The US Army, like the rest of the world, is dealing with the repercussions brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pause in face-to-face meetings, home isolation, and the increased unemployment rate are just a few of the factors that have resulted in these “unprecedented challenges.” Not to mention young talents who are willing to volunteer but don’t have the qualifications to even make it to basic training or those who would prefer the civilian workforce as private employers offer higher, enticing benefits. And even though several qualifications, pre-enlistment exams, and military enlistment bonuses have been changed, the Army still has trouble attracting outstanding candidates.

Down Trend In Army Recruits

This demoralizing news was brought to light last month by a top US official, who claimed that the US Army is not receiving enough applicants and would probably fall 10,000 recruits short of its target for this fiscal year—perhaps it might be shorter next year if the trend persists to decline.

The military branch now anticipates having a total force of about 466,400 by the end of 2022, down 10,000 from its initial projection of 476,000, according to Army General Joseph Martin, vice chief of staff.

Martin added that by the end of 2023, this number could further decline to between 445,000 and 452,000 personnel, depending on the Army’s success in terms of recruitment and retention.

If this shortage persists, Martin warned that this might undermine “the Army’s readiness.”

“We’ve got unprecedented challenges with both a post-COVID-19 environment and labor market, but also [the] competition with private companies that have changed their incentives over time,” Martin said.

The New York Times reports that the current trend in military recruiting matches that of the entry-level troops’ enlistment during the post-Vietnam War. Pentagon leaders also acknowledged the problem, citing a 23 percent drop from the military’s annual target as of June.

army-cadet-training
Cadets train in the Lane 7 “Attack & Defend” exercise using drones during Cadet Leadership Development Training in late July. (Image source: @USArmy/Twitter)

Meanwhile, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth’s spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Randee Farrell, stated that the Army has already recruited about half of its 60,000-soldier target for this fiscal year. But, if current trends continue, the service branch will likely fall short of its 25 percent goal by mid-Fall.

What Causes The Shortfall?

Aside from the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects, the drop in the number of recruits is also due to the fact that most aspiring cadets cannot or did not meet the required physical, mental, and moral qualifications without some waiver. Contrary to tropes and popular opinion, the military doesn’t just take anybody with a pulse.  It is a Selective Service that has special requirements in education, health, fitness and mental stability.

If this trend continues, the Army may be required to change its force structure to meet national security and global warfighting missions, possibly jeopardizing the overall quality of entry-level soldiers.

Martin commented, “We don’t need to do that immediately. But if we don’t arrest the decline that we’re seeing right now in end strength, that could be a possibility in the future.”

Thus, trimming down the enlistment goal would be the ideal option and immediate solution for now.

“We are facing a very fundamental question,” Wormuth added. “Do we lower standards to meet end strength, or do we lower end strength to maintain a quality, professional force? We believe the answer is obvious—quality is more important than quantity.”

Army Basic Fitness Test 2020
A photograph of soldiers sprinting off the 1000-meter run event of the German Armed Forces Proficiency Badge (GAFPB) at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, on October 29, 2019. (Image source: Spc. Dakota Vanidestine/US Army Reserve/DVIDS)

In an interview, Iraq War veteran Allison Jaslow highlighted another significant factor impacting the recruitment process: the “vast” military-civilian divide among Americans.

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“In previous generations, everyone had a grandfather who had served or everyone had a family member who had served. And now few people even know us. So culturally, we’re just very out of touch as a nation, with the military,” she said. “So even having sort of that sense of duty or honor model to us, I think, for us, at least for the younger generations, doesn’t really exist.”

Nonetheless, Jaslow expressed her hope that the hiring problem is merely a “blip,” as many industries are still working to recover from the pandemic.

“But if we don’t, if we don’t do better next year, we should really be sounding the alarms,” she added.

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The Army is also considering boosting financial incentives. And we’re talking about tens of thousands of dollars in additional funding to encourage people, particularly the young, to enlist. Beginning in January this year, the Army has already offered enlistment bonuses of up to $50,000 for highly qualified recruits who are willing to serve for the next six years.

Since the 2020s kicked in, many changes in the Army recruitment process have changed, such as revamping some of the fitness exam tests and the most recently relaxed tattoo policy.