The military grew complacent with recruiting during the Global War on Terror, and that left it unprepared for the difficulties of finding new recruits after recent shocks from the pandemic and a newly competitive labor market, according to a group of experts Monday.
The lack of preparation is a key reason the services face a recruiting crisis now, and even some of the programs the branches have put in place to ease the dearth of Americans prepared to sign up come with their own risks, said panelists at an event on military recruiting and retention hosted by the Brookings Institution, a bipartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C.
"The number one reason we're struggling with recruiting right now is complacency -- complacency because the military assumed that people would want to continue buying VHS tapes, compact discs, and riding Peloton bikes at home," Thomas Spoehr, a retired three-star general and now director of the Center for National Defense at the Heritage Foundation, told attendees.
"Just like all these other market forces overtook and made those items obsolete, military recruiting and service became obsolete right underneath the military's feet and they weren't paying attention," Spoehr said.
The recruiting crisis has been growing for several years and has hit every branch of the military. While the Army dramatically missed its goals last year by about 15,000 soldiers, the Navy and Marine Corps barely hit their targets but largely just for enlisted active-duty recruits and at a cost of their delayed-entry reserve force.
For Spoehr, one of the key issues is the type of leaders the services put in charge of recruiting policy.
"The Army routinely puts people in charge of its recruiting enterprise who have never recruited or marketed a thing before in their lives," he said. However, all the branches operate under similar policies.
The head of the Navy's Recruiting Command, for example, is Rear Adm. Alexis Walker, whose official biography shows him to be an incredibly proficient naval officer but makes no mention of a position or degree focused on recruiting, sales or marketing.
However, the other panelists also noted that the problems and complacency around the issue go beyond who leads recruiting efforts or their expertise.
Katherine Kuzminski, the director of the Military, Veterans and Society Program at the think tank Center for a New American Security, noted that large ad campaigns like the ones the Army and Navy have recently rolled out may not be resonating with the latest generation.
"This population has been advertised and marketed to their entire lives," Kuzminski said, before noting that this underscores "the importance of having recruiters or having a touchstone in their community where they have a personal relationship."
Beth Asch, an economist at Rand Corp., was even more direct.
"Having been complacent about recruiting over the last decade or so, I don't think we fully understand the market, and the sub-pieces of the market, and what motivates different segments of the market to enlist," Asch said.
"There's a lot of hypotheses out there, but we've no analysis to break down what are the most important factors," she added.
The panelists said that some of the measures that the services have recently implemented to try and combat the problem introduce other complications that could become problems down the road.
They questioned the effectiveness of the Army's growing program of prep schools that aim to get the test and physical fitness scores of would-be recruits up to standard, despite the service's early claims of success. The Navy recently announced it plans to start a similar program.
"I worry that what's happened is the Army is getting these kids to score better, they qualify, but they're not performing at the level they need to in order to do these military tasks," Asch said.
Spoehr said that, while data shows the recruits who go through these programs "are doing very well in the next phase of the training," meaning boot camp and follow-on training, "that does not equate to their first operational unit."
"The Army's gonna look at that ... how these new soldiers do over the long term, the ones that went through the course versus those that did not," he added.
The panel acknowledged that the services find themselves in a historically unique place. National polling from organizations like Pew and Gallup shows that trust and confidence in the military as an institution is falling and, at least according to Spoehr, there are no calls to service from national leaders.
Spoehr, in a recent editorial with Kuzminski, wrote that the traditional methods of higher bonuses and lower standards will no longer work.
"I think we need more of a national effort. ... We have no national strategy to combat this problem," Spoehr said.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.