“We sleep safely at night because rough men stand ready to visit violence on those who would harm us.” – Winston Churchill
American military recruiting is in dire straits. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently determined the Defense Department confronts its most challenging recruitment environment in 50 years, reporting the department “does not have sufficient plans, goals, and strategies to guide its recruitment and retention efforts.”
Recruiters for the armed services face a daunting task, especially amid a hot job market and polarized cultural landscape. Existing AI tools have the potential to streamline and focus their efforts, pre-identifying those most qualified and most likely to want to serve. They can do this through readily available public data while also respecting individual privacy. It’s time to use these tools.
The Army missed its FY22 recruiting goal by 15,000 active-duty recruits – 25% of its target or the equivalent of an entire Army division. Consequently, the Army cut its planned active-duty end strength from 476,000 to 466,000. And with the recruiting shortfall expected in FY23, the Army expects another 20,000 reduction in end strength by September.
Similarly, the Air Force expects to miss FY23 recruiting goals by 4,100 recruits for active-duty, 4,600 for the Air National Guard, and 3,600 for the Reserve. The service also just announced they will lower the standards for body fat to allow more recruits to join.
The problem is not limited to new recruits. Many of the same factors that cause young men and women to avoid military service also influence members of the military to depart upon completion of their obligation. Sure, some of the best people continue to serve, but often the services re-enlist any who are willing to sign on for another tour, despite their quality.
With an all-volunteer force, the common denominator to both recruiting and retention boils down to choice. Young Americans have a wider selection of choices now than ever. Only 23% of American youth adults are qualified for military service, and colleges, universities and a strong job market compete for them. Current service members can vote with their feet when their enlistment is up.
Over the past 20 years, China has evolved its armed forces into a modern military of 2.8 million service members – twice the size of the U.S. military. The National Security Strategy has determined, “The People’s Republic of China is the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to do it.” And China is only one country in the world with whom the United States must be prepared to contend.
Federal law requires each of the military services to determine the capabilities and end strength needed to fulfill the global obligations laid out in the National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy and National Military Strategy. A military with personnel shortfalls in the tens of thousands simply cannot meet all the demands necessary to adequately defend America – and win – if war with an adversary like China occurs.
So what can be done? In the near-term, innovation is key, specifically the AI-enabled capabilities that can maintain respect of individuals’ privacy while efficiently identifying those young Americans most likely to have the interest and ability to join. The data is already out there both in the public space and within the Department of Defense. The capabilities exist to analyze this information at speed and in volumes previously not possible. It is time to put it in the hands of military recruiters to seek out the best, qualified candidates.
America would never send its service members into combat with obsolete weapons; so why are the young men and women tasked with recruiting the next generation of their services working in the field with obsolete tech? Those recruiters have enough challenges to compete with, from the financially attractive incentives of private sector employment to highly visible, highly divisive cultural and political battles over which they have no control.
But aside from those contentious battles, the fact remains that current technology can more quickly identify individuals the military branches should recruit and the best service members they should attempt to retain. Today, educational institutions utilize AI, analytics and industry market data to bolster their recruitment strategies and sway the choices of women and men in the military age bracket. Why not our military recruiters and career planners?
In the short-term; technology can revolutionize the way the military recruits and retains. This can buy time for the much harder, longer-term task: closing the civilian-military divide and restoring the appeal of military service to the American population.
This is a task that requires far more than different tech tools. It is the hard work of Americans across generations, inside and outside of government. There is a rich reserve of meaning and honor in military service, and America must do what it takes to find the very best young people and help them to see it, to choose it – and to continue choosing it.
Raul Lianez is a retired Marine colonel with multiple tours at Headquarters Marine Corps Manpower and Reserve Affairs serving as head of retention and head personnel policy. Both are now members of the SteerBridge team.