The Army is in a recruiting slump, struggling to pitch service to a skeptical Gen Z or even to find enough qualified candidates to join. But just how deep in the hole are the Army's recruiting numbers? It won't say.
The service has declined to provide the basic recruiting data, despite Army Secretary Christine Wormuth repeatedly telling Congress it is doing better on recruiting this year compared to last year, when it came up 15,000 soldiers short of its goal of bringing in 60,000 new troops.
On April 5, Military.com first requested the data on how many new soldiers enlisted for each quarter for the current and previous fiscal years. But the Army has balked for weeks, and service officials also declined to give the publication a reason it was withholding the data.
"We have seen an increase across the force in each quarter," Madison Bonzo, an Army spokesperson, told Military.com in a statement. "We expect to finish the third quarter strong and continue this momentum as we move into the fourth quarter."
Lawmakers broadly see the Army's recruiting slump as one of the top issues for the Pentagon.
The Army is by far the largest branch and is key to bolstering NATO's front lines in Europe and training Ukrainians on American weapons systems. The Army is also in the midst of shifting its doctrine and focus toward conventional warfare in the Pacific, which is going to require large formations of soldiers and a shift from the Global War on Terror, where most combat was relatively small skirmishes against poorly equipped insurgents.
"We are seeing improvements in our recruiting situation. We are better off this year than before the previous year," Wormuth told lawmakers at a hearing May 2.
The service has made changes that could boost the number of new recruits, including a pre-basic training course for applicants who fall outside the service's body fat or academic standards. If those applicants can comply within 90 days, they can move on to basic training.
Those courses have the capacity to graduate about 12,000 recruits per year into basic training, a massive batch of enlistees the Army wouldn't have otherwise been able to bring in.
But even with a boost from new initiatives, Wormuth and other senior officials have complicated the recruiting picture by warning publicly that the service will still not meet its goals.
"At the same time, the chief and I set a very ambitious goal of 65,000 recruits this year," Wormuth said during testimony to the Senate Appropriations Committee's defense panel. "We are not going to make that goal. We are doing everything we can to get as close to it as possible."
The Army's struggle to bring in new recruits is multifaceted but partly due to a low unemployment rate and a civilian job market in which employees are better positioned to negotiate salaries, time off and other incentives.
A Department of Defense study earlier this year also found that many in Gen Z are less inclined to want to leave their hometown and believe the Army is almost exclusively combat arms jobs in which their lives would be at risk -- while those dangerous jobs make up a minority of roles in the force.
At the core of the issue is a shrinking pool of eligible applicants.
Senior officials estimate only about 23% of 17- to 24-year-olds are eligible for service, in part because of an obesity crisis in the U.S. and dwindling academic performance, with fewer and fewer applicants able to meet the Army's standards on the SAT-style entrance exam.
Gen. James McConville, the Army's top officer, told Military.com last year that the pass rate for that exam has dropped by about one-third in recent years. Simultaneously, SAT and ACT scores have also dropped.
The service has also leaned on its existing soldiers to pitch service to their community, awarding them medals for successful referrals though that is unlikely to have even marginal impacts on the Army's bottom line. Cadets are also incentivized to bring in new troops and are awarded guaranteed slots at much sought-after schools such as airborne, air assault and mountain warfare, among other incentives that can be early career boosts.
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon