Recruits Swamp Navy and Air Force; Army and Marines Hurting

Recruits swamp Navy, Air Force (USA Today, p. 1)

While the Army and the Marine Corps are straining to meet their yearly recruiting goals, the Air Force and the Navy are having banner years and may wind up turning away thousands of potential recruits. The Air Force says it is so overstocked that it has a backlog of about 9,000 enlistees who have not yet been called to duty. It has slashed its 2005 recruiting target from 35,000 to 24,000. Together, the Air Force and Navy say they are planning to reduce the total number of troops by more than 27,000 in 2005. In contrast, the Army and the Marine Corps, which are providing the bulk of ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, are adding more than 12,000 troops this year.

One of the primary reasons the Air Force and the Navy are so flush with troops and willing recruits, personnel experts say, is that those branches have suffered relatively few casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I think the most obvious explanation is that you’re less likely to be killed or wounded in the Navy or Air Force,†says Richard Kohn, a professor at the University of North Carolina who studies military culture. Of the more than 1,350 U.S. deaths during the Iraq war, 41 have come from the Air Force and the Navy, according to a Defense Department breakdown of war deaths. The vast majority of those killed are active Army and Marine Corps troops and reservists from those two branches.

The four military branches say they have no way to directly measure the effect that war injuries and deaths are having on each service’s recruiting. “There is no way to quantify it, no block on an application that you can check for that,†says Maj. Dave Griesmer, a Marine Corps spokesman. Both the Marines and the Army say they expect to meet their recruiting goals this year but acknowledge it will be difficult.

There are other reasons for the bounty of personnel in the Air Force and the Navy and the strains facing the Army and Marine Corps:

̢ۢ The Navy and the Air Force traditionally have more high-tech jobs that give enlistees valuable skills when they leave for civilian work. Even in peacetime, the Navy and the Air Force typically have an easier time recruiting than the Army and the Marines.

̢ۢ Overall retention rates in the military have risen sharply since 9/11 and are well above historic levels in the Air Force and the Navy.

• The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been labor intensive for the Army and the Marines, the nation’s primary ground combat forces. In contrast, the Navy and the Air Force have largely played a supporting role since major combat in Iraq ended in May 2003.

None of this is surprising. The Navy and Air Force have historically had an easier time recruiting during wartime for precisely these reasons. That’s not to say that those are the only reasons to put on a blue uniform–a call to a life at sea, a desire for a more technical job, family history, community culture, and other factors may be involved. Still, if one is joining to go “where the action is,” then the Marines and Army, especially the combat arms branches of those Services, are the place to be. If one wants money for college, job training, and relative comfort, the Navy and Air Force are more attractive.

As a related story notes, technology and Service culture come into play, too:

Air Force, Navy Look To Shed Troops (USA Today, p. 2)

The Air Force and Navy have more people than they need and are trying to get thousands to leave without resorting to layoffs. Over the next year, the Air Force says it will shrink by 20,000, downsizing from 379,000 troops to 359,000. The Navy will trim more than 7,300 and fall from about 373,200 sailors to 365,900. In contrast, the Army will grow from 493,000 to 502,400 and the Marines from 175,000 to 178,000. Their growth reflects the demands of open-ended wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that are about to trigger second tours of duty for tens of thousands of ground troops.

The high-tech Air Force and Navy, which have few rifle-toting troops, believe they can absorb personnel cuts that might threaten to debilitate the Army or Marines. Part of the reason the two services can draw down: High tech weapons are changing warfare. A single Air Force B-1 or B-2 Stealth bomber flying with satellite-guided bombs can now destroy more targets than an entire squadron of Air Force or Navy planes dropping unguided bombs in the 1991 Gulf War.

In future years, the Navy and Air Force will sail fewer ships and fly fewer aircraft because of improvements in weapons. Whereas the 1980s-era Pentagon envisioned building up to a 600-ship fleet from 450 in 1982, the Navy now has a total of 289 ships and submarines. “The outcome for us, we are using the skills and talents of our people the best we can, and we are harnessing technology,†says Cmdr. Ron Hill, a spokesman for the chief of naval personnel. “We’re getting rid of outdated systems and getting rid of work that doesn’t need to be done by uniformed people.†Personnel is among the biggest expenses for the military. The cost of 10,000 additional troops is $1 billion or more a year when recruiting, training, salaries and benefits are included.

In the civilian world, a corporation with personnel shortages in one part of the company could shift workers around. In the all-volunteer military, it doesn’t work that way. Each service has its own culture and is responsible for recruiting and retaining its workforce. There is little crossover among branches, and the Pentagon cannot simply order troops from one service to another.


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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    The Army has been running its “Blue to Green” program looking for Airmen leaving the Air Force to cross over into the Army. I belive this allows them to keep their equivalent rank and longevity and into similar career fields. I’m not sure what kind of numbers they’ve been getting from this program.

    On a side note, maybe all these kids signing up for the Air Force and Navy are just trying to beat out the draft 🙂 I know a few people who did that during Vietnam.