Western armed forces facing a recruitment crisis

Western armed forces facing a recruitment crisis

A photo dated March 19 shows a flight deck crew member aboard the USS 'Dwight D Eisenhower' aircraft carrier during operations in the southern Red Sea. Bloomberg
A photo dated March 19 shows a flight deck crew member aboard the USS 'Dwight D Eisenhower' aircraft carrier during operations in the southern Red Sea. Bloomberg

Every morning on the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D Eisenhower, an unsuspecting crew member is called to the bridge, presented with a cookie and asked to sit in the captain's chair.

Providing they are willing, their photograph is then shared with the world on social media while Captain Chris "Chowdah" Hill praises his young "warriors", many barely out of their teens and performing unglamorous, time-consuming tasks fixing machinery and planes.

"If I'm going to create morale, I need to make sure that everyone feels loved and valued," Capt Hill told the US forces newspaper Stars and Stripes. "I need to make sure everybody has a mission of purpose."

On Nov 4, less than a month after the Hamas assault on Israel from Gaza, the Eisenhower passed south through Egypt's Suez Canal to take up position in the Red Sea. The carrier, her task force and its 7,000 US service personnel have been there ever since, since January conducting frequent air strikes in Yemen as well as supporting operations to protect civilian shipping.

Maintaining morale is becoming increasingly important. Like many other militaries around the world, the US Navy and Army in particular are in the middle of a battle for sufficient personnel.

In Ukraine's push-back against Russia's invasion, recruiting enough troops is now proving as important as sourcing artillery shells and drones. For the Pentagon, not having enough people could leave it unable to resource current operations, let alone scale up for future crises such as a face-off with the Kremlin, Beijing, Iran or North Korea.

The US Navy admitted in February it had only managed to recruit about 65% of the sailors it needed in the last months of 2023, while the US Army met only 74% of its target. In total, the US military fell more than 41,000 short of its enlistment goal in 2023, citing low civilian unemployment, declining interest in military careers, a national obesity "epidemic" and technical problems slowing access to health records.

According to the Pentagon, roughly one in four people in the United States aged between 17 and 24 met the physical and educational requirements for military service, prompting the US Navy to become the first service to announce it would take recruits without a high school diploma.

Some parts of the US military are having even harder time than others.

According to official figures, the US Air and Space Forces -- which both prioritise highly skilled applicants and are inevitably often less physically gruelling -- met their 2023 recruitment targets, despite suggestions earlier in the year that the Air Force might miss.

More broadly, however, the military recruitment crisis appears global, at least across the Western world. Over the last year, military officials in Australia, Japan, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Britain have all publicly expressed concern over a lack of volunteers.

In Europe, the mounting human cost of fighting in Ukraine has left multiple nations in mainland Europe openly considering conscription, at least in times of crisis. Other mitigation strategies include recruiting foreigners -- suggested in both Germany and Australia -- as well as a greater reliance on drones and unmanned systems.

Australia's most recent defence review included the purchase of several ships capable of robot operations described as "optionally crewed" -- the first nation to describe warships that way, but unlikely to be the last.

For the US Army and Navy, recruitment troubles have prompted a heightened focus on keeping the personnel that they already have, particularly those with skills such as nuclear engineering that are hard to replace.

Those efforts have been rather more successful -- at least in the United States. Last year, the US Army met its 2023 full year goal for retaining 56,000 personnel whose contracts were up for renewal by the end of June. The US Navy also exceeded its targets for personnel renewing contracts.

European militaries, in contrast, appear to be seeing an epidemic of soldiers, sailors and aviators quitting earlier than expected. In France, officials say the average length of a military career is now a year shorter than it once was. In Britain, official figures show only five people joining the army for every eight that leave.

As Nato pours troops into eastern and central Europe and the United States and regional allies prepare for a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan as soon as 2027, strains may well get worse. An investigation by the US newspaper the Army Times discovered US Army tank units -- which worked a particularly punishing schedule supporting deployments to Europe and the Middle East -- had a suicide rate of twice the army average, seen in part a consequence of overwork.

While the back-to-back deployments of the Iraqi and Afghan wars brought their own challenges, the less bloody but still high-tempo challenges of the 2020s can be at least as punishing on morale.

Problems often come in waves -- the carrier USS George Washington suffered 11 suicides while docked in Norfolk Virginia for maintenance for over a year, linked in part to frustrations over poor accommodation and conditions.

If US fears about rising tensions with China, Russia and North Korea are right, the pressure on personnel may only increase. Unmanned systems and better leadership may fill some of the gap, but one of the challenges for the United States and its allies is to avoid a situation where their military personnel are already exhausted before any real fight actually starts. Reuters

Peter Apps is a Reuters columnist writing on defence and security issues.

Peter Apps

Reuters global affairs columnist

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist.

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