Strong Economy Poses Recruitment Challenge for the U.S. Army

In an interview, the Army secretary also discusses budget cuts and new cyberthreats.

U.S. Army Secretary Mark Esper and Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley participate in a news conference at the Pentagon inArlington, Virginia, on July 13. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
U.S. Army Secretary Mark Esper and Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley participate in a news conference at the Pentagon inArlington, Virginia, on July 13. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The healthy state of the U.S. economy is posing a challenge for the U.S. Army, which is struggling to lure young people away from the hot job market and into military service.

For the first time since the height of the Iraq War 13 years ago, the U.S. Army failed to reach it recruitment goals for the year, falling thousands of troops short of the target. The issue is especially troubling at a time when President Donald Trump is promising to expand the military.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the pool of eligible young people is dwindling. Only one in four 17-to-24-year-olds across the nation are qualified to enlist due to factors including poor physical fitness and drug use, and only one in eight actually has the propensity to join the military, the Army says.

Army Secretary Mark Esper, a former defense industry executive, is tackling the problem with what he describes as a targeted business strategy. Esper sat down with Foreign Policy at the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California, on Saturday to discuss his efforts to boost recruitment, cope with budget cuts, and counter new cyberthreats.

Foreign Policy: In September, the Army announced that it failed to meet its recruiting goal of 76,500 new recruits for fiscal year 2018 by 8.5 percent. What are you doing to beef up the Army’s recruitment numbers?

Mark Esper: We missed our numbers last year, but I was proud that we still put quality over quantity. Despite the miss, we actually had the highest retention rates in the last 10 or 11 years, and we recruited more soldiers, 70,000, than we did in that same time period.

So what’s the way forward? We have developed a holistic strategy that includes putting hundreds of more recruiters out into the field, moving our storefronts around in cities where we need to improve, and improving storefronts. We are focused on the 22 major cities that have high-density youth population. We need to get into those cities and really go market the Army where it is.

FP: The U.S. Air Force has a target of 386 operational squadrons; the U.S. Navy has its 355 ships. Does the Army have a similar goal for the force we need?

ME: It may sound cliché, but to us the most important weapon system is the soldier, the American soldier. So If I can recruit top talent, train and educate them well, and then give them the freedom to do their mission unfettered, then that’s a big accomplishment.

I think we’re well along that path. We’ve raised standards on recruiting, and we have now extended basic training for the infantry by two months—it is now the longest and toughest in the world, and we plan on doing that with some other career fields.

I think if we can build very capable soldiers who are physically strong, mentally tough, morally straight, intellectually smart, they will be the ones that lead us to success on the modern battlefield.

FP: How can you better prepare the Army to meet the threats of the modern battlefield, from cyber-disinformation to electronic jamming?

ME: The Russians have shown us their capability in cyber and electronic warfare in Ukraine, and what they are able to do in other parts of Europe. So the Army has really built up its cybercapabilities, from our cyber officer corps to the cyber school. In addition, one of our top priorities is to make sure we have a very capable network, a network that is mobile, reliable, does not reveal our position, and cannot be jammed or intercepted.

From a training standpoint, during exercises we are at times shutting down the network. This is forcing units to operate with none or limited communications, because that’s what the nature of warfare will be like if we have to ever fight a near peer threat like Russia.

FP: How can the Army better work with Silicon Valley to maintain its technological edge?

ME: We stood up Army Futures Command this summer in Austin, Texas, which is another high-tech hub, and we work closely with the Defense Innovation Unit, the Pentagon’s innovation arm in Silicon Valley. We also have established an artificial intelligence hub at Carnegie Mellon University.

We are trying to tap into the talent where it is, not just in Silicon Valley but Austin, Boston, Pittsburgh, and other places where a lot of entrepreneurialism is happening.

FP: President Trump has indicated that defense budgets may be cut by as much as 5 percent this year. Which areas do you prioritize, and how do you make the necessary hard choices?

ME: We always run these drills, because you never know what you will end up with. I can’t tell you what we will keep, but we will preserve the substantial gains in readiness we achieved in [fiscal] 2018 and 2019 based on the boost in funding we got. That’s the No. 1 priority.

No. 2 is on the modernization front. The six modernization priorities—long-range precision fires, the next generation of combat vehicles, future vertical lift platforms, the Army network, air and missile defense, and soldier lethality—will be funded first, and I will keep filling those priorities until I run out of money. It’s the stuff at the bottom that likely won’t get funded.

FP: The Army just activated its second Security Force Assistance Brigade at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on Thursday, as the first unit prepares to come home from Afghanistan. This is the Army’s experiment in using smaller, tailored units to train allied forces to maintain their own security. How is that going?

ME: The model is working well and much better than I expected. I was over there this summer, and I visited with three or four battalions of the first Security Force Assistance Brigade. We’ve got the people mix right in terms of the talent, the equipment, and then the training we gave them fit the mission at hand, which is force assistance.

That said, there are some lessons learned that came out of that—for example, the next group we send over there probably needs more expertise with regard to the employment of mortars rather than cannon artillery, because the Afghans tend to use mortars more. We also probably need to beef up the logistics piece, because logistics is a particular point where the Afghans struggle.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman