Attrition: Growing The Force


October 19,2008:  This year, Congress has mandated that all the services increase their personnel strength. The army has to recruit enough new people to increase overall strength by 7,000. The marines go up 5,000, the navy goes up 1,023 and the air force 450. Despite, or perhaps because of, the war, the army and marines appear to have no problem getting the recruits they need. The air force and navy have been shedding personnel for the past few years, but that policy has been reversed. In both cases, the downsizing was partly because new technology automated a lot of jobs. But the two services also needed more money to buy new equipment (F-22s for the air force and new ships for the navy). Congress has given both services a hard time (and less money) for new aircraft and ships, so now the policy is to try and ease the strain on all the troops being sent, again and again, to combat zones. A lot of key people were getting out because of the stress of repeated deployments, and that's one kind of downsizing the services do not want.

Most of the problems are not with recruiting combat troops, but with support personnel. Most of these joined the military for the steady, and sometimes interesting, work. Going to war is not high on their list of priorities. Over 85 percent of the people in uniform are doing support jobs, and those with rare skills, and lots of experience, are very difficult to replace. These are the people the services worry about the most when there are so many overseas deployments. This is less of a problem with combat troops, who see such duty as a rare opportunity to do what they have trained so long for. But support troops do their jobs even in peace time (with a few exceptions, like intelligence and medical specialties). 

There is also the problem of burnout from combat stress. The army and marines have been doing a lot of work to deal with this, although it's become less of a problem now that the level of fighting in Iraq has been sharply reduced. Afghanistan is a much smaller war, and not as intense as Iraq was.

Ever since September 11, 2001, the military has been able to recruit all the new people it needed, without suffering any noticeable quality loss. Recruiting will get easier if the problems with the economy increase. That's always been the case, but it will be easier still because casualties have declined in the past year, by more than half. There's still enough war out there to attract all the combat troops needed, but enough less to make parents not as anxious about their kids joining for support jobs.


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