Guest Post: Crisis in Military Recruiting is Bank Worthy

Security, both fiscal and physical, is a primary need of individuals and countries.  With the recent banking crisis, much attention went to that issue and resolutions. Another crisis is happening on a broader scale, and that’s military recruiting. Might there be parallels in how to approach them?

In a time period where companies everywhere seem to be having trouble hiring, there’s a tendency by many (unconscious perhaps) to view the need to attract military recruits into the same category as the local laundry, big box store, restaurant or any business struggling to find workers.

But, let’s make that personal and with a more impactful focus – these are the young men and women who will protect our country, serve our nation, and guard our way of life.  We only have to look at how quickly things can change by looking at Ukraine – and the bravery and resilience of those fighting for freedom.

Recently, the Washington Post reported that “U.S. defense officials face the bleakest recruiting environment since the aftermath of the Vietnam War…[and they told Congress] situation probably will take years to correct…forecasting that the Army, Air Force and Navy all will fall short of their goals this year, possibly by thousands of recruits.”

This has generated a lot of discussion, particularly among military retirees.  One such dialogue was kicked off by the article,Experts Question Military Recruiting Fixes Such as Pre-Boot Camp Courses.” 

My friend Mike Samarov, whose Marine Corps service included recruiting duty, had an interesting take on the problem that I thought you might like to hear. 

Mike draws parallels between the banking crisis and the recruiting crisis, and believes the latter deserves the same level of leadership attention as the former, because ultimately the recruiting crisis could have equally as grave strategic implications.

Mike warns that “recruiting barely registers as the national crisis that it is” and that the military “Services — and especially the Army — are largely left to their own devices to solve the problem” – an approach he contends won’t work.

He insists that changing the narrative about military service is key to start fixing the problem, and this requires urgent, bipartisan action by leaders across society, starting with the White House.  He believes that if serving in uniform becomes a valuable social status statistic” then that will go a long-way towards solving the crisis. 

Of course this means explaining to young people the reasons military service should be important to them (a topic for another post!) but for now, consider Mike’s argument that the military recruiting crisis is on par with the banking crisis and needs the same level of energy and focus to find a solution.

A Crisis in Military Recruiting is Bank Worthy

by Mike Samarov

Military Recruiting.  In the Federal Government fiscal year that ended on 30 September 2022, the U.S. Army missed its recruiting mission by 15,000 Soldiers for its active component.  It also missed its recruiting goal for its reserve component.  While the Air Force met its active component recruiting mission, it missed its reserve component objective.  The Naval Services – the Navy and the Marine Corps – met their recruiting mission with significant difficulties. 

This fiscal year, the Army, Navy, and Air Force, have already announced that their recruiting mission – a fundamental component of each Service’s purpose for existing – won’t be attained.

National (and International) Crisis.  The U.S. is experiencing a pair of crises that involve fundamental aspects of its national power.  One is economic.  The other is military strategic.  Both are serious.  One, deservedly, has received and continues to receive a tremendous amount of attention.  The other, unfortunately, isn’t and hasn’t.  The differences in results are predictable.  One crisis is, at least for the moment, on the way to resolution.  The other continues to get worse.

Banking and Recruiting.  In some ways, manning, training, organizing, and equipping the military Services is to national security as the banking system is to the economy. Military force is the foundation of our national security in the same way that banks are the foundation of economic activity.  While we can debate whether national security or economic growth is more important, we can agree that both are critical. 

Numbers Matter.  Taking this analogy further, military recruiting and bank fundamentals are similar in that they are both accurately measurable. A given bank’s book of loans, capitalization, insured deposit ratio, past performance, and so forth can be known in real time and projected into the future.

Similarly, a Service’s recruiting statistics (percent start pool, graduate-senior split, quality metrics, delayed entry program attrition, boot camp attrition, first term attrition, etc.) are also defined and measurable. There’s no mystery in whether a Recruiting Service or a bank are succeeding or failing. 

The Difference.  The challenge is that, as a nation, we don’t see instability in the financial system and instability in manning the force as equally serious. Challenges in several mid-sized banks draw Presidential-level attention and economy-wide action.

A generation-level recruiting crisis that affects the Joint Force’s largest and most important “bank” (the U.S. Army) largely results in a little bit of talking and a few half measures. The result is predictable — the banking system is stabilizing while the recruiting crisis is getting worse.

Disagreement does not Mean Inaction. We can certainly disagree on who is most responsible for each crisis.  For example, some could make the case that the nature of Treasury Department’s and Federal Reserve’s policies led to the Silicon Valley Bank failure.  Others can blame bank executive.

Similarly, some could argue that our political divisions lead directly to recruiting challenges while other can point a finger at military leaders’ failures.  However, there’s no argument that everyone is taking the banking situation seriously. Certainly, there is an informed, wide-ranging debate exploring the nature of the current bank failures and various measures to prevent or lessen the impact of similar events in the future. 

Conversely, recruiting barely registers as the national crisis that it is. The Services — and especially the Army — are largely left to their own devices to solve the problem. The fact that the Air Force and Navy (the two next most important national security “banks”) already know that they’re going to fail to reach their accession mission this year doesn’t seem to get much attention.

The fact that this is an international crisis — most Western nations have struggled to fully man their military forces for years —isn’t even part of the conversation. Equally, the news that Army recruiting has been a chronic weakness for, at least, the past two decades would likely surprise most observers. 

Solutions – Some Might Work; Some Won’t. From this perspective, the Army’s attempt to qualify unqualified applicants is par for the course. While we may be pleasantly surprised, I suspect that the Army’s Future Soldier Prep Course graduates will likely attrit at the entry-level or during their first term at far higher rates than their peers. It goes without saying that they will also cost more than recruits that are qualified from the point that they are initially contacted. Similar attempts by the Navy are likely to have similar results. 

A real solution requires a national-level effort. First and foremost, political, business, entertainment, religious, and community leaders — starting with President Biden and senior Republicans —need to change the perception and narrative regarding military service.  If serving in uniform becomes a valuable — perhaps the most valuable? — college, business loan, job, social status statistic, the propensity deficit will start to change. 

Allowing the situation to solve itself is certainly an option – equally for banking and recruiting.  Clearly, our national leaders believe that letting matters develop on their own isn’t an option for the banking crisis.  Unfortunately, they are acting as if it is for the recruiting crisis. 

Allowing the recruiting situation to develop involves, in essence, allowing the Service to solve the problem on their own combined with waiting for a downturn in the economy to make military service more attractive.  To be sure, a worsening labor market will assist the propensity equation. 

However, on their own, labor market forces and Service actions on the margins are unlikely to affect long-term, national-level trends. 

Relying on market forces and Service actions alone to solve the recruiting crisis is like letting banks figure out how to solve and weather a financial crisis on their own. It could get really expensive. 

About the author: Colonel Michael Samarov, USMC (Retired) served for over 28 years on active duty.  He had the privilege to command at every rank and deploy across the globe.  Mike had an extremely challenging tour on Recruiting Duty in the mid 2000s.  In retirement, he remains engaged in issues affecting national security policy.

The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.  

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!


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