Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here are those of the authors. View more opinion on ScoonTV.
The US government and corporate response to COVID-19 created an unprecedented change in employment in the United States. Lockdown orders, liberally distributed unemployment benefits, and vaccine mandates in some states have shrunk the pool of available workers. Businesses across the nation have struggled to fill job openings as the working population has begun to view the entire concept of labor in a different light.
One entity facing increasingly complex challenges is the volunteer-only United States Armed Forces, in particular the US Army. A perfect storm of societal and economic upheaval has made staffing the Army an increasing challenge.
America has had a changing relationship with the US Armed Forces since the 9/11 attack on the Homeland. As a point of reference, public confidence in the US military was at 58% at the end of the Vietnam conflict in 1975. Opinion reached a low of 50% in 1981. This was likely the aftermath of the Iran hostage situation involving the US Embassy and President Jimmy Carter’s failed rescue mission.
Since those dark days under the Carter administration, President Ronald Reagan created a patriotic, jingoistic environment that led to a continual surge in popularity among the armed forces. Patriotism and the popular recruiting slogan, “Be all that you can be” along with pop culture hits such as “Top Gun” all led to the military’s rising image. From there, a fairly consistent approval of 68% among Americans was achieved.
After the 9/11 attacks, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the world changed forever. Certainly, the direction and aims of US foreign policy did. It also ushered in a new era of near veneration for the armed forces. Post-9/11 approval of the military soared to 79%. It reached 82% in 2003 at the height of the Iraq war before dipping back to 69% following revelations and videos about black sites where Army personnel tortured prisoners.
Nevertheless, under President Obama, approval went back up to 82% in 2009 before taking a precipitous and sustained plunge over the last decade. This continual decline has fallen to a 64% approval rating in 2022.
While Americans still support the troops, their faith and trust in the Army grows increasingly cynical, like their views on nearly all government entities.
Considering the Army was engaging in near-constant Middle Eastern conflicts over the last two decades, it is a testament to the US Army recruiters that they were able to maintain their quotas. Not until 2020 did recruitment start to face mounting challenges.
The Army has been proactive in addressing these issues as mentioned in a budgetary press briefing on March 22, 2022. Undersecretary of the Army Gabe Camarillo mentioned three key pivots the Army was taking over the course of this decade; a transition in the strategic doctrine of the US Army; a reduction in the standing force; and an emphasis on high-tech integrated weapon systems focusing on long-range maneuverable missiles and hypersonic weapons.
Camarillo said, “…this budget is positive for us as it enables a continued transformation to the Army of 2030 as we strategically pivot from two decades of a focus on counterterrorism to an Army adapted to meet our top pacing challenge in China, and the acute threat of Russian aggression.”
An observer of current events can see the influence the current Russo-Ukraine conflict is having on military thinking. Russians are dominating the battlefield with long-range missile and artillery systems. The most high-profile American system sent to Ukraine was the HIMARS which is a fast, mobile multi-rocket launched weapon. After decades of fighting insurgents in the Middle East, the US Army must pivot from localized small-scale seek and destroy missions to large-scale combat operations.
If everything that is old is new again, modern conflicts in the Donbas look a lot like the battles fought at Verdun and the Somme over 100 years ago. Camarillo states what military observers have concluded after observation and analysis of the Ukrainian conflict; the range and volume of missiles and artillery are decisive. His analysis of future Army weapon systems is all about these missiles.
“And as we look at this investing in some of our capabilities, just a few of our examples include delivering the long-range hypersonic weapon prototype — the ultra-fast maneuverable long-range missiles that provide a powerful deterrent to adversaries — and a next-generation capability in combat operations, a mid-range capability missile prototype that integrates another next-generation deterrence platform in support of the Army’s long-range precision fires, and fielding our precision strike missiles with extended range, lethality and survivability, using current launcher platforms, and with investments in this budget to further upgrade capability into the future.”
Regardless of how high-tech a nation’s weaponry might be or how advanced its air power is, it will always need boots on the ground to take and hold terrain. When preparing for large-scale conflicts with China or Russia, the Army needs soldiers.
Addressing the difficulty in meeting their recruiting quotas, Camarillo said, “We did not want to lower our standards in FY ’23 to address any gaps in our recruiting projections. So, we proactively made a decision to temporarily reduce our end strength from 485,000 Soldiers to 476,000 in FY ’22, and 473,000 in FY ’23. And I would just want to emphasize that this is not a budget-driven decision. It’s about maintaining the high quality of our talents and of our recruiting.”
These cuts to manpower will reduce the US Army to its smallest size since 1940. From a practical level, this means formations that used to operate at 95-100% will now function at 90%. On paper, this isn’t a massive reduction, but battles are often won on the margins. While doing more with less might be a corporate strategy, how that translates to the battlefield is murky at best.
Camarillo concludes his report with a section on climate change. Whether or not it was tacked on at the end of his talk as a concession to the Biden administration or it represents a tenant of current US military doctrine is unclear. Either way, it’s strange to hear a military force talking about climate change. Are we making military decisions based on this? Russia and China certainly are not.
Beyond the tactical disadvantages, it also contributes to the perception that the Army command has gone “woke” and is influenced by partisan political policy and not strategic concerns, a view that could be impacting recruiting.
In Camarillo’s words, “Next, I’d like to point here is tackling climate change to ensure operational effectiveness. The Army led the way in issuing the first climate strategy within the Department of Defense among the services. And that includes funding and investments in this budget for installation resilience, to include renewable energy generation, improved warfighting capability through hybrid electric tactical vehicles that will reduce signatures on the battlefield, and ultimately reduce the logistical burdens of fuel, and adaptive training in extreme weather environments.”
