Recent Pentagon reports confirm that the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard cannot meet their recruiting targets. At the same time, they are lowering their physical standards to keep people in the service who are overweight, often to the point of clinical obesity. As one might expect, the two problems are connected.
We’ve had an all-volunteer military for 50 years now, and by most measures, the shift from the widely hated draft has been a success. Ninety-seven percent of recruits across the services hold high school diplomas, compared with just 71 percent who did so in the draft’s last decade. Those better-educated personnel are more likely than their predecessors to master the ever-more-complex technology underlying advanced weapons systems. In the Navy, for example, 90 percent of recruits qualified for advanced training, compared with just 60 percent during the draft era.
It has, however, become ever harder to get young people to enlist. Last year, the Army missed its recruiting goal by 25 percent—some 15,000 soldiers short of its target. This year’s numbers may be worse. Other branches of the armed forces also fell short, as the Navy missed its target by 19 percent, the Air Force by 10 percent, and the Coast Guard by 8 percent. Only the Marine Corps hit its threshold.
To reach their combined recruiting goal, the armed forces need about 170,000 new enlisted recruits annually. The U.S. is home to about 4.1 million 18-year-olds. Attracting just 4 percent of that age cohort annually should not, in theory, be hard. It is hard, however, because much of the recruitable population is unqualified.
Here is a rough breakdown of that cohort’s situation. About 15 percent of U.S. high school students don't graduate or obtain a GED within four years, and those who fail to obtain one of those certificates are ineligible to serve in the armed forces. An estimated 10 percent are ineligible because of criminal records, and an additional 15 percent won’t make the cut because of more-than-casual drug use.
A staggering 31 percent can’t enlist because they are obese. The obesity epidemic isn’t limited to the civilian world. Obesity among those in uniform doubled between 2012 and 2022—from just over 10 percent to more than 21 percent of active-duty service members. A disturbing 46 percent of service members are overweight, though not yet obese. Not only does being overweight adversely affect the force’s ability to do often physically demanding jobs—think infantry soldiers—it is also a major cause of service separation. In 2018, the Veterans Health Administration reported 12,429 administrative separations due to service members being “unqualified for active duty, other,”—defined as “not meet[ing] medical fitness standards, no disability.” In short, these were weight-related discharges. Those discharges reflect just 7 percent of the recruiting target, but the marketing truism holds that it is less costly to keep a customer than to attract a new one.
Most of the branches have softened their fitness standards. The Navy has nixed sit-ups and made the traditional 1.5-mile run optional. Sailors can now choose from a two-kilometer row, a stationary bike ride, time on an elliptical machine, or a 500- or 450-meter swim.
For 40 years, the Army fitness test consisted of two minutes of push-ups, two minutes of sit-ups, and a two-mile run. The new standards are, well, different; the two-mile run remains, but soldiers have more than 21 minutes to complete it, and while “hand release” push-ups are still around, the minimum number required to pass is ten, with combat soldiers having to do only 30. The Air Force decided against replacing its 1.5 mile run with a one-mile walk, but it now lets airmen choose shorter, faster runs if they prefer.
Only the Marine Corps hasn’t reduced its physical standards. Starting in 2023, the Corps did away with crunches for its physical fitness test and replaced them with the plank, a better indicator of core strength less subject to cheating.
Interestingly, of all the services, only the Marines are meeting their recruiting goals. Critics might argue the reason is largely due to mystique—the esprit de corps of the Marines. But the other services either cannot or choose not to muster that intangible element.
While all members of the U.S. armed services technically can be called soldiers, Marines prefer the earned title and distinction of United States Marine. The challenge of earning that distinction draws young men and women to enlist in the Corps. Their joining up is driven by a desire to rise to something greater than themselves. At a time when everyone is “special”—when everyone receives a trophy just for participating—people still want a way to stand out among the crowd and be proud of having achieved something. The Marines continue to offer that.
The Marines have used “The Few. The Proud. The Marines” as their ad slogan since 1977. The other armed forces target soft prospects with soft messages. The Army’s slogan is “Be all you can be.” The Navy’s is incomprehensible: “Forged by the sea.” The Air Force’s is, too: “Aim High—Fly, Fight, Win.” And the Coast Guard is trying to attract recruits with a mixed message of “Protect. Defend. Save.”
Unfortunately, such campaigns are failing the nation. Targeting couch potatoes begets more couch potatoes. Now more than ever, the armed services need vigorous recruits who can meet the nation’s military challenges.
The other service branches need not emulate the Marines. Their missions differ. But they should examine and learn from their own core values and traditions in crafting recruiting messages. Unlike its sister services, the Marine Corps does not offer cash-enlistment bonuses. As new commandant of the Marine Corps General Eric M. Smith said back in February, “Your bonus is that you get to call yourself a Marine.”
A career in the armed services offers more than an opportunity to play with emerging technologies and learn a skill. It is a path toward a higher calling—something the country is in desperate need of these days. Until the other services start asking more from young people instead of less, they can expect continued struggle in meeting their recruitment targets.
Photo By Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images