force. The Army should repurpose three of the new SFABs from overseas duty supporting combatant commands and send these talented leaders into the recruiting trenches, not to augment existing recruiting brigades but to act as smaller “surge” recruiting brigades of their own.
In 2009, the Army piloted commercial sales software to help its recruiting force. In 2018, nearly a decade later, the Army began an effort to replace its information system supporting recruiters with a commercially based system but one that had to be customized for the Army. It is now nearly 2023 and the Army still does not have a fully deployed, tablet-based, sales software system to give its recruiters cutting edge digital recruiting tools. If the Army is serious about fixing recruiting, it will embark on a crash agile implementation of new sales software rather than using its decades long, failed waterfall approach. This will require the Army to adopt, rather than adapt to current commercial software systems.
For any sales team, marketing is crucial. But, by being a large, centrally planned, and bureaucratic organization, the Army is managed from the top down, with the secretary of the Army’s staff calling the shots at the top. This is a failed approach when it comes to recruiting. Instead of more bureaucracy and vertical control, the Army should immediately decentralize large parts of its marketing dollars to the regional and local recruiting leaders. That would provide regional-local analysis and influence to drive more tailored approaches to recruiting, facilitating better outcomes.
Finally, the Army needs to clearly articulate what it means by quality and why it believes most Americans are not qualified for recruitment into the Armed Forces. Over the past several decades, it is entirely possible that during a period of downsizing the force from 780,000 in the mid-1980s to about 480,000 today, the Army tightened its quality standards so much that they inadvertently created this crisis themselves.
We aren’t arguing for low standards. The Army needs to clearly articulate the quality of recruits during the Reagan buildup, the Army that fought in Desert Storm, and the force of the early 2000s, and then put the standards that applied to each side by side with today’s standards. What the Army may find is that it has, over time, in effect priced itself out of the market with slow ratchet turns on quality standards.
In the aggregate, schools may be less effective than 20-30 years ago and on average 18- to 21-year-olds may be heavier. Repeatedly talking down at the 83% that currently don’t meet the standards — “we can’t get there because you aren’t good enough” — is probably not the best way to inspire affinity for the Army and military service. Instead, the Army needs to be a powerful draw for them to raise their game. They should start by saying that anyone committed can work physically and mentally to join. The Army should emphasize the meaningful, life-changing experiences that the Army offers and better leverage the millions who have served.
Lastly, we need to recreate much of the infrastructure that Gen. Max Thurman and others put into place during the 1970s and 1980s. These included scores of behavioral scientists, economists, and think tankers who studied the trends in labor economics affecting the Army.
Finally, we now know that COVID reduced educational outcomes across America. Pass rates on the military’s test of academic quality, the ASVAB, have seen a similar drop in outcomes. The Army may need to make a temporary adjustment to the ASVAB to account for this national drop in educational performance.
The ASVAB is normed every 15 to 20 years, with the last one done in 2004. This is not lowering the bar to enter the military — as the innate intelligence of these potential recruits remains unchanged, but the pandemic has resulted in a one-time loss in achievement that has to be compensated for. The Army is currently running a pilot 90-day prep program and has found that helping new recruits to “take the test” increased their scores. This may indicate that success on the aptitude test hinges less on ability and more on experience in taking standardized tests.
Everyone in the business of recruiting and manning the military must read Bernie Rostker’s 2006 book, “I Want You!” The book shows that we’ve have been here before, and in the past we managed to turn ourselves around. However, we can’t just assume that throwing more people at the problem or some ‘additional emphasis’ like bringing back hometown recruiter type programs will make a real difference this time.
The basic question is: will the Army continue to just blame “the economy” and “everyone else” for its recruiting plight or is it ready to make truly fundamental changes? The answer to that question should be the latter. The Army should also be putting together a legislative package for Congress that addresses any barriers to implementing these reforms.
It’s time that the Army get more introspective and start looking at ways it can accelerate change to fix its recruiting crisis. The above reforms are a good start.
Retired Army Maj. Gen. John Ferrari is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, or AEI, and is the former director of program analysis and evaluation for the Army.
Retired Army Maj. Gen. John Kem is a consultant and a former Commandant of the Army War College.
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