Despite the general sense of national pride in the American public, a growing number of young Americans only identify as moderately proud or less.
Despite the general sense of national pride in the American public, a growing number of young Americans only identify as ‘moderately proud’ or less.
Pranav Ramakrishna

The Military Recruitment Crisis

Will an All-Volunteer Force Remain Feasible?

2023 marks the 50th year of the U.S. Armed Forces as an all-volunteer force, a model which is a point of national pride, demonstrating the freedom and willingness of and to defend the country they believe in. 


The All Volunteer Force (AVF) was initiated in 1973, replacing a highly unpopular  military draft amidst the controversial Vietnam War. This shifted the balance of the armed forces, decreasing the number of soldiers readily available, but in turn shifting that burden to soldiers who chose the military as their career path rather than being drafted into it, resulting in a fighting force that was more dedicated and willing to serve. That is the core of the All Volunteer Force, consisting of soldiers, engineers, medics, logistics and linguistics officers who all chose the sacrifice of military life whether active or in the reserves. However, while this system has worked so far, it has come under increasing strain in recent years, placing increased pressure on military personnel and their families, calling into question the viability of an all volunteer structure.


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The Department of Defense accounts for nearly 1.4 million active personnel in the United States Armed Forces, placing it as the third largest military force in the world, trailing behind China and India. Yet for all it’s bravado, the U.S. Armed Forces face an alarming problem: who will be left to run it? 


The U.S. Army expects to finish the year with a recruitment number of 55,000 new soldiers, falling 10,000 short of its ambitious goal of 65,000 new enlistees. The Air Force and Navy branches saw a similar turnout, expecting to fall 6,000 and 10,000 short respectively of their enlistment goals by the end of the 2023 fiscal year. In 2022, the Army fell 15,000 short of its goals and the Air Force and Navy barely scraped by their recruitment quota. The makings of a worrying trend appear to be forming, with the Department of Defense (DOD) unable to enlist sufficient recruits, the question remains as to what might be causing low volunteer turnout.


For one, the number of young adults eligible for recruitment dwindles each year. The three main factors which disqualify applicants from enlisting include previous medical conditions, a history of substance abuse, or a serious criminal record. A Qualified Military Available (QMA) Study conducted in 2020 found that of enlistees aged 17-24, a demographic which makes up 90 percent of military applicants, 77 percent were rejected on those criteria. 


Obesity alone disqualified 11 percent of young adults from enlisting in the U.S. military in 2020, making it the largest single category of disqualification for that year. Obesity is a condition which continues to render a growing population of young adults unfit for service. In a Johns Hopkins study, the rate of obesity in the average young adult aged 18-25 increased dramatically from 5.5 percent in 1980 to 33 percent in 2018, nearly quintupling in a 40 year period. This severely limits the number of recruits the military can even accept, as even if someone did want to enlist, there are increasing chances that they might not meet the Armed Forces’ physicality standards. But an even more troubling trend is the growing disinterest in service as a whole.  


Another aspect to consider is how domestic attitudes towards the U.S. government and armed forces impact the number of enlistees. According to a Gallup poll conducted in 2023, patriotism is at an all time low. The statistics show that 39 percent of Americans identified themselves as “extremely proud” and another 28 percent claimed to be only “very proud” of being an American citizen. These numbers have been in steady decline since the poll’s beginning in 2001, when 55 percent of pollers said they were “extremely proud” to be American. 


Despite the decline, over two-thirds of pollers identified to be either extremely or very proud to be American in the 2023 poll. So overall, national pride still resonates with the general American public, but when viewed from different age demographics, it becomes apparent that those sentiments are disproportionately shared between young adults aged 18-34 and senior adults aged 55 or older. Young adults make up a majority percentage of the “moderately proud,” “only a little proud” and “not at all proud” sections. 


This pattern can also be seen in an annual poll by the Reagan Institute measuring confidence and trust in the U.S. military, which stooped from a 70 percent approval rating in 2017 to only 45 percent approval in 2021, the first time confidence in the armed forces has fallen below 50 percent. Last year’s poll fared only slightly better, with a 48 percent approval rating in the U.S. military. Some of the most popular reasons given for lack of faith in the military included the belief that military leadership had become overly politicized, and a decline in trust in the competence of the commander in chief.


This may also be a result of growing disconnect between  civilians and the military. In 1995, 40 percent of youth had a direct family member who served in the military. In 2017, that number was just shy of 15 percent. The growing cultural alienation of what it means to serve in the military present in today’s youth has led to an overall decreased faith in not only the military, but the nation as a whole.


The third factor threatening the AVF are mainly questions of economic pragmatism. Historically, military recruitment rates and unemployment rates have been inversely related, meaning the more economic opportunity, the more difficult the recruiting environment becomes for the armed forces. In today’s economy, in an environment of low unemployment and a robust job market, it becomes increasingly expensive to compete with higher paying job options, and challenging to market to a largely disinterested youth.  


Within the spendings of the DOD, 24 percent is allocated towards personnel pay and benefits (excluding the Department of Veterans Affairs), in order to keep up with the competitive job market. This category makes up the second largest expense of the DOD’s budget. Moreover, enlistment bonuses have increased to up to $50,000, and retention benefits are worth 10 times that of other crucial personnel in an attempt to persuade enlistees that joining up is a commercially viable option.  


While the AVF may suffice for the nation in times of peace and in small military excursions, the military may be challenged to find the manpower necessary to support larger future campaigns. In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, two medium sized campaigns, the military was hard pressed to provide enough troops, even while deploying reservists, and receiving support from allied forces, the AVF was pushed to its near limit. If faced with a large, long lasting campaign, a volunteer force alone may prove too costly to be an effective strategy.


The bottom line is that a growing number of Americans are physically or mentally unfit to serve, and an even larger number are unwilling to enlist in the military at all. As the international boiling pot continues to heat with the ongoing Ukraine War and the conflict in the Gaza Strip, the likelihood of greater U.S. involvement grows each passing day. If these trends continue, and the number of volunteers decline, will an AVF even remain feasible?