The U.S. Army is hemorrhaging people.
The Army’s vice chief of staff, Gen. Joseph M. Martin, confirmed at a House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness hearing on Tuesday that the regular Army is poised to fall nearly 19,000 soldiers short of its staffing target, or end strength, in fiscal 2022.
Looking ahead to fiscal 2023, Martin essentially said the service will be lucky to fall only 18,000 short of its goal.
Shortfalls in recruiting and retaining National Guard and Army Reserve personnel were not specified at the hearing. But similar shortfalls in hitting a target of 525,000 Army reservists would come on top of the missing regular Army soldiers.
“That’s alarming,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, who chairs the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, referring to the end strength shortfalls at Tuesday’s hearing.
On top of those gaps, the Army may soon discharge another 20,000 soldiers, in both the regular and reservist forces, who have refused to get the coronavirus vaccine. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth has yet to announce a decision on those cases.
If all these numbers hold, the Army could fall short of its goals by almost 57,000 over this year and the next, based on people who either leave, are fired or don’t join the service. And that’s not including possible shortfalls in the National Guard and Reserve.
The reasons abound behind the shrinking pool of those willing and able to join the Army and to stay in it. The factors range from a challenging post-pandemic recruiting environment to signs of declining morale among those currently in the service to a population of potential recruits that has shrunk due to factors such as obesity and lack of education.
End strength a weakness?
For fiscal 2022, the regular Army’s end strength objective is set at 485,000. But Martin testified Tuesday that the service expects to land at 466,400 soldiers instead, a shortfall of 18,600.
For fiscal 2023, the end strength target for the regular Army is lower: 473,000. But the service believes now it could fall 18,000 short of that goal.
At the same time, the service may have to let go 20,000 soldiers who have refused to be vaccinated without receiving an exemption — about 9,000 in the regular Army and 11,000 in the National Guard and Army Reserve.
All told, those estimates cover 56,600 people.
Speier said at the hearing that members “just got word” that instead of reaching the proposed end strength of 473,000 regular soldiers in fiscal 2023, the Army expects the figure to be between 445,000 and 452,000.
Martin confirmed the numbers and said the Army is aiming to get to 455,000, but he added: “The question is whether we can achieve it.”
If the Army achieves the 455,000 goal — and that is far from certain — the service would still be 18,000 below its desired total.
Martin said the service faces an “unprecedented challenge” in recruiting due to what he called “a post-COVID environment and labor market” and with many private companies offering potential employees lucrative incentives.
He said the percentage of the overall population of age to serve that is deemed physically and mentally capable of doing so has shrunk from 29 percent to 23 percent (he didn’t say in what time frame).
Within that 23 percent, a smaller number have a propensity to serve, he added.
There is growing evidence that those in the military are less and less inclined to remain there. Last week, the Military Family Advisory Network released a survey of more than 8,000 military family members. The percentage that said they would recommend military life had dropped — from 74.5 percent in 2019 to 62.9 percent in 2021.
The respondents cited strains on family life stemming from factors such as frequent changes of station. The survey also showed that 1 in 6 military families has trouble feeding its members — a problem that pre-dated both the pandemic and the recent surge of inflation but that has not gone away.
Speier cited another issue that may reduce the desire of those currently serving to stay in the military: 19,000 military families, she said, are waiting to receive child care.
“Mr. Chairman, we might need to have a subsequent hearing on this because it’s pretty serious,” Speier said to Rep. John Garamendi, the California Democrat who chairs the Readiness panel. “If we need to make some changes to be able to attract more talent, then we need to look more carefully at that.”
‘Good order and discipline’
As for soldiers refusing to be vaccinated, Martin said that a widely circulating estimate of 60,000 soldiers poised to leave the force is not accurate. He said the number is “less than 20,000 — but it’s still a significant number.”
Martin added that the Army is working hard to convince vaccine skeptics or provide exemptions for medical or religious reasons.
Republicans, in particular, have been up in arms about the prospect of losing so many servicemembers over the issue.
“Every effort should be made to provide for exemptions so we can retain the servicemembers we have,” said Joe Wilson of South Carolina, the full committee’s second most senior Republican.
Michael Waltz of Florida, the top Republican on the Readiness panel and a former Army special forces officer, said he supports “good order and discipline” in the military and understands that “an order’s an order.”
But, he said, leaders need to “constantly evaluate the costs and risks of our orders.” He said vaccines have changed from a potential threat to unit readiness to more of a personal health decision, since the shots do not have the protective capacity they once did, given that they guard more against getting severe symptoms than against contracting COVID-19.