The Army is trying to bring in more recruits, and it’s changing its standards to get them

US Army 2015
US Army soldiers transport equipment using snowshoes and sleds during an Arctic mobility squad competition in the Yukon Training Area, Fort Wainwright, Alaska, December 10, 2015. US Army/1st Lt. James Gallagher
  • The US Army is now responsible for a variety of operations around the world.
  • But the service’s ranks have also shrunk in recent years.
  • The Army is now beefing up its numbers and is looking at ways to bring on more recruits.

The US Army is now facing missions in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as growing demand for personnel in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

The service has dealt with more missions and a higher operational tempo for some time, and it also is looking for ways to increase training and prepare for future conflicts. Ongoing train, advise, and assist operations have also added to the demand for US troops.

As a result, Army leadership is looking to expand the branch’s ranks with personnel who can fill all these roles.

“I believe, and have believed for quite some time, and I have testified to it, that the Army needs to get bigger,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, said earlier this month. “We need to grow in order to meet the demands that the nation expects at the readiness levels it expects.”

While there has been a troop drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan, the overall size of the Army has shrunk as well. “So the ratio of operations to the size of the force did not radically change,” Milley said, adding that the Army is responsible for about half of the Defence Department’s steady state, predicted, and year-to-year demands worldwide.

The Army ended fiscal year 2017 in September with 476,000 active-duty soldiers, adding 16,000 troops through concerted recruitment and retention efforts. That total is down from a wartime high of 570,000, however, and Milley has said the force needs 540,000 to 550,000 active-duty soldiers.

The Army is asking Congress for funding for 17,000 more troops — 10,000 of them active duty — during fiscal year 2018.

To reach that number, Army Recruiting Command will see increased goals, according to Army Times, and offers to some Army Reserve personnel to become active duty will remain. The size of Officer Candidate School classes will also grow.

Army National Guard and Reserve units are also being called on more and more — not only for combat and active-duty unit support, but also for disaster relief.

Lt. Gen. Timothy Kadavy, the director of the Army National Guard, has said the Guard will double its combat center rotations to four this year and increase troop mobilizations from 15,000 last year to 18,000 this coming year.

The Army is also considering adjusting reimbursements for Army Reserve soldiers out of concern that reservists’ military-related expenses are negatively affecting retention, though the Government Accountability Office has said such problems are anecdotal.

‘I think we need to be bigger than we are today’

Continued demand for more soldiers likely means the Army will maintain some flexibility in its recruiting standards, drawing more from the pool of less qualified troops and offering waivers for previously disqualifying things like marijuana use, according to a USA Today report.

Relaxed recruiting standards became common in the mid-2000s, during periods of intense operations and longer deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

US Army War In Iraq
US Army soldiers provide security from a street corner during a foot patrol in Tameem, Ramadi, Iraq, August 16, 2006. Tech. Sgt. Jeremy T. Lock/US Air Force

The number of new troops the Army could draw from Category Four recruits — Army prospects who scored in the lower one-third of standard military exams — was expanded to 4% and sometimes exceeded that. Previously it had been limited to 2%, but the Army maintains the 4% threshold today.

Recruits with lower qualifications have presented dangers both during their service and afterward. One soldier who got waivers for previous criminal behaviour was involved in the rape of an Iraqi girl in 2006.

High demand for recruits during the war on terror allowed gang members and criminals to join. Some recruiters issued “moral waivers” to meet quotas, and some right-wing extremists were able to join as long as their uniforms covered their tattoos.

Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow told USA Today that he thought the Army would be able to reach its new recruitment goal without compromising on quality.

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US soldiers in a village inside Jowlzak Valley, Parwan province, Afghanistan. U.S. Army / Spc. Scott Davis

During fiscal year 2017, the Army recruited almost 69,000 soldiers for active duty, 1.9% of whom belonged to Category Four, according to USA Today, up from .6% in 2016.

The Army has brought in more Category Four recruits during periods where recruiting is typically more difficult in order to fill training requirements, and that pool of prospects has gained appeal as an improving economy gives potential recruits more civilian job opportunities.

Beth Asch, a military-recruiting expert at Rand Corp, told USA Today that the Army could avoid the problems it saw in the mid-2000s as long as it continues to accept a small number of less qualified personnel.

Breach doorway us army troops military training
US soldiers breach a doorway to clear a building during a live-fire exercise at McGregor Range, New Mexico, January 26, 2016. Spc. Von Marie Donato

Being more flexible with recruiting standards and offering waivers for things like drug use — so long as recruits promised not to use drugs again — can help the Army maintain troop levels while saving on bonuses, Asch said.

Ryan McCarthy, the acting Army secretary, has echoed Milley’s calls for more troops.

“If we continue to get asked to support national objectives worldwide, we will require more people,” he told Army Times.

McCarthy added that what size the force ultimately aims for will depend on national-security objectives, which are currently being reviewed.

“I think we need to be bigger than we are today, but how big in the future, in large measure, depends on the national objectives,” he said this month. “We are in the process of a national defence strategy that will come to a conclusion around the holidays.”