WASHINGTON - The Army plans to spend $300 million in a blitz of bonuses and advertising over the next eight months to recruit 6,000 additional soldiers it needs to fill out its ranks.
Legislation approved by Congress and signed late last year by former president Barack Obama halted a years-long drawdown of U.S. troops. Rising threats around the world have spurred the increase. The Army’s new goal for the remaining eight months of the fiscal year is 68,500, up from 62,500 recruits. The addition of 6,000 recruits to the goal makes it the largest in-year increase in the history of the all-volunteer force that dates to 1973.
Rapidly growing the Army also has come at a different type of cost in the past: lower standards for recruits produced sub-par soldiers. Many had to be culled after training. That won’t happen this time, said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, who leads Army Recruiting Command.
“There is very clear guidance from the leadership in our conversations that there is no desire to lower standards,” Snow said.
By Oct. 1, the Army must hit its target of 476,000 active duty soldiers, up from the previous goal of 460,000. Increased recruiting along with retention of more soldiers will make up the gap. President Trump has said he wants an even larger force — as many as 60,000 more soldiers.
The Air Force and Navy also are boosting their ranks. The Air Force plans to recruit and retain more airmen to meet its goal of 321,000 service members by Oct. 1, up 4,000 from its current total of 317,000, said Ann Stefanek, an Air Force spokeswoman. The Navy plans to add 2,200 recruits this fiscal year, according to Lt. Cdr. Nate Christensen, a spokesman. The Navy has a target of 323,900 sailors for this year. The Marine Corps will add nearly 800 additional Marines this year to hit its target of 185,000, said Yvonne Carlock, a Marine spokeswoman.
The cost of growth
Adding just 6,000 soldiers by October will cost the Army $200 million for bonuses to new recruits, $100 million in advertising and at least $10 million more to bolster the corps of recruiters and for processing recruits, Snow said. Hefty price tags will accompany future efforts to expand the Army, he said.
“In order to do this, it’s going to require an awful lot of funding,” Snow said.
A military budget analyst questioned if the Army was acting too hastily to increase spending this year without congressional approval, and whether it had properly calibrated its proposed bonus payments.
“The Army may be getting a little ahead of itself here,” said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a non-partisan think tank. “The money has not been appropriated.”
Congress has not yet approved money to fund the troop requirement, and doesn’t appear to be in a rush to do so before late April when the temporary legislation funding the federal government expires, Harrison said. The Army’s interest in preparing for the changes is understandable since it will need to act quickly when the funding becomes available.
Snow outlined his strategy for the first batch of new soldiers in an interview with USA TODAY. It will require beefier bonuses, more advertising and shorter enlistment periods for some.
Bonuses: The Army will double bonuses, offering as much as $40,000 to new recruits in hard-to-fill military specialties, Snow said. That compares with bonuses currently of as much as $20,000, he said.
The Army will need to tailor bonuses to get the most bang for its buck, Harrison said. One-size-fit-all bonuses could waste money.
“Some people would have joined anyway” whether eligible for a bonus or not, he said.
Additionally, as many as 600 recruiters will be eligible for bonuses of $500 per month to stay on the job another 12 months. Recruiters must be screened extensively because they occupy what the Army calls a “position of trust,” putting them in regular contact with young, potentially vulnerable men and women. The process means that it’s difficult to screen and train additional recruiters fast enough to meet demand, Snow said.
The $200 million in bonuses between now and Oct. 1 compares with $284 million handed out in all of 2016. In 2008, when the surge of troops to Iraq was near its height, the Army issued nearly $1 billion in bonuses to recruits.
Advertising: The Army plans to spend $100 million on marketing efforts to reach new recruits. About 75% will be national ads, and 25% in local markets, Snow said. The ads will make reference to the $40,000 bonuses.
Shorter enlistments: The Army will offer a two-year enlistment, down from the usual requirement of three, four or more years. A two-year hitch is expected to appeal to high school seniors who want a short break before college, Snow said. The hope is that many short-termers will stay after being exposed to Army life.
Some of the jobs open to shorter enlistments will likely be those that do not require specialized training like language or computer skills. Infantry, armor and field artillery are some of the jobs open to two-year terms.
The Army has offered two-year enlistments in the past for a limited number of military occupations. The new two-year hitches will be offered more broadly, and will allow soldiers to earn money for college under the GI Bill.
“It allows us really to demonstrate to them in a short period of time that listen, the Army’s a lot more than a job,” Snow said. “It’s a job and an education.”
The quality of recruits is measured by high school graduation, performance on military aptitude tests and limiting the number of those who score poorly on those exams. In 2005, due to difficulties in recruiting, the Army lowered the standards for soldiers it would accept.
The price was too high, Snow said.
“There are standards for a reason,” Snow said. “When you lower them, you have second- and third-order effects. What we’ve found by lowering them we were essentially separating soldiers at an increased rate – those that we had lowered the standards for. Right now, the guidance is very clear, and I actually think it is the right guidance, that is we are not going to lower our standards.”
Snow and one of his top aides, Command Sgt. Maj. Anthony Stoneburg, expressed confidence that the Army would hit its target by Oct. 1 with qualified recruits.
“I feel confident that those here understand the importance of the mission and are committed to the mission,” Stoneburg said.