Wars are ultimately won not by armies but by the industrial base that supports them. Since World War Two, the lifeblood of that base has been oil. America is a global superpower because of the natural resources that power its enormous industrial base. Attempting to transition away from this fuel for military vehicles and munitions toward a green platform is a recipe for disaster.
Planning a reduction in the standing size of its soldiers isn’t the only solution the Army has taken to address recruiting woes. Army Recruiting Command identifies the following recruiting challenges:
- Most challenging labor market since the inception of the all-volunteer force
- 50% of youth admit they know little to nothing about military service
- 71% of youth do not qualify for military service because of health problems with obesity being the primary disqualifier.
- 79% of recruits have a relative who served, making it difficult to reach youths from non-military backgrounds.
- The veteran population is declining and currently only about 1% of Americans serve in the armed forces
These statistics from the US Army paint a grim picture of American youth. A reduction in physical activity replaced by addictions to social media and the use of video games as entertainment over sport has led to an unprecedented rise in obesity among America’s children.
The CDC reports that 22% of children ages 12-19 are obese. Nearly a quarter of all American teens are disqualified from service because they are not physically fit. Other major disqualification factors are drug use, although the Army now provides waivers for past marijuana use, a criminal record, and not having a high school diploma or GED. Finally, there has been a dramatic rise in diagnosing depression, ADHD, and anxiety disorders among children and teens. For the most part, all of these are disqualifying conditions for military service.
Another illuminating revelation from the Army statistics is that only 1% of the population serves. The majority of that 1% comes from legacy families. Concentrating the pool of recruits like this has almost created a separate class of Americans from which the armed services draw most of their manpower. This stratification allows most Americans to ignore the military.
Social activism followed closely on the heels of COVID affecting many layers of society including the Army. Previous recruiting strategies by the US Army were “Be all that you can be” from 1980-2001; “An army of one” from 2001-2006; “Army strong” from 2006-2018; and now “Warriors wanted” in 2018 that was updated to “What’s your warrior” in 2019.
“What’s your warrior” is a trend to broaden the appeal of the US Army and increase diversity among its ranks. The slogan has been successful in increasing diversity behind a wave of Army-sponsored animated recruitment advertisements that highlighted women, minorities, immigrants, and the LGBT community. Minority recruits have increased by 3% and more women have enlisted than at any time since 2004.
And yet, as the direction and tone of Army recruitment have changed to embrace these demographics, are they turning off the core of their recruiting base, primarily white, Black, and Hispanic men? Embracing social activism by senior Army leadership carries the danger of making the entire service viewed through a political lens. In our highly divisive politicized climate, this can cause people to draw a hard line against an institution that was previously viewed as apolitical.
Demographics of the US Army are 84% male and 16% female of which 52.4% are white, 21.4% are Black, and 19.6% are Hispanic. Further, roughly half of all US Army recruits come from eight states:
- Texas (12.1%)
- California (9.9%)
- Florida (8.5%)
- Georgia (4.9%)
- North Carolina (4.7%)
- New York (4.6%)
- Ohio (3.4%)
- Virginia (3.1%)
From a political perspective, all but two of these states are either swing states or red GOP states. Is the Army’s new message highlighting immigrants and the LGBT community a popular recruiting tool in these states?
Social engineering isn’t the only factor that can affect recruiting. COVID continues to loom over nearly all aspects of American culture and business. The Army reacted quickly to the COVID outbreak in 2020 by transitioning their recruitment from face-to-face to completely online by March 2020. High unemployment, usually a boon for armed services recruitment, didn’t lead to a swell in enlistments, likely because of the numerous pandemic assistance packages passed by Congress.
Further, in a memorandum from the Biden Administration to senior Pentagon leadership dated August 24th, 2021, the president determined that a mandatory vacation from COVID-19 was required for all active-duty military personnel.
In reaction to this, 4,428 soldiers asked for religious exemptions to not take the vaccine. Only nine were granted. General officer reprimands have been given out to 3,416 soldiers who refused the vaccine. These admonishments effectively end the military careers of those cited. The Army has flat out discharged 742 soldiers for vaccine refusal.
Large portions of America, mostly rural and mostly conservative, are against the vaccine. Since mostly rural, mostly conservative America is prime recruiting territory for the US Army, none of these people are eligible for military service without receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.
Finally, the Army conducted a very public withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 with indelible images of Afghans clinging to the wheels of airplanes as they left the country. After two decades of fighting in the country, this defeat was hard to take for many veterans and civilians alike. It is inevitable that people will lose faith in Army leadership following this. It’ll also continue a trend where Americans are losing confidence in nearly all their institutions.
Many Americans now associate service in the military with a posting in some far-distant land where they will be required to fight for nebulous, often undefined goals. Joining the Army is no longer staying on a base in Germany and seeing Europe for four years. An internal Defense Department survey obtained by NBC News shows that 57% of young Americans thought they would have physical or emotional problems after serving in the Army and only 9% had any inclination to serve.
Facing these many challenges, from a reduction to their recruiting base to COVID vaccine mandates, the Army is struggling to fill its ranks. There is always the option to throw money at the problem and the Army has; most recruits receive a signing bonus from $10,000-$15,000 with some fields receiving a $50,000 bonus. The Army also offers flexible enlistment options ranging from two to six years.
Even so, these measures don’t appear to be working. As of early July, the Army had met only 40% of its recruiting quota for 2022. While August and September are key recruitment months as high school graduates struggle to find their place in the adult world, there is no guarantee these numbers will improve enough to meet the Army’s demands.
The US Army has always shown a capacity to adapt. In March 2022, the Army began conducting a comprehensive review of its entire recruiting program from messaging to infrastructure. With warning signs everywhere, the Army realizes it has a problem on its hands. Whether this is a temporary downturn or a harbinger of more significant problems in the future remains to be seen.
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