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Fit to Serve

illustration by Nicholas Edwards '23, an Illustration major at RISD

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine rages on, Western powers are undoubtedly assessing their own military capabilities. The United States military, despite eclipsing every other nation in defense spending, is facing an unexpected challenge: a shortage of manpower. The United States has experienced a steady decline in manpower since the end of the Cold War. This decline, combined with looming threats posed by rising powers, may prove a challenge to the United States’s military dominance.

According to 2017 Pentagon data, more than 70 percent of Americans aged 17 to 24 are ineligible to serve, as 27 percent are overweight and nearly 32 percent have an additional disqualifying health problem. Of those who apply to join the military, 15,000 fail their physical exams every year, and 30 percent fail the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), the military’s mental aptitude exam. The risks posed by having an unfit population are only compounded by the fact that the US military is an all-volunteer force, meaning that an abundance of alternatives in the job market has further diminished interest among the public in pursuing military careers. The best way to address this challenge is by adopting a two-part solution: The US military should simultaneously modernize its technological capabilities and revamp its recruitment process to increase the size of its talent pool which would enable the country to better compete against its rivals. 

The US military’s manpower shortage has already created real issues: In 2018, the US Army failed to meet its recruiting goals by 8.5 percent, falling short by 6,500 soldiers. The lack of qualified personnel not only impacts conventional operations, but also affects advanced units, like Marine Reconnaissance personnel. With a more demanding selection and training process compared to conventional units, special operations units are especially hard hit by the lack of suitable personnel. Moreover, because the United States has engaged in unconventional warfare more often in the past few decades, the need to deploy top-tier units for limited military operations has increased exponentially. The US military’s struggle to fill these ranks drains their operational capabilities and diminishes the country’s ability to compete with its rivals in unconventional operations.

To address manpower shortage, the US military should first embark on an internal modernization and reorganization campaign. By improving resource allocation and increasing reliance on technology, human resources within each force can be better utilized and developed with more focus. The Marine Corps is setting a good example: In 2020, it began a large-scale force redesign, doing away with its tank, bridging, and law enforcement battalions. Altogether, the newly envisioned Marine Corps will require 12,000 fewer Marines by 2030.

Incorporating more advanced technology across the US military would both reduce demand for manpower and improve military capabilities. The use of drones has been a prime example of how technology can improve operational effectiveness and preserve the lives of military personnel. Drones have served a pivotal role in modern warfare: With no human operators onboard, they substantially reduce the risk of harm to military personnel. Far from diminishing US military capabilities, drones have acted as an effective Force Multiplier, significantly improving the likelihood of mission success. Drones are able to gather intelligence with relatively low risk to friendly personnel in the battlefield which allows military planners to integrate new information into planning and adapt to volatile battlefield conditions. This increases the chances of a successful operation, and reduces risk to US personnel both directly, by not requiring human pilots, and indirectly, by offering improved intelligence.

The Marine Corps’ force redesign illustrates how innovation can bolster the US military at large. Additional steps include increasing research and development of cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence and cybersecurity. Leveraging these technologies, a small number of well-trained individuals could inflict substantial damage to a rival nation’s infrastructure. If drones are any indication of the power of innovation, then new technologies will alleviate the demand for manpower while at the same time improving the US military’s capabilities.

The next step in tackling the issue of unfit personnel in the US military’s recruitment pool includes domestic policy reforms. Obesity is no longer merely a health issue—it has become a national security issue: The obesity epidemic has rendered the nation incapable of producing a sizable force should a military draft be reinstated. Thus, it is imperative to combat obesity and unhealthy lifestyle choices on a national level. Federal campaigns to emphasize health and fitness in early education can help prevent obesity from an early age and work in tandem with existing programs that actively try to reduce obesity among adults. Additionally, providing recruiters with resources like training packages, courses on fitness and nutrition, and aid in using technology such as fitness trackers would help enable those who may desire to join the military but are currently unfit to serve.

Beyond revamping recruitment efforts and better equipping recruiters, the current recruitment structure should be revised. Unifying recruitment efforts across the Army, Navy, Airforce, Marines, and Coast Guard, as well as appointing trained personnel to positions of leadership in recruitment, would increase organizational efficiency. By making recruitment a joint effort, redundant elements could be removed, thereby allowing branches to use fewer resources to target the same population set. Additionally, market information such as aptitude test results or job interests should be shared more transparently between branches, allowing for a more coordinated effort to recruit suitable candidates for each respective branch. Currently, the past five generals who have led the Army Recruiting Command have never served in a recruitment capacity, creating a potential mismatch between skills and position. By implementing substantial structural changes to current recruiting systems, the US military may be able to tackle the threats posed by declining manpower.

As new global powers threaten US hegemony, the United States will increasingly face pressure to assert itself as a leader capable of maintaining the liberal world order. To achieve this goal, the US military must meet the pressing challenge of improving military capabilities with aggressive and nuanced policies. The current manpower shortage must be confronted with a two-front solution that addresses both the need to increase the number of eligible and qualified recruits, and the possibility of a future in which the United States relies less on manpower. Only by doing so can the United States continue its hegemony and guarantee the security of the current world order, and by extension, the relative peace it has afforded the world at large.