Units from Fort Huachuca, Ariz., supported the Army Intelligence Center of Excellence and Army Recruiting Command’s “A Day in the Life” recruiting event on March 24, 2023.

Units from Fort Huachuca, Ariz., supported the Army Intelligence Center of Excellence and Army Recruiting Command’s “A Day in the Life” recruiting event on March 24, 2023. (Kelvin Ringold/U.S. Army)

The Army will have a challenge to meet its expanded enlistment goal this year, though the service is recruiting better in 2023 than last year when it fell thousands of soldiers short of its goal, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said Wednesday.

“Sixty-five thousand [recruits for fiscal year 2023] is a very ambitious goal,” she said while testifying before the House Armed Services Committee in defense of the service’s $185.5 billion budget request for fiscal 2024. The service set such a lofty target for 2023 after only taking in 45,000 recruits in 2022 “because [Gen. James McConville, the Army chief of staff,] and I felt it was important to send a signal to our recruiter force that they shouldn't take their pedal off the metal.”

Despite the insistence from the service’s top leaders that they have prioritized efforts to bring in new recruits above other challenges that the Pentagon’s largest military service faces, lawmakers repeatedly expressed skepticism they can achieve their goal.

Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., told Wormuth that he worried the Army would be forced to cut its force strength. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., said he worried the service had a perception issue after recent events including the chaotic 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan and highly publicized controversies such as the coronavirus vaccine mandate and equality concerns within the force.

“I hear from some multigenerational military families, where there’s a reluctance to have their kids join because there’s a perception that [President Joe Biden’s] administration [is] more about social issues than warfighting,” said Bacon, a retired Air Force general. “It’s a perception, and perceptions aren’t always reality, but it is a reality to those who see it on cable news or read it on the internet. We’ve got to keep reminding folks that we have … the greatest Army in the world, the greatest military in the world that will kick anybody’s butt. That’s what people want to be a part of.”

Gen. Randy George, vice chief of staff of the Army, told the House Armed Services Committee’s subpanel on readiness at another hearing Wednesday that the service projects it will sign 55,000 new recruits this year. That’s 10,000 more than last year, but still short of the Army’s 65,000 goal.

“We are challenged by the fact that a small number of young Americans … are qualified to serve,” George said. “Fewer still, we’re finding, are interested in serving. And that’s something we are working very hard to change.”

The recruiting challenges have not been limited to the Army, which missed its 2022 goal by 15,000. Pentagon officials have said the other services have struggled to reach their enlistment goals in recent years in an environment often described as the most difficult recruiting climate in recent history.

Only about 23% of young Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 meet the academic and physical requirements to serve in the military, according to recent Pentagon data. Furthermore, only about 10% of young Americans are even interested in military service, officials have said.

At the readiness subpanel hearing, Adm. Lisa Franchetti, vice chief of naval operations, said she expects the Navy’s recruiting shortfall this year to be about 6,000. Gen. David Allvin, the Air Force vice chief of staff, said the service expects its total force in 2023 — the number of new and existing members across the Air Force, Reserve and Air National Guard — to be about 10,000 short.

Gen. Eric Smith, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, and Gen. David Thompson, vice chief of space operations for Space Force, told lawmakers that their services will meet recruiting goals this year.

An Army study this year found issues related to the culture war, or so-called “woke military,” was low on the list of reasons why young Americans rejected enlistment with only about 5% of respondents citing such concerns.

Many people known as Generation Z — those born from the mid-1990s to the mid-2010s — who were polled cited safety issues, such as the fear of death or serious injury, as their main reason for lacking interest in military service, McConville said.

The recruiting problem has led the service to adopt a variety of new efforts aimed at reaching Gen Z people. In recent months, the Army has brought back its popular “Be All You Can Be" campaign from the 1980s and 1990s. It started new classes to help otherwise-qualified potential recruits boost military aptitude test scores or their fitness levels. The service has also made new efforts to connect with schools and community officials throughout the country to bolster recruiters' visibility in their areas of responsibility, especially after the coronavirus pandemic forced most recruiting efforts into the virtual world for much of the last three years.

The initiatives have seen some success, McConville said. The Future Soldier Prep Course, which began last year at Fort Jackson, S.C., and expanded this year to Fort Benning, Ga., has produced 4,219 recruits who have moved on to Basic Combat Training, he said. Without the course, those individuals would not have met the standards to enlist. So far, the general said, 98% of potential recruits accepted into the new program have improved their scores enough to enlist.

The Army course has been so successful that the Navy launched its version — the Future Sailor Preparatory Course Physical Fitness Track pilot program — this month to help recruits meet physical admission standards. It’s located at Naval Station Great Lakes in Illinois.

The Navy said its pilot course will provide physical fitness training along with nutritional and life skills course work for potential recruits who are as much as 6% above body-fat standards.

Some lawmakers at the House Armed Services Committee hearing pointed to other pools of potential recruits to help bolster enlistments.

Rep. Marilyn Strickland, D-Wash., urged her fellow lawmakers to support legislation now in the Senate that would allow undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children known as “Dreamers” to enlist in the military “as a pathway to citizenship.”

“The [Defense] Department is very supportive of looking at finding ways, for example, to bring the Dreamers into the Army and the other services as a pathway to citizenship,” Wormuth said. “I think we would very much welcome that.”

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.
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Doug G. Ware covers the Department of Defense at the Pentagon. He has many years of experience in journalism, digital media and broadcasting and holds a degree from the University of Utah. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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