Military and national security pundits are quick to reiterate that the U.S. military struggles to successfully recruit the next generation of service members. Unfortunately, many of these commentators wave inflammatory headlines that suggest the recruiting system is imploding yet fail to recommend any policies to fix the recruiting system. While some of the facts underlying many of the inflammatory assertions are questionable, there are ways to change military recruiting to better serve the needs of the U.S. all-volunteer force.
Three commonly-cited causes of declining recruiting and retention metrics are: 1) mistrust in military officers, 2) the Blended Retirement System (BRS), and 3) a senior officer and political class with a perceived reputation for war mongering. These arguments can be countered with productive policy recommendations to 1) improve military recruiting competence, 2) enhance service member compensation, and 3) reevaluate the military “garrison” lifestyle.
Does the American Public Trust Its Military Officers to Lead?
In his November 2022 Proceedings article, “Recruiting Requires Bold Changes,” Marine Corps Commandant General David H. Berger cites a 2021 Gallup poll that indicates a decline in public trust of military officers. Other military commentators were quick to parrot this quote as proof of the public’s lack of trust. For example, one commentator attributed the perceived decline in the trust of military officers to the botched Afghanistan withdrawal. However, when viewed in its entirety, the cited Gallup poll does not reflect the pessimistic picture that many paint.
The Gallup poll reveals that military officers, as a profession, have one of the highest rates of public trust among the U.S. population. Military officers are ranked the fifth-most honest and ethical profession, with a 61 percent positive sentiment. For reference, doctors, regarded as the second-most honest and ethical profession, boast 68 percent positive sentiment. No profession holds a candle to nurses, who garner a well-deserved 81 percent favorable rating. Most commentators gloss over these details and assume a direct causation between declining trust in military officers and the challenges present in recruiting American youth to the armed services.
It is unlikely that young Americans considering military service place a high emphasis on the trustworthiness of the Joint Chiefs when deciding whether to join the armed forces. Perhaps this lack of trustworthiness is a feature among the active-duty population, thus influencing retention rates, and through second-order effects, recruiting. Many service members may be frustrated with the Joint Staff because of the failures of the Afghanistan withdrawal, the drama of political changes in the military, and war weariness following two decades at war in the Middle East. However, leaders cannot spend their time chasing the ghosts of the past. Ultimately, trust is afforded to leaders who take action. What they can do, as General Berger addresses in his article, is attack contemporary challenges with new plans. To that end, what new plan can address the challenge of dwindling recruitment?
The U.S. military should consolidate redundant recruiting organizations from the separate services into a joint recruiting force that could tailor solutions to individual applicants and distribute expertise and excellence across the six branches. At present, each military branch maintains their own recruiting organizations. These recruiters compete for the same dwindling pool of applicants but recruits are ultimately subjected to the same statutory qualifications for service and funneled through the same Military Entrance Processing Stations. It would be more efficient if each recruiter in a joint recruiting force were trained to understand opportunities in each service and to match those opportunities with individual applicants. A joint recruiting force would promote collaboration over competition.
By eliminating redundancies, the military services could allocate cost savings toward increased community outreach, improved marketing, and other innovative and experimental recruiting programs. This approach would require humility from senior military leaders as each branch takes pride in its respective identity and seeks to control that identity through its recruiting branches. Radical consolidation of recruiting is an example of a plan that, if well implemented, could prove that senior military leaders can respond to challenges in novel and creative ways. Proving competence is the best cure for a perceived lack of public trust.
How Can the United States Improve Service Member Compensation?
Service member compensation is another frequent topic in military recruitment and retention discourse. The Blended Retirement System (BRS) is often blamed as a central cause of recruitment and retention struggles. However, the way BRS works is often misstated.
For context, BRS was implemented in 2018 and reduced military service members’ unvested interest in a defined retirement benefit plan (referred to as a pension hereafter) from 2.5 percent to 2 percent per year. Under BRS, a military member earns a 2 percent interest in their pension every year they serve. If they serve for 20 years, they will receive 40 percent of their ending salary every year for the rest of their life. Detractors cite BRS’s elimination of a penalty for military members who leave midcareer as contributing to falling retention rates. The “penalty” is the unvested interest in a future pension a service member loses if they leave before retirement. However, the penalty of leaving midcareer still exists, just at 2 percent per year instead of 2.5 percent. Those who argue that no penalty exists are wrong. Here’s a helpful fact sheet for more information on BRS.
Changes to compensation are not a bad idea for improving retention and recruiting, and layering desirability-based incentives into duty station assignments would be a good start. Some duty stations are objectively desirable while others are not. For example, at desirable stations such as Camp Pendleton, California, geographic-based compensation such as basic allowance for housing (BAH) and basic allowance for subsistence are high, and beaches and mountains are a short drive away. Meanwhile, those stationed in Twentynine Palms, California, or Fort Sill, Oklahoma, are paid less to live somewhere less desirable. Why not reward these service members with an inverse-BAH bonus or stipend to acknowledge this disparity? Alternatively, instituting a market-based bidding system in which those who are moving and gaining commands can vie for duty-station placements would be a more cost-effective (although potentially systems- and management-intensive) option.
How Can the Military Prepare for War during Peacetime?
Today’s U.S. military is the greatest in history in terms of capability, manpower, and technology. Joining the military can imbue people with a sense of purpose and belonging. However, when time in garrison is not fulfilling, service members can experience a vacuum of purpose. The Coast Guard saves lives and interdicts drugs and arms traffic daily, but the other military branches must wait and train for the next conflict. Some will spend their entire careers without doing their jobs in a live setting.
How can we satisfy the natural desire to do what military members continually train to do without beating the war drum? And how can the United States maintain and retain an effective fighting force without burning its service members out in the pursuit of constant readiness?
When training in the field, the military is at war. The military should measure success against a realistic opposing force and track metrics of success across the joint force to foster friendly competition. Leaning on new technologies, units can be assessed based less on notional games and more on quantifiable metrics.
When in garrison, the military should be preparing to go to war, but doing so efficiently, guarding selfishly its most precious resource—service members’ time. Service members, especially the youngest cohort, can and should receive rest. Above all, there must be a focus on improving warfighting competence. Any activity, tradition, or parade that detracts from this effort must be scrutinized and evaluated. How many times has a young Marine counted the days to their end of active service while listening to an officer stumble though a change of command speech? General Berger alludes to these ideas when he references automating administrative tasks, and the military should expand this concept across other functions such as maintenance, garrison security, even duty.
Focus Less on Crisis Language and More on Bold Solutions
A recent Heritage Foundation poll found that 93 percent of service members trust the U.S. military a good or great deal. The Gallup poll cited earlier shows that military officers are the fifth-most trusted profession among the U.S. population. The U.S. military is not imploding because of a crisis of confidence, despite much of the media narrative.
When a product does not sell, it is not always the sales team’s fault. Sometimes, they just need to make the product better. By addressing both the “sales” force (a combined joint force recruiting team) as well as enhancing the “product” (improving compensation and the lived experience of active-duty members), the U.S. military can begin to tackle its recruitment and retention problems. Articles with inflammatory, eye-catching titles make for easy clickbait, but answering General Berger’s call for bold changes is more constructive and may guide the military and recruiting force to success in the next generation.