George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School

The Woes of Military Recruitment: Contributing Factors and Recommendations for Change.

Written by Spring 2023 M-VETS Student Advisor Megan Jones.


The United States military is experiencing arguably the most challenging recruiting environment since the establishment of the all-volunteer force in 1973.

In 2022, all branches of the U.S. military struggled to reach their active-duty recruitment goals, with the Army, missing its goal entirely. The Army missed its recruiting goal by 15,00 active-duty soldiers, roughly 25 percent of its target.[i]

Although the branches met their recruiting goals, they did so just barely, and had to implement some major changes to pull it off. The Army, Marines, Navy, and Air Force all accelerated their delayed entry applicants at the end of the last fiscal year, leaving them with a far smaller pool to draw from this year.[ii] Even with the delay both the Navy and the Air Force had to offer extensive financial bonuses and take extreme on-time measures – such as the Navy increasing the maximum enlistment age from 39 to 41.[iii]

Despite these changes, it appears recruitment struggles will worsen in 2023. Except for the Marines, every branch expects to fall short by the end of the 2023 fiscal year. Recently, the Air Force announced it expects to miss its recruiting goals across all three of its components. According to the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, the Navy expects to fall about 6,000 short of its goals for 2023.[iv] The Army projects the largest shortfall of all.

Why is this happening now? No doubt the end of the war in Afghanistan partially explains the current state of unwillingness to join up. For the first time in almost 20 years, American troops are no longer fighting abroad against insurgency and terrorism.[v] However, looking at the bigger picture, it’s this and the convergence of several other negative factors that creates the perfect storm of recruiting challenges and results in the current recruitment crisis.


#1 Low Unemployment and a Tight Labor Market

First, recruiting challenges always increase when unemployment is low, but the tight labor mark further compounds the difficulty.[vi] When the labor market is tight companies are forced to increase wages and offer compelling incentives to attract quality workers – such as major corporations offering starting pay over $15 an hour with generous health and education benefits.[vii] In a tight labor mark intense competition for workers ensues, often leaving present military branches unable to match the benefits and earnings offered by private sector actors.

#2 Smaller Pool of Qualified Applicants

Second, the pool of qualified young people to join the military without needing an exception to the standards is rapidly dwindling.[viii] The percentage has dropped from 29 percent in 2016 to 23 percent in 2022.[ix] More and more young people are disqualified for obesity, drug use or criminal records.

However, satisfying the background and physical checks does not guarantee eligibility for service. Those who get over the initial physical and background hurdles cab later be disqualified for failing to meet the educational requirements for service. Declining test scores are in large part an effect of the COVID-19 pandemic.[x] School closures and remote learning caused test scores to decline dramatically throughout the country. Remote schooling has lowered scores on the ASVAB, the military’s standardized test for potential recruits, by as much as 9 percent.[xi]

#3 Lack of Propensity to Serve

Current recruitment challenges are also driven by a generational lack of interest and unwillingness to serve. An internal Defense Department survey found that only 9 percent of young American eligible to serve in the military without a waiver had any inclination to do so, the lowest number since 2007.[xii] Part of this trend is a lack of knowledge about the opportunities the military offers. With diminishing numbers of veterans in society and a receding presence of military representatives in schools and the community the younger generation receives less exposure to military service than in years past.[xiii] Another reason for young people’s diminished interest in serving relates to the lowered confidence in the military which is discussed further later in this blog post.

#4 Declining Trust in the Military

Lastly, there is a trending decline of public trust in the military. The decline can be attributed to a few reasons. The biggest reason is attributed to an increasing perception that U.S. military leaders are becoming too involved in politics. A recent survey conducted by the Reagan Foundation found 62% of respondents said they were losing trust and confidence because the military leadership is becoming overly politicized.[xiv] Presidential campaigns now routinely roll out lists of hundreds of retired flag officers and include uniformed military in campaign ads.

Another reason concerns increased publicity from partisans on both sides highlighting the different problems facing the military. Democrats criticize the small but significant problem of extremists in the military.[xv] Whereas Republicans focus on what they call the increasing “wokeness” in the military, accusing the Biden administration of weakening military strength by promoting critical race theory and LGBTQ+ individuality.[xvi]

The public’s confidence in military officials and leaders is lowered further by recent mishandling of military operations such as the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2022.[xvii] Other reasons include skepticism in the performance and competence of presidents as the commander in chief and increased concern over military leadership’s strategy – or its seemingly lack thereof – towards the perceived threat posed by China.[xviii]


#1 Surpassing the Private Sector

If the military seeks to entice quality recruits for civilian and non-civilian jobs, then it must focus on tailoring competitive compensation and benefit programs to the unique needs of the targeted generation. Recently, President Biden signed the 2023 National Defense Act (NDAA) into law, ensuring military members will receive a 4.6 percent pay increase in 2023.[xix] This is the largest military pay raise in 20 years but may not be enough alone to incentivize enlistment. To truly compete with the private sector, recruitment efforts should highlight the opportunities that are unique to service such as career diversity, travel, and education.

#2 Improving Eligibility

With a shrinking pool of volunteers, the military needs to consider adjusting some outdated entry standards. Specifically, those policies relating to cannabis use, academic performance, and physical and mental health.

