Attrition: No Risk, No Infantry

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August 19, 2019: In 2018, for the first time since 2005 the U.S. Army failed to achieve its recruiting goal (76,500 new recruits). The fiscal year ends on September 30 and the army does not want another bad year. So it is offering recruiting bonuses of up to $40,000 for qualified infantry recruits who will serve six years. The army is offering lesser amounts and other inducements to get existing non-infantry troops to switch to infantry.

Times have changed and the shortfalls are different now than back in 2005, as are the economic and political conditions. In 2005 unemployment rates were higher (but headed lower) and there was a lot of combat, with lots of casualties. There were other differences back in 2005 the problem was getting recruits for non-combat jobs, not the infantry. The 2018 shortfall was mainly for infantry. In 2018 there is little combat and infantry are more likely to die in an off-duty auto accident than in combat. Back in 2006-7, the recruiting shortfall was quickly turned around so that for that year's goal (80,000 new recruits) was met. This was also the goal for 2008 as well as the army expanded to meet the demands of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Back then the army was growing from 482,000 to 547,000. In 2018 the expansion is from 476,000 to 500,000 by 2024. Other differences are that in 2018-19 the army is a lot more selective, both in terms of new recruits and who is allowed to reenlist. Existing troops who fail to meet higher physical and deployability (ability to go overseas) standards are not allowed to stay in and have to be replaced with better qualified new recruits. Many of these are for non-combat jobs, which comprise nearly 90 percent of all soldiers. Because there is no longer an active war, a lot fewer qualified young men are joining to be in the infantry.

Back in 2005-7 the army recruiting effort was unprecedented for wartime. Never in American history has a war this long been sustained with only volunteers. Party politics and media concentration on that has prevented the story behind this from getting out much. There are several reasons for the army recruiting success since 2001. The principal ones are;

Patriotism. Many of the troops that joined up believed that the nation was at war and must be defended. Those who got to Iraq or Afghanistan saw for themselves why the wars are being fought. The best recruiting aid turned out to be recently recruited, or discharged, soldiers. That's a story most media didn't want to cover because it contradicts so much else that was reported as news. But for army recruiters, this patriotism and word of mouth were key ingredients in recruiting success. With no war on it’s more difficult to get new recruits for combat jobs which tend to be strenuous and boring, although safer, in peacetime. This is a less attractive proposition for a lot of potential infantry recruits. With the record low unemployment rates today there are plenty of other good job opportunities for those who meet the mental and physical standards to be infantry.

Low casualties. Although the media gets obsessed with U.S. casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, the reporting tends to ignore the fact that those casualties are the lowest in history, any army's history. Put simply, troops were half as likely to be killed or wounded in Iraq as they would have been in Vietnam or World War II. A combination of better equipment, training and leadership made it happen. These are trends that have been going on for decades. The lower casualties make a big difference, especially for troops who have gone back to Iraq or Afghanistan several times. Recruiters know that there's enough real danger there to attract young men looking for some adventure, but not so much that most potential recruits would be put off by it. "Extreme" (very dangerous) sports have become much more popular since the 1980s, and for many young men, modern combat is in that league plus you get to kill people. Most reporters have forgotten how teenage males think. The recruiters haven't, and the U.S. Marine Corps consistently exceeds its recruiting goals by emphasizing the danger and challenges. The end result is that it was more difficult to recruit for support jobs, than for the combat ones.

Bonuses. Taking a cue from the corporate world, the army increased its use of cash bonuses for people with key skills. Electronics and intelligence specialists were regularly among the best rewarded. Veteran infantry leaders got lots of the bonus money because recruiters for corporate security firms were making outrageous offers. While these bonuses were rarely used to attract new infantry recruits the bonuses are still needed for recruits qualified to handle highly technical jobs, like those involving maintenance of electronic systems.

Higher Re-enlistment Rates. As important as new recruits are, getting experienced soldiers to stay in is equally important. And in this department, the army has been very successful. Veteran troops in combat zones tend to re-enlist at a higher rate than those in safer areas. Although there's sometimes a tax angle to this, many veterans admit they re-enlist because there is a job to be done, and they are the only ones to do it. With the wars over more soldiers seek to take advantage of the GI Bill education benefits and get a less stressful civilian job.

Better screening. For over half a century, the army has been working on better screening and training techniques for handling "substandard" recruits. This includes those who have too much fat, not enough education, or a troubled past. Although the army has only been accepting recruits who are considerably healthier, smarter and better educated than the average for their age since the 1980s, efforts to turn less well-qualified men and women into effective soldiers continued. Now those techniques are being used, although you'd never know it from the performance of the troops. Yet in the long term lowering standards to meet recruiting goals did not work. The army screening is better at finding those among the seemingly less qualified who will turn out to be stable and productive over the long term. The problem is that this is mainly for non-combat jobs. The army has, since the 1990s, become known as a place for qualified people to learn useful civilian job skills while getting paid for it. Soldiers can get out after four years, get more subsidized education via the GI Bill and be eligible for a lot of good civilian jobs. That’s one reason the army still offers reenlistment bonuses to technically adept troops that are very expensive to train.

Ongoing Reforms. The army has, since the 1980s, been rolling out more and more reforms. Not just obvious things, like new weapons and uniforms, but new leadership and organizational methods. The result is better performance and morale. Troops are more likely to reenlist if they believe they are serving with the best, and being well treated. The army has had some problems with officer quality and those problems are still not solved. But when it comes to the troops, the army is in better shape than it has ever been.

On the downside, there are some new problems, mainly with the increasing number of unqualified potential recruits. A growing problem since 2001 has been the declining number of young Americans physically qualified for military service. More young Americans are overweight and out-of-shape. There are also more with a record of drug abuse and bad behavior in general. The army has found from long experience that these recruits are a lot more expensive to train, a lot more of them drop out or simply fail, while those that do get through training have more disciplinary problems during their term of service.

 


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