It’s Time for a National Security Strategy for Military Recruiting

COMMENTARY Defense

It’s Time for a National Security Strategy for Military Recruiting

Aug 21, 2023 3 min read
COMMENTARY BY

Former Director, Center for National Defense

Thomas W. Spoehr conducted and supervised research on national defense matters.
Men who have signed up to join the U.S. Marines stand in line to do qualifying pull-ups at recruiting station November 16, 2021 in New York City. Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Our armed forces are shrinking in size and capacity. The current crisis in military recruiting qualifies as a direct threat to U.S. national security.

U.S. confidence in the military continues to decrease year over year. We can see this same phenomena playing out in countries like Latvia and Sweden.

Lawmakers should insist that the president develop and deliver a comprehensive strategy. Then, we will have a fighting chance to turn recruiting around.

Our armed forces are shrinking in size and capacity. The current crisis in military recruiting qualifies as a direct threat to U.S. national security.

In just two years, the active duty Army has shrunk from 485,000 to only 452,000 troops. It expects to fall short of its recruiting goals again this year. The Navy and Air Force are predicting shortfalls as well. As a result, our nation will have under-strength Army formations, Navy ships and Air Force squadrons—at a time when America is depending on its military to a greater degree than in the previous three decades.

The recruitment crisis is fueled by a variety of factors. Among them: a strong labor market paired with noncompetitive compensation, a declining number of Americans qualified for service, concerns about politicization, a fear of injury, and a general decline in patriotism felt by young people combined with a lack of familiarity with the military.

The military is working overtime to improve its recruiting, by starting preparation courses, better incentivizing its recruiters and retooling its marketing campaigns. But the fact remains that most of the factors inhibiting recruitment lie outside the military’s control. Overcoming these hurdles will require a broad, nationwide effort—not just by the Pentagon, but by the entire federal government with the support of states and local governments. What’s needed is a National Security Strategy to Support Military Recruiting.

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Presidents often opt to develop national strategies when faced with complex problems threatening national security. In just two and a half years, the Biden administration has published dozens of such strategies, ranging from the overarching national security strategy to more narrow plans, such as the national cybersecurity strategy and, my favorite, the Near-earth Object Hazards and Planetary Defense Strategy.

The danger from the military recruitment crisis is one that is more immediate than, say, hazards from space.

Yet many American are unaware that the military is facing a recruitment crisis. Indeed, other than the individual military services furiously racing to turn around recruiting trends, the White House and senior Pentagon leaders have been silent on the issue, not giving a single speech or interview on the topic. Ditto the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Veteran’s Affairs or Labor—all of which can and should play roles in recruiting solutions. Meanwhile the military continues to shrink.

Some suggest that the current recruiting crisis is just a temporary blip; like a storm it will pass, and future recruiting efforts will once again become fruitful. Long-term trends, however, all point in the wrong directions: The labor market will remain tight, American youth will become increasingly obese and unfit, veterans who play a large role in influencing young people to volunteer are steadily decreasing in number, and U.S. confidence in the military continues to decrease year over year. We can see this same phenomena playing out in countries like Latvia and Sweden. To fill their ranks, both nations have had to return to conscription, a solution that is neither desirable nor viable for the U.S.

Granted, the history of national security strategies is checkered. Some merely serve as aspirational messaging documents. But a few have made a difference. For example: President George W. Bush’s 2005 strategy for pandemic influenza helped put in place the Strategic National Stockpile that furnished the respirators and masks (albeit not enough of them) for the initial federal response to COVID-19 in 2020. When national security strategies do come together for positive change, it’s because the National Security Council capably pulls together a working team from across the federal government and other interested parties, dissects the problem, and assigns responsibilities for solutions. The best strategies contain finite objectives and firmly assign them to agencies for implementation. The National Cyber Security Strategy, for example, does that.

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Of course, not every problem deserves its own national security strategy. Publishing too many strategies risks diluting the efforts of the federal government, and many national problems amenable to government fixes can be addressed by a single federal department.

But boosting military recruiting is not such a case. It will require a broad-based, sustained effort to be successful, and it’s far too urgent to ignore it one second longer. Indeed, failing to solve the military recruiting problem carries such grave danger for America that a national supporting security strategy is vital.

As Congress consider the yet-to-be-finalized FY 2024 defense authorization bill, lawmakers should insist that the president develop and deliver a comprehensive strategy. Then, we will have a fighting chance to turn recruiting around.

This piece originally appeared in MSN

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