DoD must consider non-traditional approaches to military service

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Last week the Pentagon began to follow through with Secretary Jim Mattis’ promise to increase military “lethality” by removing all service members who have been on “non-deployable” status for more than a year.

The new policy will likely achieve its goal of reducing the number of non-deployable service members, if only by forcing them to schedule dental appointments and update personnel records. At the same time, the policy cuts against President Trump’s primary goal for the military — increasing its size. Notwithstanding these countervailing goals, the Department of Defense (DoD) already faces large hurdles to expanding the military, mainly because shockingly few Americans are both willing and able to serve.

{mosads}If the administration wants to have it both ways — growing the military without sacrificing standards and simultaneously making the force leaner and more lethal — it will need to develop a fundamentally different concept of military service than currently exists.

The new retention policy released by the DoD last week outlines a plan to separate any service members on non-deployable status for “more than 12 consecutive months, for any reason,” with a sole exception for pregnant and post-partum women. It is not yet clear how exactly the department will implement the policy, but as it stands the change could affect an estimated 286,000 service members — about 13 percent of the force — who on any given day are non-deployable for reasons ranging from outdated records to physical fitness concerns. By forcing service members to more closely hold to standards or risk separation, DoD leaders hope to improve personnel readiness and develop a leaner, more agile force.

Just as Secretary Mattis is tightening standards, recent Congressional and White House guidelines — the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and the proposed FY19 budget — call for substantial increases in military end strength. While the documents explicitly emphasize “lethality” over top-line troop numbers, they also lay out specific increases in the size of the services. The 2018 NDAA grows the Army by “7,500 soldiers, the Navy by 4,000 sailors, the Marine Corps by 1,000 Marines, and the Air Force by about 4,100 airmen,” resulting in a total expansion of almost 20,000 active-duty troops. The White House’s budget proposal for 2019 would add an additional 16,400 service members to that total.

After a period of troop drawdowns under the Obama administration, this about-face on service size will pose a considerable challenge for military recruiters. Even before the release of the new retention policy, Army Recruiting Command said it would need to bring in 80,000 active-duty recruits just to make the 2018 targets. According to DoD officials, the Army has never before recruited “that many soldiers in a single year without violating Defense Department policies” for quality. To meet recruiting targets during the height of the Iraq War, for example, the military saw an increase in the number of waivers issued to let in substandard recruits.

If the oscillating demands on DoD recruiting from Congress and the White House were not enough, the services must look for recruits in a public neither interested in nor qualified for military service. The propensity to serve among today’s youth is incredibly low, with no more than 17 percent of male and 8 percent of female high school seniors interested or indicating intent to serve in the military. Even if more Americans wished to serve, few are actually able to join the military. According to recent data from the Pentagon, about 70 percent of 17 to 24-year olds are ineligible for military service, primarily due to health, education, or physical appearance.

Taken together, these trends present a substantial and growing dilemma for the military: In coming years, the DoD will attempt to grow substantially — while only 1 percent of young people are “both eligible and inclined to have a conversation” about joining the military. Even a modest increase in active-duty personnel will be a challenge, only heightened by DoD claims that it will not lower standards to make targets. To face this challenge and meet recruiting goals, recruiters will need to go beyond their typical recruiting pools in places where the propensity to serve is higher. Amidst a changing concept of war and military isolation, DoD will also have to find a more nuanced definition of service.

Though recent DoD-wide changes have moved toward making the military more inclusive and attractive as a career option, the country needs a new concept of who serves and what service looks like. The opening of all combat roles to women, for example, may help the military be a more attractive option to women in presenting a gender-equal environment. Further to this end, the Army plans to institute a gender-neutral fitness test that more accurately tests strength for combat and evens the demands on male and female recruits.

While few members of the millennial generation are currently willing or able to serve in the military, they are nonetheless civic-minded with a strong tendency toward volunteerism. However, millennials’ civic engagement favors national and public service over the military; even while acknowledging the threat posed by a group like the Islamic State, millennials are reluctant to join the military to confront such threats.

With a need for more educated and technically-adept recruits to respond to a variety of threats, the military can no longer rely on patriotism alone to motivate enlistment. Instead, the DoD will need to shape its own policies and methods to take advantage of young people’s sense of purpose and engagement. Just as importantly, the DoD should carefully consider how it aligns standards and recruiting to attract more young people to perform a wide range of jobs, from cyber to logistics.

Acknowledging some of these issues, Congress established the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service in the 2017 NDAA to develop potential solutions. Initially envisioned to consider the future of selective service and draft registration, the Commission’s broader mandate is “to listen to the public and learn from those who serve,” to recommend “ideas to foster a greater ethos of military, national and public service to strengthen American democracy.” On a two-year timeline to develop and present recommendations to Congress, the Commission has been moving fast since its launch earlier this year and has the potential to play a critical role in developing tools to address the recruiting challenge for the DoD.

Whether a resolution emerges from the Commission or elsewhere, the Department of Defense will need to consider non-traditional approaches to military service. Millennials have demonstrated the willingness to engage publicly to address community issues and may yet be convinced military service can address foreign and domestic issues. Improving the propensity to serve in the armed forces is only part of the answer; ultimately the military needs to reexamine what will constitute the warrior and force of the future.

Andrew Swick is a Research Associate with the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and a former Army infantry officer.

Emma Moore is a researcher for the Military, Veterans, and Security Program at CNAS.

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