The Army’s top general is vowing not to lower the service’s standards despite a recruiting crisis reaching a head with a shrinking pool of young Amercans eligible to serve and difficulty enticing new soldiers.
“What I don’t want to do, and we’ve done this historically, is lower standards and convince ourselves that’s the right thing to do,” Gen. James McConville, the Army’s chief of staff, told reporters Thursday. “We’re not going to achieve squat.”
The Army’s trouble recruiting is expected to result in a drop in the size of the force by about 14,000 soldiers by the end of 2023. Recruiting struggles are an amalgamation of issues, most notably the military largely being out of the minds of young Americans as a job opportunity with no widespread call to arms like the one seen after 9/11.
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That sharp reduction in troop numbers has prompted the Army to examine how it structures the force. While McConville said no major formations are on the chopping block, fewer soldiers could lead to some reorganization.
“We are taking a look at every single position in [the Army],” McConville said. “We’ve done the analysis, and we’ve found out where there’s positions that we don’t necessarily require, but our intent is not to reduce any brigade combat teams at the same time.”
The service has been making minor adjustments on the margins that Army planners hope will make recruiting slightly easier, such as more relaxed tattoo policies; generous enlistment bonuses up to $50,000; and allowing new recruits to pick their first duty station, with limitations. But none of those efforts are expected to radically change the trend line.
It has been difficult simply to find potential recruits even qualified to join, McConville noted. Only about 23% of young Americans are eligible to join the ranks, mostly due to the obesity crisis in the U.S., which has been dubbed a national security issue.
McConville told reporters the academic side of the recruiting process is equally grim, with applicants struggling to pass the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB, an SAT-style quiz. In the past, McConville said the pass rate was about two-thirds of applicants, but that has fallen to about one-third in recent years.
“We’ve had a valedictorian that couldn’t pass the ASVAB. We just haven’t seen those types of things before,” he said.
Behind the scenes, service leaders are self-conscious about public perception on allowing less qualified people to join the ranks. In June, the service opened the door to recruits without a high school diploma or GED, but anxiety over the Army lowering its standards led to that policy being swiftly retracted after only a week.
“Quality is more important than quantity,” McConville said.
That narrative of standards being reduced has slowly become a talking point among Republican lawmakers and pundits, after the Army was effectively forced to implement gendered standards for its new fitness test, when roughly half the women in the force were struggling to pass it. Democrats and Army Secretary Christine Wormuth voiced concerns that not creating differentiation for the test standards could lead to long-term problems with recruiting and retaining women.
In August, the Army is set to open its doors to new recruits who are slightly too overweight or who underperformed on the ASVAB. New 90-day programs will train those recruits on the academic test or exercise, depending on which standards they came up short on.
Meanwhile, Army planners are still trying to figure out how to reach young Americans. The military is mostly out of the headlines, with no major ongoing conflict to motivate enlistments. McConville noted the Army is still making commercials, but that may be a moot effort, given that young Americans largely do not watch cable TV and are instead on newer social media networks like TikTok. But Army officials are hesitant to use the platform over concerns the app, which is owned by a Chinese company, might be used to mine data on service members.
“We’re trying to stay within the guardrails of what we can do,” McConville said. “We are trying to be more innovative.”
— Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.
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