NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Air Force will miss its annual enlisted recruiting goal across all three components for the first time since 1999, as waning interest in military service and administrative hurdles continue to plague efforts to train the next generation of troops.

The active duty Air Force made it about 90% of the way to its goal of 26,877 enlisted recruits, falling short by nearly 2,700 airmen, Air Force Recruiting Service boss Brig. Gen. Christopher Amrhein told reporters here Wednesday.

The Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard fared worse, limping toward the finish line with 30% shortfalls in each component. The Reserve and Guard had hoped to bring in 9,300 and 11,745 enlisted airmen, respectively.

Meanwhile, the Space Force, which falls under the Department of the Air Force, surpassed its enlisted goal of 472 new guardians.

Those numbers will be finalized after the year’s last batch of new airmen and guardians ship out to basic military training next week. Recruiting pushes typically focus on enlisted troops, who comprise the majority of the armed forces and lack the same college-to-military pipelines that bring in officers more easily.

“We remain committed to recruiting only America’s best to be the next generation of American airmen and [Space Force] guardians,” Amrhein said at the Air and Space Forces Association’s annual Air, Space and Cyber Conference.

How the slowdown may affect the Air Force’s daily operations in combat and at bases around the world remains to be seen. But officials worry it will hinder U.S. efforts to counter Chinese and Russian aggression and influence around the world, and to win future wars.

“The geopolitical landscape was so much different” in 1999, the last time the entire Air Force failed to hit its enlisted recruiting goal, Amrhein said. “Missing this year is kind of at a critical point.”

Still, recruiting officials said they haven’t seen a drop in the quality of incoming airmen.

Amrhein commended a slew of changes to policies around drug use, body composition, tattoos and more for softening the blow without compromising quality, as well as potentially setting the service up for future success. More than 1,000 people have entered the Air Force as a result of those tweaks, he said.

“If we hadn’t deviated much from our former recruiting practices, this recruiting shortfall could have been much worse,” Amrhein said.

With that in mind, the service’s top recruiter said he is cautiously optimistic about surpassing next year’s goal. The final quarter of fiscal 2023 has been “extremely strong,” Amrhein said, and the service has already gotten a head start on the first months of fiscal 2024.

The Air Force hopes to bring in 25,900 new active duty enlisted airmen next fiscal year.

It has already filled all entry-level positions for September and October, and all but 15 jobs in November, Amrhein said. The only exception is 21 positions in the special warfare community, which are the hardest jobs to fill.

The service is about 2,000 trainees short of the 6,500-person waitlist that Amrhein would like to see at the beginning of the fiscal year. Still, thousands more people are waiting to leave for boot camp than there were at the start of fiscal 2023.

The commander said he aims to return the service’s frazzled recruiters to a more manageable workload after pushing them hard to fill the gap by the end of the year.

“We can’t keep people in that battle rhythm forever,” he said.

To help, nearly 100 more Air Force recruiters will hit the field early next year. Around 1,900 Air Force recruiters are spread across the United States, some of whom are the sole face of the force across a large swath of territory.

The service has also grown its cadre of “e-recruiters,” those who handle online leads rather than probing a local area for interest, from five to 21 workers.

And Amrhein said the service is bringing in around 60 more medical staffers to help work through the massive backlog of health questions that can keep applicants waiting for months.

MHS Genesis, the Pentagon’s new repository of digital health records, can peer into an applicant’s entire medical history — helping avoid potential pitfalls, but creating a bureaucratic headache for those tasked with deciding whether years-old prescriptions and diagnoses are cause for future concern.

It now takes three times as long to process medical files than it did 18 months ago, Amrhein said. That eats away precious time that recruiters need to make contacts and sign contracts.

The service is looking at expanding its waivers for applicants who would otherwise be disqualified by certain medical issues, like past eye surgeries, he added.

Air Force Recruiting Service Deputy Commander Brig. Gen. Lisa Craig hopes investments in data-crunching software and other apps that can automate a recruiter’s workload will also help them focus on the areas and tasks that matter most.

Many other challenges remain. Reserve and Guard leaders said they are grappling with congressional limitations on the number of full-time staffers in their components, which have hurt recruiting efforts and end strength.

The portion of qualified Americans who are willing to don a uniform continues to shrink, Amrhein said, making it even more important for troops to familiarize the public with today’s military and break through stereotypes and misperceptions they may hold.

For instance, Amrhein said, someone is more likely to be severely injured on their way to work than they are in the course of military service.

Leaders hope their efforts will break through the noise of everyday life and appeal to young Americans’ desire to make a difference.

“Service to our nation is more than just a Honda Civic,” Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass said during a keynote address Wednesday, referring to her plan to pay for her cherry-red sedan as a young enlisted airman.

“Service to our nation requires a commitment that you do not find in everyday America,” she said. “This is not Google. This is not Chick-fil-A. This is not Home Depot. … This is the United States Air Force.”

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.

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