After years of drawdowns, Army needs 80,000 new soldiers to meet 2018 growth targets

The Army is entering the second of two back-to-back years of recruiting challenges, owing mostly to congressional budget decisions that first prompted it to shed soldiers as quickly as possible, then to suddenly pivot back into growth mode.

In December 2016, partway through the fiscal year, the annual defense authorization bill ordered the Army to halt a then-ongoing, multi-year drawdown from 565,000 to 450,000 active-duty soldiers and rebuild the force to 476,000. For 2017 alone, that meant recruiters suddenly had to find and onboard 6,000 more enlistees than the 62,500 they’d planned for the year, the largest “in-year” recruiting increase in the Army’s history.

And for 2018, according to newly-announced figures from Army Recruiting Command, the mission will increase to 80,000 new active-duty recruits. Officials say they have never accessed that many soldiers in a single year without violating Defense Department policies, which set standards for new recruits’ educational levels, criminal histories, past drug use and other measures of “quality.”

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Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, the commander of Army Recruiting Command, said the Army’s 1,400 nationwide recruiting centers managed to exceed the increased 2017 goal for the regular Army without violating those standards, though recruiting into the Army Reserve fell slightly short of the higher goal.

“And the one thing our leadership has been clear with us about is that we will continue to meet the DoD benchmarks in 2018. There’s a number of things we’re doing to make sure we do that,” Snow said in an interview. “For one, we’ve identified the resources we’ll need early on, so we’ve missioned the recruiting force for the higher numbers even though it’s not clear yet what Congress is going to support with appropriations.”

Also, the Army knows it will need to offer elevated enlistment incentives and other bonuses at least at the same levels it did in the last three quarters of 2017, when it the drawdown officially ended and it began paying active-duty recruits bonuses averaging $12,700. Bonuses will also be offered for new recruits who agree join on a “quick ship” basis, beginning their service within four-to-six weeks from signing their contracts, rather than staying for a time in the Army’s delayed entry pool.

Snow said the Army was also retooling its marketing strategies both at a national and local level, mindful of the fact that only three in 10 Americans of enlistment age meet the military’s basic qualifications to serve, including less reliance on traditional techniques like mass media campaigns and prospecting for candidates via telephone, and more of a focus on targeted advertising, including through social media.

“We’re doing a better job of piloting some virtual recruiting techniques to better connect with the youth of today, using Facebook and other techniques to reach out directly,” he said. “There is still a role for traditional TV [advertising] — the youth of today are still watching television programs — but it’s more likely to be through Netflix or Hulu, so I think we’re doing a better job of amplifying that message with digital media. And we still do billboards, but they’ve been refined so that each one has a specific URL on it, so if someone comes to us via that mechanism we’ll know whether that particular billboard is having its desired impact.”

The Army is also hoping to tackle the recruiting challenge by improving its screening process for new recruits so that the ones that are accepted are more likely to be physically capable of meeting their service commitments. In any given year, the service recruits between 11-12 percent more enlistees than it actually needs, knowing that that’s roughly equivalent to the number of soldiers who won’t make it through basic training and advanced individual training.

In 2017, officials implemented the Occupational Physical Assessment Test, a four-part test the Army developed based on two years of research to predict which young enlistees were most physically capable of succeeding in particular military occupational specialties (MOS).

“When you think about this from a business perspective, we were doing all this work to bring a young man or woman into the Army and then losing one out of 10 of them in their first 16-to-20 weeks,” Snow said. “So within Training and Doctrine Command,  the Army’s centers of excellence that have responsibility for our various MOSs for all of our military specialties defined the physical requirements to meet that particular specialty. So now we can determine whether they meet the very high, high, or moderate physical demands consistent with that specialty. If this works the way it’s designed to, we should see a reduction in attrition. We are in fact seeing the first signs of that, but it’s going to take three-to-five years to fully assess.”

Of course, another way to accommodate the need to transition from an Army in decline to one in growth mode is to stop involuntarily separating seasoned service members who still want to wear the uniform.

The Army has taken some of those measures already: In 2017, it opted to retain nearly 9,000 soldiers that would have otherwise been separated if Congress had not made its midyear course change to increase end strength in last year’s NDAA.

But by then, the Army had already dismissed thousands of highly-qualified soldiers who still wanted to serve in the preceding years of the drawdown. The service’s Human Resources Command has begun to mail letters to some of those former troops, telling them the Army would like them to come back, if they’re willing.

But Snow acknowledged that many of the former soldiers the Army wants most have already moved on to other opportunities.

“This was the concern about the drawdown all along. I can say from firsthand knowledge that the past chief of staff of the Army and the current chief of staff of the Army did not want to draw down. It caused some of our people to question, ‘Hey, do I have a future, or am I wise to go do something else?’ One of the messages we’re working hard to convey now is that the Army is open for business and that this will be the second consecutive year of growth,” Snow said. “That’s good for a lot of things. When the Army’s growing, it’s going to increase promotion opportunities, opportunities to do whatever it is you want to do within the Army.”