Although the military has prided itself on being a relatively drug-free force, societal attitudes towards certain recreational drugs like Marijuana has rapidly changed and led 21 states to legalize its use.[xx] Current military entry standards mean 22 percent of the 19–29-year-old population will require a waiver for drug use alone.[xxi] And while waivers do exist, the waiver process carries a lengthy wait time and viability depends on the amount of use, whether it was for medical or recreational purposes, and the logistical needs of the military branch in question. Consequently, a major chunk of otherwise eligible applicants often are disqualified from service for past drug use. Thus, it may be time for the military to reevaluate its blanket prohibition against the use of Marijuana while continuing drug testing during the recruiting process.

Funding for educational and nutrition programs. For example, a pilot program at Fort Jackson called the Future Soldier Preparatory Course has been successful in helping selected Army recruits overcome obstacles to military duty related to academic performance and physical health barriers.[xxii] For recruits barred due body weight issues, implementing a program through a national fitness chain using in-person or virtual coaching could be a more cost-efficient alternative. The services should also reconsider its practice of immediately disqualifying individuals who admit to seeking mental health treatment. With a growing awareness of how common and treatable most mental health issues are, the military does itself a disservice in denying otherwise eligible individuals.[xxiii] Further, its current mental health policies have the negative consequences of forcing a potential recruit to either deny himself or herself help or lie.

#3 Increasing Propensity to Serve

Increasing propensity to serve starts with community outreach and building up the awareness and attraction of service. Military services can expand Americans’ personal connections with those in uniform by making more of an effort to get servicemembers out in the public. In addition, the services should emphasize the unique nature of service that matter to the younger generation such as opportunities for diverse experiences and career paths within the stable employment offered.[xxiv]

Another way to increase young people’s exposure to the value of military service is by increasing the number of Junior Reserve Officer Corps (JROTC) programs in middle and high schools across the country. JROTC programs are disproportionately concentrated in the South and is underrepresented in almost two-thirds of U.S. states.[xxv] Increasing the number and location of JROTC programs provides more students leadership and citizenship instruction and exposes them to the U.S. military without obliging them to join. Other options include exploring new programs designed to incentivize and motivate young people – such as a program to forgive student debt for recruits who successfully complete their initial tour of training.[xxvi]

#4 Building Back Trust Through Apoliticism

Lastly, military officials need to make a concerted effort to stay out of politics. First, the military needs to do more to resist civilian leaders’ efforts to involve it in partisan politics. Beyond intimating disagreement, military leaders must make their opposition clear through decisive acts such as declining to passively stand behind a political leader at rallies or press conferences when he or she is making inflammatory statements about political issues or opponents.[xxvii] Second, military forces should not be deployed in politically charged, domestic situations unless absolutely necessary. Managing protests is a task for law enforcement, not active troops. Finally, all attempts by political leaders to politicize the military must be called out and publicly admonished – by media, other politicians, and military leaders – for compromising the military’s nonpartisan ethic.

[i] David Barno and Nora Bensahel, Addressing the U.S. Military Recruiting Crisis, War on the Rocks (Mar. 10, 2023),

[ii] Id.

[iii] See id.

[iv] Meghann Myers, Army, Navy, and Air Force Predict Recruiting Shortfalls This Year, Military Times (Apr. 19, 2023),

[v] See Barno and Bensahel.

[vi] Heather Mongillo, Tough Military Recruiting Environment is About More than Low Unemployment, Experts Say, USNI News (Dec. 1, 2022),

[vii] Thomas W. Spoehr, The Administration and Congress Must Act Now to Counter the Worsening Military Recruiting Crisis, The Heritage Foundation (Jul. 28, 2022),

[viii] Thomas Novelly, New Study Finds Even More Young Americans Are Unfit to Serve, Military Officers Association of America (Sep. 30, 2022),

[ix] See Thomas W. Spoehr, The Administration and Congress Must Act Now to Counter the Worsening Military Recruiting Crisis, The Heritage Foundation (Jul. 28, 2022),

[x] See Barno and Bensahel.

[xi] See id.

[xii] Courtney Kube and Molly Boigon, Every Branch of the Military is Struggling to Make its 2022 Recruiting Goals, Officials Say, NBC News (Jun. 27, 2022),

[xiii] Hope H. Seck, Facing a ‘Perfect Storm’: The Military Recruiting Crisis, Military Officers Association of America (Dec. 14, 2022),

[xiv] Kori Schake, Don’t Drag the Military into Politics, War on the Rocks (Dec. 13, 2022),

[xv] Id.

[xvi] See id.

[xvii] Thomas W. Spoehr, Drop in Public Trust in Military Officers Portends Danger, The Heritage Foundation (Jan. 25, 2022),

[xviii] The 2022 Reagan National Defense Survey, Reagan Institute Summary, (November 2022),

[xix] Brittany Crocker and Ryan Guina, 2023 Military Pay Charts, The Military Wallet (Jan. 24, 2023),,Advertising%20Disclosure.

[xx] Schyler Peck, Refer Recruits: Why the US Must Change its Stance on Marijuana, Task & Purpose (Sept. 8, 2022),

[xxi] See id.

[xxii] See Barno and Bensahel.

[xxiii] See id.

[xxiv] Center for Strategic International Studies, Bad Idea: Relying on the Same Old Solutions to Meet the Military Recruitment Challenge, CSIS – Commentary (Mar. 10, 2023)

[xxv] See Barno and Bensahel.

[xxvi] See Thomas W. Spoehr, The Administration and Congress Must Act Now to Counter the Worsening Military Recruiting Crisis, The Heritage Foundation (Jul. 28, 2022),

[xxvii] Risa Brooks, What Can Military and Civilians do to Prevent the Military’s Polarization, War on the Rocks (Apr. 27, 2020),