Third order effects of coronavirus on military recruiting and retention

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Emma Moore, opinion contributorThe COVID-19 pandemic will have yet-to-be-seen effects on military recruitment and retention in the short- and long-term. Every month during which recruiting is paused or slowed has ripple effects on force readiness down the line.

It is imperative the Department of Defense (DOD) put comprehensive and consistent measures in place now to protect readiness, maintain the training pipeline, and protect the force. Each of the services are responding in real time to the crisis, and each will grapple with how their response affects personnel.

The military personnel system does not have a lot of excess capacity, and the long-term impacts of initial reactions have yet to fully play out. Small delays have oversize impact on the force due to the military’s high rate of annual turnover. Major General Lenny Richoux, director for personnel for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that stay-at-home orders will “have somewhat of a corrosive effect on our ability to have the numbers of people that we really need.” Current expectations show a spike in cases through summer 2020 and that true suppression of the virus may require 18 months (or more) of effort. Even as the United States passes peak cases and deaths, military activity will not be able to resume as normal: Initial training and joint exercises will still pose a risk in the near-term.

There are two likely trends that could affect recruiting in the next year: a slowdown of accessions and enlistments to mitigate the ongoing risk of COVID-19 and a simultaneous uptick of interest in military careers due to significant nationwide joblessness.

While the economic impact will create a larger pool of potential recruits, there are some complicating factors that will take longer to manifest. The services run the risk of disillusionment from service members and the public due to unfamiliarity with National Guard and reserves presence on American streets, concern from parents about shipping new recruits to training and, most crucially, concerns from service members about leadership priorities.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper recognized, “I need to make sure I retain some capacity for a deployable force in case we get in some type of conflict somewhere,” and the services have committed to continue training to maintain readiness.

To stop the spread of the virus, the services have instituted medical screening and lowering the number of new recruits going through training. Initially, the Pentagon rejected the Army’s plan to halt the influx of new recruits, and the Army is now social distancing through “physical dispersion” of 40 inches and is temporarily suspending combatives training. However, in the past week, the Army has reopened basic training and gone back to face-to-face recruiting. The Navy announced Recruit Training Command staff would be kept on base for 90 days to reduce potential spread of the virus while the Marine Corps finally halted entry of new recruits at Parris Island. The Air Force shortened recruit training. It is unclear whether these courses of action will be sufficient to mitigate outbreaks among trainees.

The strategic imperatives to maintain American competitiveness and military readiness globally may ring hollow for service members, parents, and new recruits who may feel they are being unnecessarily put at risk in the name of lethality. Recruiters have noted an increase in tension with parents, expressing concern “that we damaged our reputations and relationships that we have worked tirelessly to build in the local area due to the continued pressure to process applicants.” For those already serving, actions taken by commanders and leadership have lost the confidence of many. It started with all hands meetings to discuss the virus, failing to uphold social distancing, the commitment to maintaining grooming standards and physical training requirements despite the risks, with barbershops still open (with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff comparing haircuts to the battle of Iwo Jima), and finally the whiplash of the Captain Crozier’s dismissal from the Teddy Roosevelt and the former acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modley’s treatment of captain and crew.

Retired Admiral James Stavridis has written, “Without healthy sailors there is no mission readiness, so the health of the crew has to come first.” The lack of consistency in guidance from the top might be more reassuring if it was more clear leadership was sharing control measures and best practices across the force and would hold accountable those leaders ignoring guidance.

Leadership is crucial, and while the military is used to leading in times of conflict, this crisis poses a very different existential threat to the force and its culture. Early in the crisis there was no evidence that DOD leadership was measuring and dispersing data to all commanders and facilities in a timely manner. As the lines of communications have improved, centralized support to reassess essential personnel in the near- and long-term in accordance with projections will be key.

As DOD diagnoses more than 100 new cases daily, the services must plan for the possibility that there will not be new recruits coming into the force for some time.

The slowing or halting of recruit training could elicit a variety of responses from the services to maintain end strength, such as short-term reenlistment options, extending deployments and assignments and greater application of stop loss. The services have indicated they are increasing virtual recruiting efforts and using a variety of social media platforms to maintain connection with potential recruits — but may calculate that an uptick in propensity due to the economy will offset current delays or lack of faith in leadership. Although the services are making inroads to improve processes, they are not situated to make use of that broader pool. This presents an opportunity to be strategic in getting people with critical skills into corresponding jobs. 

In short, despite a range of action taken to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 throughout the force, the military is grappling with the need to maintain readiness and plan for the future and the very real possibility that its response will be insufficient in the face of the virus. Second and third order effects of either delaying training classes or continuing to bring in new recruits straddle the line of damaging readiness or damaging faith in the institution. 

Emma Moore is Research Assistant for the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. She previously worked with ProVetus, a peer-mentoring organization helping service members transition into civilian life, and as an Executive Assistant for Narrative Strategies, a coalition of scholars and military professionals addressing the non-kinetic aspects of war. She earned her Master’s in War Studies from King’s College London. Follow her on Twitter @moreemmamoore.

Tags Coronavirus coronavirus pandemic COVID-19 Mark Esper Military education and training military leadership Military personnel military readiness Military recruitment Recruit training

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