The Pentagon ended fiscal year 2023 on a sour note for military recruiting, falling tens of thousands of new enlisted troops short of its goal in what it called “the toughest recruitment year for the military services since the inception of the all-volunteer force.”

But efforts to spruce up lackluster recruiting across the armed forces have yielded mixed results so far.

The Air Force has so far managed to reverse its misfortunes, exceeding its goal of 6,249 new active duty airmen by 130 people as of the end of December 2023, according to recently released Pentagon statistics.

That’s due in part to a slew of policy tweaks aimed at growing the pool of eligible prospects, a growing staff focused on battling a backlog of medical paperwork, and a fourth-quarter push to get as large of a head start on fiscal 2024 recruitment as possible.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday at the Air and Space Forces Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in Colorado, Air Force recruiting boss Brig. Gen. Christopher Amrhein said he is “cautiously optimistic” about staying on track for the rest of the year.

“Instead of booking weeks in advance, we’re booking multiple months in advance,” he said of shipping newcomers to boot camp. “We’re not seeing this edge of the cliff.”

America’s two largest armed forces, however, are still struggling to woo prospective troops. The Army brought in almost 6,100 new soldiers between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31, 2023, falling short at 74% of its first-quarter goal, according to DOD. The Navy fared worse at about 5,400 new sailors, or 65% of its own target.

Still, Army recruiters are outpacing their performance from the same time last year, when they had reached just 68% of their active duty goal. The Navy’s intake rate mirrors where it stood at the end of the first quarter of fiscal 2023.

The Space Force and Marine Corps, the Pentagon’s smallest branches and the only two services that reached their active duty accession goals last year, have continued that success in 2024. About 2,200 new Marines had signed up as of the end of December, exceeding the Corps’ first-quarter goal, and the Space Force gained 110 guardians to meet its own objective, DOD statistics show.

The Air Force, Space Force and Marine Corps were the only services to meet or exceed the Pentagon’s quality benchmarks for active duty recruits. For instance, the military wants at least 90% of recruits to have a high school diploma, and at least 60% of recruits must score above average on the Armed Forces Qualification Test.

Five of the military’s six reserve components also missed their recruiting goals for the first three months of fiscal 2024. The Marine Corps Reserve was the lone success: It signed up more than 1,800 new troops, around 700 more than the service had sought.

“The recruiting market remains challenging,” the Pentagon said in its undated press release. “The department continues to work collaboratively with the services to develop new strategies to address recruiting challenges.”

The U.S. military fell more than 41,000 people short of its fiscal 2023 enlisted recruiting goal as it faced a complex web of challenges ranging from dwindling interest in military service among America’s youth and the country’s obesity epidemic, to the introduction of an electronic health records system that has slowed in-processing to a crawl.

The services have addressed the problem through policy changes that have gradually broadened the pool of eligible applicants, expanding the recruiting corps and adding staffers to tackle the backlog of medical paperwork spurred by the new Genesis electronic health records system.

While Genesis aims to paint a more holistic picture of a person’s health history by pulling together medical records dating back to childhood, it can also flag old prescriptions and incidents that wouldn’t hinder a recruit’s ability to do their job. But weeding out the truly problematic cases takes time.

Nearly 9,000 prospective Air Force and Space Force recruits dropped out of consideration because of the time it took to process their medical records, Amrhein said. He added that about 70% of recruits who seek waivers for disqualifying medical conditions — like diabetes, endometriosis or depression — receive them.

“If you do the math ... you’re somewhere in the ballpark of 5,600 folks that we could have likely brought in if we had a little bit more accelerated medical processing,” he said.

A total of about 400 new recruits have qualified for service under less-stringent rules around THC and tattoos, Amrhein said. Around 225 more have qualified for a college loan repayment program implemented last summer; the service estimates 500 people may be eligible for the initiative each year. And almost 200 have enlisted through a new family-and-friends referral program.

More than 2,000 additional airmen have enlisted after the service tweaked its body composition requirements last year to allow recruits with a higher percentage of body fat.

“With each of these policy changes, we have changed the lives of individuals who would have otherwise been prevented from service in the Air Force or Space Force,” Amrhein said, adding, “The caliber of our recruits remains uncompromised.”

He added that the Department of the Air Force has changed its policy on recruiting non-citizens to allow lawful permanent residents with two-year conditional Green Cards or visas to apply for service.

“This change now allows more lawful permanent residents to join our ranks and become eligible for accelerated naturalization by the virtue of their military service,” Amrhein said. “We urge our recruiters to apprise all of the legal permanent residents of this pathway to U.S. citizenship through military enlistment, and to furnish them with the necessary information.”

The Air Force argues that filling its ranks with new recruits and returning retirees, whom it invited back to staff a select list of jobs earlier this month, is crucial to maintaining military readiness as it looks to outpace China’s military ambitions.

But all of its progress is undermined by Congress’s failure to approve a new budget for fiscal 2024, Amrhein said.

“The threats of our near competitors are no longer in the faint distance,” he said. “They’re here now. … We need every resource available to ensure we’re reaching those willing to join.”

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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