Last year, the Army failed to hit its recruiting goal for the first time in decades. But the service's Special Forces has been struggling to bring in new talent since before the pandemic, recruiting data shows.
As Green Beret recruiting has faltered for years, the Army has also been chipping away at the size of its elite units.
The service has come up hundreds of Special Forces soldiers short of its goals each year since at least 2018, with one exception, based on the internal data reviewed by Military.com. Meanwhile, quality recruits are becoming increasingly scarce with fewer Green Beret applicants passing the service's grueling selection course each year.
"We have to do a better job at telling our story," Lt. Gen. Jon Braga, head of U.S. Army Special Operations Command, told Military.com in a statement.
Between 2018 and 2020, the service recruited an average of 1,011 new Special Forces soldiers, missing its goal of 1,540 each year. That data is strictly contract signups, not the total number of soldiers who make it all the way through Green Beret training. Those who don't make it sometimes get second chances or are put into the regular Army infantry.
In 2021, the Army scaled back its recruiting goals, seeking to bring in 1,250 new Green Berets. It exceeded its goals that year with 1,358 new Special Forces contracts, but dropped again with 779 recruits in 2022.
So far this year, 527 new applicants have signed on to try for the Green Berets.
"I feel like I can go into any high school in America and say -- whether you're in the robotics club, the STEM club, or you're a middle linebacker on the football team, if you love foreign language and culture, you build sets for the drama club, or you just want to make a difference in the world -- we've got a place for you," Braga said. "You're going to be welcomed, you'll be part of a diverse team, and you're going to make a difference."
Special Forces, or Green Berets, are the military's go-to force for unconventional and guerrilla warfare. They serve as force-multipliers on the battlefield, with their main mission being training ragtag militias.
The elite units set the stage for the invasion of Afghanistan, building up militia allies to topple the Taliban government in 2001. It was the first time Americans used horses in a combat environment since World War II.
The recruiting data is the first clear indication that the service may be slowly reducing the footprint of special operations. Military.com reported in May that the size of the Army's special operations could shrink by about 10% this decade, but those cuts were generally attributed to support personnel, not Green Berets.
A smaller Special Forces footprint in the Army would come after an end to two decades of the Global War on Terror. The diffuse global conflict, which relied on swift nighttime raids and building relationships with indigenous forces, put the Green Berets and other commando units front and center.
But that era may now be coming to an end.
"In GWOT, there was a real preference for special operations," Katherine Kuzminski, a military policy expert at Center for a New American Security, told Militarry.com. "This is part of a broader healthy realignment on the Army's part."
The service is spending this decade shifting its training and doctrine toward conventional warfare, a move that is expected to invest more into large formations of conventional troops, cyber warfare and long-range missiles.
Meanwhile, a Military.com review of the Army online found a minimal presence of Special Forces, outside of relatively active Instagram accounts for units including 3rd, 5th and 19th Special Forces Groups.
The service's new "Be All You Can Be" recruiting campaign has no meaningful reference to its elite units. There is one high-profile ad for the Green Berets the Army has shared on some of its official websites and social media, though the video is housed on an unverified YouTube channel that isn't owned by the service.
Meanwhile, the 75th Ranger Regiment, the Army's special operations infantry unit, has an active YouTube presence with high-quality videos posted regularly, most of which get a lot of views.
Recent Army recruiting ads have placed less of an emphasis on combat arms, as an internal Defense Department survey found that Gen Z thinks service automatically puts their life at risk, while those combat jobs make up only a fraction of roles in the military. Conversely, peacetime could dampen recruiting prospects among would-be applicants interested in high-octane jobs such as Special Forces.
"Some people join because they are itching for a fight, and there isn't a fight," Kuzminski said. "Some who have a propensity toward that might be more inclined toward special operations. The problem is we need to have them, even in peace."
The quality of Green Beret applicants is also on the decline. Applicants go through a series of schools and qualifications to earn their long tab, a process that can take up to two years.
Amid a low rate of soldiers making it through the initial selection process and overall recruiting woes, the Army considered shortening the Special Forces training pipeline by about half to get new operators in to fill units faster, according to an internal 2018 briefing obtained by Military.com. It is unclear whether the service is moving forward with that idea.
Before candidates can even begin training, they go through a three-week course known as Special Forces Assessment and Selection, which is effectively an interview process for Green Berets to select who will have a chance at joining their ranks.
It's a grueling gantlet of physical tasks, painful ruck marches and complicated teamwork exercises, all while under severe sleep deprivation. Even if a candidate makes it, they can still not be selected to continue into training. Roughly 13% get another chance, according to the internal briefing reviewed by Military.com. Others are kicked back to the regular Army.
That pass rate was between 60% and 80% in the early 2010s, but has plummeted to around 45% and 60% in recent years. It's unclear what led to that lower pass rate, though failing land navigation accounts for roughly 70% of all failures.
Only about 5% of candidates are medically dropped due to injuries, though it's relatively common for candidates at special operations selection courses, such as the Navy SEAL Basic Underwater Demolition course, or BUD/S, to hide or downplay injuries.
Soldiers with previous experience in the National Guard have the highest Special Forces selection rate at about 60%, compared to their active-duty counterparts with a 53% selection rate. Some of that could be attributed to Guardsmen seeking to transfer to Special Forces having opportunities to train with those units before going to the selection course.
Green Berets, through the 19th and 20th Special Forces Groups, are among the only special operations elements that troops can do part time in the National Guard. However, those commitments are significantly greater than the typical rank-and-file Guardsman responsibilities.
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon