Can the military solve its recruiting crisis?

The country's armed services are scrambling to address a significant drop in people signing up to serve Uncle Sam

Missing toy soldier
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

It's been fifty years since Defense Secretary Melvin Laird announced the end of the nation's military draft system, writing in a memo to senior Defense Department officials: "With the signing of the peace agreement in Paris today, and, after receiving a report from the Secretary of the Army that he foresees no need for further inductions, I wish to inform you that the armed forces henceforth will depend exclusively on volunteer soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines." After a quarter century of continuous, mandatory military service, Laird's announcement marked the close of a major chapter in American conscription practice, and fundamentally altered the public's perception of what the armed services are, and to whom they belong.

Now, more than a half-century later, the country's all-volunteer force has reached a crisis point; 2022 was the Army's worst recruiting year since the end of the draft in 1973, missing its goal of 60,000 new soldiers by approximately 25 percent. Other military branches have experienced similar shortfalls — a trend that's fueled the growing question of whether the Pentagon's recruitment difficulties are a reversible problem or a permanent feature of the 21st century.

What are they saying?

"For most Americans," the country's all-volunteer force ("AVF") is "something to be celebrated, but foreign to their daily lives," said The Atlantic. Eliminating the draft has given the bulk of the population "the freedom to be indifferent to their military, shifting the burden of service to a smaller, self-selected cohort of citizens." That cohort, frequently comprised of legacy military families, has shifted recently as well, as "disillusioned families steer young people away" from service, The Wall Street Journal reported.

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"Influencers are not telling them to go into the military," former Joint Chief of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen told the Journal. "Moms and dads, uncles, coaches and pastors don't see it as a good choice."

In no small part, military recruitment has dipped in recent years thanks to a more competitive job market in which the army "used to be the sole entity…that said 'Hey, we'll pay for your college,'" Army Recruiting Command Sgt. Maj. John Foley told the Army Times in 2022, the same year recruitment hit its all-time low. "Now lots of organizations — lots of companies — out there are doing the same," he added, calling it an increase in "their value proposition." With the labor market "the tightest it has been in decades," agreed the Wall Street Journal's Ben Kesling, "plenty of other options exist for young people right out of school."

Competing with the civilian job market is "extremely expensive," noted the Atlantic, with pay and benefits "the single largest category in the Defense Department budget," particularly after 9/11 and the recruitment wave that followed.

Meanwhile, interest has waned significantly following the COVID-19 pandemic; only 9 percent of young adults are open to military service, Air Force recruitment chief Maj. Gen. Edward Thomas Jr. told The New York Times in 2022.

"Military brass have blamed an under-educated public, a roaring civilian jobs market and bad perceptions of service fueled by negative headlines," acknowledged The Military Times. But, the outlet reported, a number of recruiters are focused on the recent introduction of a new military medical tracking program, known as "Genesis" as a major factor in recruitment decline.

"The whole DoD knows that before Genesis we were able to put people through with a lot of different things, within reason," explained Marines Corps recruiter Joe Brown, who pointed out that the previous system allowed applicants to gloss over minor health concerns like past inhaler use or onetime prescriptions for ADHD medication. "Now that Genesis exists, we can no longer hide things." While military aspirants flagged by the program can still petition to have their past health issues excused, "applicants don't formally sign up until they're cleared, and that longer process gives them more time to back out," The Military Times explained. Recent Pentagon studies have estimated that a staggering 76 percent of 17-to-24-year-olds would require a waiver of some form to allow for obesity or "other medical issues or criminal histories that would make them ineligible to serve" without one.

What's next?

Plummeting recruitment numbers have prompted a number of structural and procedural changes within the existing armed forces pipeline, including shortened enlistment contracts, and allowing prospective Army recruits to select their first deployment base, Army representatives told The Army Times. More broadly, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth has begun drafting a sweeping overhaul of her branch's recruitment and outreach process that will include "a comprehensive, structured" way of leveraging the country's veteran community. Moreover, it would focus on making inroads with a recruitment pool with little to no familial ties to the military, to avoid a "warrior caste," Wormuth explained to the Wall Street Journal.

Some national security commentators have proposed even more drastic solutions: In a recent essay for The Defense Post, military expert Ray Vawter raised the possibility of an American Foreign Legion, noting that "Ukraine has made it clear that foreign fighters can be effective in modern warfighting."

Theorizing that potential foreign recruits would be fairly compensated and would be "motivated by citizenship and prestige," Vawter argued that recruiting from a "completely different pool" than current military options would be its "primary benefit." But, he added, a multilingual, "more culturally aware force and a force that is easier to sustain during long deployments" would result in conflicts that were less expensive, and would cut down on war profiteering at the same time.

Ultimately "critics should keep in mind that the recruiting crisis has not been caused by just one problem, and it won't be fixed with just one solution," Center for National Defense Director Thomas Spoehr wrote in an article published by the Heritage Foundation. Acknowledging the various structural, economic, and political factors involved in declining recruitment rates, Sopehr nevertheless argued that "perhaps the most important action that our leaders can take is to educate young Americans on the necessity of a strong military and the positive impact of military service, both for oneself and for the nation."

"It is too easy to label Generation Z as unpatriotic, unmotivated or incapable," he continued, concluding that more than anything else, "what is needed is action."

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Rafi Schwartz

Rafi Schwartz is a Politics Writer with The Week, where he focuses on elections, Congress, and the White House. He was previously a contributing writer with Mic, a senior writer with Splinter News, and the managing editor of Heeb Magazine. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, GOOD, The Forward, and elsewhere.

Rafi currently lives in the Twin Cities, where he does not bike, run, or take part in any team sports. He does, however, have a variety of interests, hobbies, and passions.