In a push to fill the ranks in the face of a booming economy, the U.S. Army will be sending hundreds of recruiters into nearly two dozen cities in the coming weeks in an attempt to bolster lackluster enlistment numbers, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley said Monday.
Speaking at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual Washington conference, Gen. Milley acknowledged the challenge of recruitment even as the Trump administration delivers on a promise for higher funding, insisting that the enlistment numbers are serious but fall short of a crisis for the service. The Army missed its annual recruiting goal this year for the first time in more than a decade.
“It is certainly a warning light … but it is not by any means a catastrophe,” Gen. Milley said. “There are a lot of opportunities out there” in the private sector for young men and women who might once have considered a military career.
Ironically, President Trump’s drive to improve the economy is clashing with his other priority to rebuild what he has called a “depleted” military. The Army and the nation’s other military branches find themselves in “a highly competitive environment” when looking to fill their ranks, Gen. Milley said.
Retired Gen. Carter Ham, president of the Association of the U.S. Army, put it succinctly in an interview this week with ArmyTimes.com: “You can have all the money in the world. You can have all the right equipment in the world. If you do not have the right people, then it is not going to work.”
In the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, Army recruiters signed up roughly 70,000 recruits, short of the 76,500 goal set by service brass. It was the first time the Army fell short of its target since 2005. All of the other branches of the military hit their benchmarks for the year.
If the problem were strictly numbers, then the Army could have come up easily with enough bodies to fill its personnel gaps, Gen. Milley said. “We could have easily met the numbers if we were just going for numbers,” he said, but the Army’s recruiting mission is more about finding the right kind of soldier to add to the ranks rather than just filling billets.
“We do not sacrifice quality for quantity,” he said. The recruiting efforts are linked to Defense Secretary James Mattis’ drive to increase overall readiness and the deployability of those in uniform, with more capable troops trained in the latest equipment and weapons systems.
Stopping the bleeding
The Army has been a particular sore spot, stretched by the long engagements in Afghanistan and the Middle East. The Army recruits and trains more personnel than all the other services combined.
“We have stopped the bleeding and are [now] on an upward swing,” said Gen. Milley, who is preparing to end his four-year stint as the service’s top officer. “You are not going to [improve] an Army in 12, 24 or 36 months, but efforts are being taken” to have a bigger, more capable Army in the next several years.
On recruiting specifically, in an effort to strike a balance between quantity and quality, Army leaders plan to send out hundreds of additional recruiters across the country to ensure last fiscal year’s shortfalls are not repeated, said Army Secretary Mark Esper.
“We’re expanding the number of recruiters we’ll put out in the streets. We’re cleaning up the storefronts. We are moving into 20-plus cities around the United States,” said Mr. Esper, speaking alongside Gen. Milley at Monday’s press conference.
“I think we can and we will do a lot better, but it’s going to take some time to reposition ourselves,” he added, declining to comment on where the majority of the recruiters will be deployed or the specifics of the Army’s new recruiting strategy.
But with the rise of cyberwarfare, autonomous weapon systems and weaponized artificial intelligence, the Army and the rest of the military branches are competing with the likes of Google and Amazon for tech-savvy people needed to wage warfare in the digital age.
Those challenges have also been compounded by the fact that the percentage of young Americans physically and mentally eligible for military service has shrunk dramatically over the years. On average, only 28 percent of 18- to 24-year-old men and women qualify to be a private in the Army, according to Pentagon figures.
One factor that could pose a challenge to Army recruitment, and service readiness overall, is the service’s contribution in manpower and material to the Pentagon’s burgeoning Space Force. Vice President Mike Pence and Mr. Mattis made official in August the Trump administration’s call for the Space Force to become the sixth branch of the armed forces, and to be organized and fully functional by 2020.
While the Space Force is likely to face an uphill battle in Congress, with many lawmakers skeptical of the cost and added bureaucracy, proponents say a muscular Space Force — on par with the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Air Force — is the only way to fully compete with America’s leading global rivals. But to fulfill the Trump administration’s strategic and operational goals for the Space Force, all military branches will have to dip into their pools of limited resources.
Army and Pentagon leaders are already pursuing “multiple courses of action” to identify the Army’s role in manning and supporting the nascent Space Force, Mr. Esper said.
“The Army is a big user of space … so it is important we get it right,” he said. The Army, he added, “will always be a team player” in contributing to the Space Force.
But meeting its own basic recruiting needs remains the Army’s top priority, Gen. Ham said.
“The Army needs to grow in order to manage its many missions,” he told the Army Times. “If you cannot recruit, attract and retain the quality people that you need, then growing the Army just becomes a pipe dream.”