Military recruiting is weathering wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and an improving economy with surprising strength, said Dr. Curtis Gilroy, the Defense Department’s director of recruiting policy.
The 2003 recruiting year did have some disappointments. The active Army again recruited fewer high school graduates than needed to meet a standard quality target. The Army National Guard missed its annual recruiting goal by 8,000 contracts.
But even these few trouble spots for recruiters, Gilroy said, appeared to be easing in fiscal 2004, which began Oct. 1.
Retention soon could overshadow recruiting as the critical manpower issue from the war in Iraq. The services face the challenge of keeping experienced, well-trained careerists, including mobilized reservists, after so many have seen their lives changed and families disrupted by tours in Southwest Asia. So far, meaningful retention data have been masked by stop-loss orders and the length of current combat assignments.
But no matter how far retention rates might dip, the continued success of the all-volunteer force (AVF) will depend on attracting sufficient numbers of high-quality recruits. That is Gilroy’s area of expertise, and he’s optimistic.
“We entered fiscal 2004 with a very healthy inventory of individuals who have signed a contract and are waiting to ship under the Delayed Entry Program,” said Gilroy. The DEP numbers, he said, are “almost at record levels” with all the services having already signed at least half of all the recruits they need through next September.
“This is an interesting phenomenon,” Gilroy said. “The numbers do not bear out what we read in the newspapers [about rising interest in a military draft] and what some of our political candidates are espousing.”
Interviewed Dec. 2 at the Pentagon, Gilroy dismissed any notion that the 30-year volunteer force is under so much strain that a return to conscription is possible or — sillier still in his view — even desirable.
“It’s the furthest thing from our minds,” said Gilroy, “because our forces are so successful on the battlefield, and in other missions as well. It’s not only a combat-effective force but it’s a cost-efficient force.”
A volunteer military sees far less turnover, which lowers training costs. Personnel are of higher quality than draftees. They also are older, better trained and more satisfied with pay and lifestyle, which means higher morale.
Critics who believe war in Iraq endangers the AVF should recall, Gilroy suggested, that America for the last 15 years of the Cold War fielded a volunteer force that was 50 percent larger and needed 50 percent more recruits than today. It could do so again, with adequate funding.
But recruiting in 2003 was “outstanding,” Gilroy said, and 2004 could be even stronger, assuming no sudden expansion of the civilian job market.
The services use two benchmarks to judge success in signing “quality” volunteers. One is at least 60 percent of recruits scoring average or above on the Armed Forces Qualification Test, which measures mental aptitude. Test scores in Categories I through IIIA fall in that range.
Most other recruits are IIIB, slightly below average. The Navy and Air Force try to avoid signing any Category IV recruits. “Cat IVs” are less than 2 percent of Army recruits and below 1 percent of new Marines.
In fiscal 2003, all active and reserve components, except the Army National Guard, surpassed 60 percent Cat I-IIIA recruits. The Army Guard just hit the 60 percent mark. The Navy said 66 percent of its new sailors scored average or above. The Air Force reported 81 percent. Seventy-three percent of Army recruits scored average or above, the best showing since 1991. The Marine Corps’ 69 percent was its best in nine years.
A second quality benchmark is to have 90 percent high school graduates. A recruit with a diploma is twice as likely as a nongraduate, or holder of a high school equivalency certificate, to complete their enlistment.
Last fiscal year, 99 percent of Air Force recruits, 98 percent of new Marines and 94 percent of new sailors had diplomas. The Army total of 93 percent graduates had an asterisk beside it, for good reason.
Actually, only 87 percent of Army recruits had earned diplomas. Since fiscal 2000, under a pilot program, the Army has accepted many more nongraduates who both passed the General Educational Development (GED) test and scored average or above on the military entrance exam.
“Instead of taking more Cat IVs,” said Gilroy, “we increased our numbers of GEDs.” While Army officials monitor GED washout rates, they are allowed to count these recruits against their qualify benchmark as though they had diplomas. In fact, Gilroy conceded, by accepting 4,000 GEDs, “the Army is falling below our 90 percent benchmark” for high school graduates.
The Army began taking far more GED recruits while recovering from mid-1990s decisions by the Clinton administration and Congress to dampen recruiting budgets even as the civilian job market boomed. The other services suffered too, but their recruiting programs have bounced back faster.
The Defense Department this year will spend $2.6 billion on recruiting, nearly double the $1.4 billion spent in 1996, which began a string of lean recruiting years. The military now has 14,500 recruiters, up 1,800 from ’96.
Both the budget and the recruiting force will have to grow more, Gilroy said, if the current unemployment rate of six percent begins to fall.
The lesson of the ’90s, he suggested, is that tight budgets and ignored warnings can do more damage to a volunteer force than a few small wars.