U.S. enters 2024 with its smallest military in over 80 years as active-duty troop numbers sink to less than 1.3 million and all branches except Space Force MISS recruiting goals and Pentagon issue ‘national call of service’ to Gen Z

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Written By Maya Cantina
  • Pentagon officials say recruitment is more difficult than it used to be
  • Military says a ‘national call to service’ is needed
  • Active-duty numbers have not been so low since 1941

The United States is set to enter 2024 with its smallest military in more than eight decades and faces one of its ‘greatest challenges’ as it tries to boost recruiting from Gen Z, Pentagon officials said.

Under the $886 billion annual defense bill passed by Congress this week total active-duty troop numbers will fall to 1,284,500 next year.

That is the lowest total since before the U.S. entered the Second World War in 1941 and officials said there should be a ‘national call to service’.

Recent recruitment targets were missed in the Army, Navy and Air Force, although the Marine Corps and the newly established Space Force reached their goals.

This week Ashish Vazirani, the Pentagon’s acting undersecretary for personnel and readiness, told the House Armed Services Committee that the individual services missed their recruitment goals in 2023 by a combined 41,000 personnel.

The world’s largest aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford

The Army and Navy are facing recruitment challenges

The Army and Navy are facing recruitment challenges

Marines at the South Portico of the White House in Washington, DC, on December 6, 2023

Marines at the South Portico of the White House in Washington, DC, on December 6, 2023

He said: “That number understates the challenge before us as the services lowered end-strength goals in recent years, in part because of the difficult recruiting environment.”

Vazirani said the ‘all-volunteer force faces one of its greatest challenges since (its) inception’ in the 1970s when the draft ceased.

Military recruiters say Generation Z – those born between 1997 and 2012 generally have a ‘low trust in institutions’ and have ‘decreasingly followed traditional life and career paths.’

They have fewer relatives who served in the military leading to less inclination to serve,.

Two decades ago 25 per cent of young people had never thought about joining the military, but that figure is now more than 50 percent.

“This has led to a disconnect between the military and a large share of society,” Vazirani said. 

“Youth of today are not saying no to what the military has to offer, they simply don’t know much about military service.’

U.S. military active-duty numbers have not been so low since the start of the Second World War

U.S. military active-duty numbers have not been so low since the start of the Second World War

U.S. Navy aerobatics team Blue Angels perform during an air show of the annual Fleet Week activities in San Francisco, the United States, Oct. 6, 2023

U.S. Navy aerobatics team Blue Angels perform during an air show of the annual Fleet Week activities in San Francisco, the United States, Oct. 6, 2023

Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) Ray Mabus (left)

Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) Ray Mabus (left)

“While the picture of the current recruiting environment is acutely difficult, the Defense Department and the military services are working together to resolve issues, improve processes, and expand awareness of the many opportunities military service offers.

“We must reach today’s youth where they are with a message that resonates with them and motivates them to act.”

He said there should be a ‘national call to service’ by leaders and polticians.

‘Over the last 50 years the all-volunteer force has proven itself to be the best way to maintain a force capable of defending our nation,’ he said.

‘And with our combined efforts I am confident we will remain as such for the foreseeable future.”

All branches with the exception of the Space Force have seen reductions in active-duty strength since 2020.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin watches the game during the second half of the Army-Navy Game at Gillette Stadium

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin watches the game during the second half of the Army-Navy Game at Gillette Stadium

Active-duty personnel numbers have fallen under Joe Biden

Active-duty personnel numbers have fallen under Joe Biden

Congress passed and $886 billion annual defense spending bill

Congress passed and $886 billion annual defense spending bill

The defense says the Army will have 445,000 active-duty soldiers, down more than 40,000 – 8.4 percent – over the last three years.

Meanwhile, the Navy will have 10,000 fewer sailors, down 3 percent, and the Air Force will have 13,475 fewer airmen, down 4 per cent.

The Marine Corps will have 8,900 fewer active-duty service members than in 2021, down nearly 5 per cent in three years.

Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Military Times: ‘We need a larger force, in every branch. But the reality of recruiting is driving the numbers, not what we actually need.’

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