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Government Accountability Office Says Low Military Recruitment Levels Are 'National Security Threat'

Substance abuse, education, and poor physical fitness are among the factors limiting the pool for qualified candidates

As the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) struggles to adequately recruit new military servicemen, a federal watchdog is warning that understaffing will present a threat to national security.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has published a report outlining challenges the military has with both recruiting and retention of soldiers, stating that the U.S. military is “facing its most challenging recruitment environment in 50 years.”

According to the National Security Snapshot report, only about a quarter of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are able to meet the requirements for military service, including education and fitness standards.

A 2022 internal DoD survey obtained by NBC News showed that only nine percent of young Americans eligible to serve in the military actually wanted to. More than half of the respondents (57 percent) believe they would have emotional or psychological problems after serving.

“DOD’s ability to recruit and retain qualified enlisted personnel and officers is critical to maintaining unit readiness and morale, ensuring sufficient levels of experienced leaders, and avoiding unnecessary costs,” the report states.

Officials also say in the GAO report that the Pentagon is facing “a number of challenges in retaining active-duty personnel.”

Among the factors identified by the GAO as impacting recruitment are age, aptitude, criminal history, declining interest in the military, education level, substance abuse, and poor physical fitness.

The factors GAO identified that are impacting personnel retention are opportunities in the private sector, child care, job dissatisfaction, organizational culture, and sexual harassment.

Personnel losses carry a high cost, according to the report. For example, officials say, “the cost to train some cyber professionals is estimated at $220,000 to $500,000 over a period of 1 to 3 years.”

Three main problems were identified by the GAO regarding recruitment and retention efforts:

  • The DoD has not collected or tracked sufficient data to support decisions related to recruitment and retention efforts
  • The DoD does not have sufficient plans, goals, and strategies to guide its recruitment and retention efforts
  • The DoD is not positioned to fully monitor the effectiveness of its recruitment and retention efforts

Some of the proposed measures to address these problems include:

  • Incorporating data on civilian pay for comparable jobs to help guide retention bonus determinations
  • Clearly defining active-duty service obligations
  • Updating tattoo policies for all branches and clarifying waiver policies
  • Routinely assess the impact of non-monetary incentives, such as assignment flexibility and educational opportunities
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