The Army expects to meet its recruiting goal for the first time in three years, but the Navy continues to struggle to sign up enough new sailors, causing manning shortfalls at the junior enlisted levels, service officials said.

Army Secretary Christine Wormuth told lawmakers on Thursday that February and March had been good months for recruiting.

“We still have six months to go in the fiscal year, so the chief and I don’t want to be overconfident, but right now we are on a very good pace, I think, to meet this recruiting goal, which is 55,000 new contracts plus 5,000 in the Delayed Entry Program,” Wormuth testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. 

Wormuth credited the Army’s recent recruiting success to several innovations, including new recruiting commercials that ran during college basketball’s “March Madness” games; changes to how soldiers are selected to be Army recruiters; an overhaul on how Army recruiters are trained; the Army Future Soldier Preparatory Course which helps recruits get fit for basic training; and selecting the first cohort of warrant officers to be trained as recruiters.

“We are doing some things to leverage better data to give our recruiters stronger leads, and we’re looking at how to break into the college market,” Wormuth said.

The Army’s recruiting goal for this fiscal year is lower than it has been in the past. In Fiscal Year 2022, the Army recruited 45,000 new soldiers, missing its goal of 60,000 recruits by 25% Then last fiscal year, the Army fell 10,000 recruits short of its goal of 65,000, a 15% miss.

In a heated exchange, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) pressed Wormuth on Thursday about why the Army had lowered its recruiting goal.

“It’s true that our goal last year, Sen. Cotton, was 65,000,” Wormuth said. “Gen. [James] McConville and I set that as a stretch goal – that’s how we characterized it. So, this year: Between 55,000 new contracts and 5,000 in the DEP [Delayed Entry Program], it’s 60k.”

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Cotton noted that the Army expected last year that it would need 62,600 recruits in Fiscal Year 2024 and asked Wormuth why that recruiting goal ultimately came down to 55,000.

In a testy exchange, Cotton argued to Wormuth that the service had lowered its recruiting goal to the number of soldiers that it had brought in last fiscal year in order avoid another embarrassing miss.

“You don’t think that is a little suspicious, that you’re simply trying to avoid negative headlines once again for your failure to meet basic recruiting goals – goals that we met almost every single year since 2005?” Cotton asked.

“I’m not focused on headlines, Sen. Cotton,” Wormuth replied. “What I’m doing is doing everything possible to help the Army improve its recruiting and that’s what we’re doing.”

She also said the Army has been able to meet all the combatant commanders’ needs at its current end strength.

Cotton then argued that the Army’s recruiting challenges began when Wormuth became secretary, to which Wormuth replied: “I don’t think that there’s a correlation between me becoming secretary and the recruiting headwinds that the entire department has been facing.”

The Army’s decision to lower its recruiting goal comes as the service is undergoing a massive force structure transformation, under which the total size of the force is expected to shrink. The end strength reduction is being driven by that strategy rather than recruiting shortfalls, said Kate Kuzminski, of the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, D.C.

“The Army announced back in 2022, Secretary Wormuth announced at AUSA [Association of the United States Army] the shift in force structure in order to take on large scale combat operations with a near-peer competitor and shift away from our counterinsurgency mission in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Kuzminski told Task & Purpose on Thursday. “This reduction actually reflects the change in force structure that’s moving from the BCT [brigade combat team] model that we shifted to in Iraq and Afghanistan to the corps- and division-led model that we will need for large scale combat operations.”

As part of this change in focus, the Army will need fewer soldiers in certain Military Occupational Specialties, such as engineers, and more in jobs like counter unmanned aerial systems batteries, Kuzminksi said.

Navy Faces Shortfall

While all the military branches have faced recruiting woes in recent years, the Air Force, Space Force, and Marine Corps are all on track to make their recruiting goals for Fiscal Year 2024, service officials said.

Meanwhile, the Navy projects that it could miss this fiscal year’s recruiting goal of 40,600 active-duty sailors by about 6,700, according to Navy Vice Adm. Rick Cheeseman, Chief of Naval Personnel.

The Navy also fell short last year by 7,000 recruits. That deficit forced it to increase recruiting goals for this fiscal year, according to the Navy.

“While we are forecasting a miss to our goal, we are closing that gap every day and I know our Sailors are doing everything to remove barriers and find talent to serve in our Navy,” Cheeseman posted on X on Wednesday.

The Navy has taken a series of measures to increase the number of people eligible to join up, such as raising the maximum enlistment age so that recruits are now required to finish boot camp before they turn 42, said Navy Capt. Jodie Cornell, a spokeswoman for the Chief of Naval Personnel. The previous age limit had been 39.

Potential recruits who test positive for marijuana use prior to boot camp are also allowed to retest after 61 days instead of 91 days, Cornell told Task & Purpose. The navy is additionally making exceptions for recruits with tattoos on their necks and ears.

Due to the recruiting shortfalls, the Navy does not have enough sailors at the rank of E-4 and below, known as the apprentice level, Cornell said. Units can request and coordinate sailors to be assigned to them on a temporary basis for deployments.

“We can absorb one year of recruiting misses, but multiple years would put additional stress on our force, which could have negative effects on readiness and potentially impact future retention, in an environment where retention is ever important,” Cornell said. “The Navy continues to take a myriad of steps to ensure the Fleet is fully and properly manned, with the right Sailor, in the right place, at the right time, with the right training.”   

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