Threats are growing, and soldiers are getting fewer

Western armed forces, facing a recruitment crisis, are looking for strategies to fill the ranks and meet the many challenges

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A bomber on the deck of the carrier "USS Dwight D. Eisenhower" in the Red Sea, Photo: Reuters
A bomber on the deck of the carrier "USS Dwight D. Eisenhower" in the Red Sea, Photo: Reuters
Disclaimer: The translations are mostly done through AI translator and might not be 100% accurate.

Every morning on the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, one of the crew members is called to come to the command bridge, they give him a cake and ask him to sit in the captain's seat.

Provided he agrees, his photos are then shared on social media as Captain Chris Chaudah Hill praises his young "warriors", some of whom are just out of their teens and doing less glamorous jobs repairing machines and planes.

Aircraft carrier Dwight Eisenhower
photo: REUTERS

"If I want to raise morale, I need to make sure that everyone feels loved and appreciated," Hill told US military magazine Stars and Stripes. "I need to make sure everyone has a mission and a purpose."

On November 7000, less than a month after Hamas attacked Israel from Gaza, the USS Eisenhower passed through Egypt's Suez Canal to take up position in the Red Sea. The carrier, a battle group and XNUMX US military personnel have been there ever since, and since January have been conducting frequent airstrikes on Yemen as well as support operations to protect civilian shipping.

Maintaining morale is increasingly important. Like many militaries around the world, the U.S. Navy and Army are in the midst of an effort to attract enough men.

In Ukraine's efforts to deter a Russian invasion, recruiting enough troops has now turned out to be as important as acquiring artillery and drones. For the Pentagon, understaffing could mean it won't be able to conduct current operations, let alone ramp up resources for future crises like dealing with the Kremlin, Beijing, Iran or North Korea.

The US Navy admitted in February that in the last months of 2023, it managed to recruit only about 65 percent of the total number of soldiers it needed, while the ground forces met only 74 percent of the target when it comes to recruitment. In total, the U.S. military was 2023 short of meeting its recruitment goals in 41.000, citing low civilian unemployment, declining interest in military careers, a national "obesity" epidemic and technical problems that slow access to medical records.

According to the Pentagon, one in four people in the US between the ages of 17 and 24 meet the physical and educational requirements for military service, making the Navy the first branch of the military to announce it will accept recruits without a high school diploma.

According to official figures, the US Air Force and Space Forces - which prioritize highly qualified applicants and are often less physically demanding - have met their recruitment targets for 2023, despite earlier suggestions that this would not be the case in the Air Force.

However, on a broader level, it seems that the crisis of military recruitment is global, and not only related to the Western world. Over the past year, military officials in Australia, Japan, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Britain have publicly expressed concern about the dwindling number of volunteers.

Members of NATO forces in Estonia
Members of NATO forces in Estoniaphoto: Reuters

In Europe, due to the increasing number of victims of the conflict in Ukraine, several countries are openly considering the introduction of mandatory military service, even in times of crisis. Among other strategies are the recruitment of foreigners - which has also been proposed in Germany and Austria - as well as greater reliance on drones and unmanned systems.

Australia's latest defense report listed the purchase of several ships capable of robotic operations described as "optionally manned" - making Australia the first country to describe warships in that way, but probably not the last.

For the U.S. Army and Navy, recruiting problems have led to an increased focus on preserving existing personnel, particularly those with hard-to-replace skills like nuclear engineering.

Those efforts have been quite successful - at least in the US. Last year, the US ground forces managed to meet the target and retain 56 personnel whose contracts were due for renewal by the end of June. The Navy also exceeded its contract renewal targets.

In contrast, European militaries appear to be suffering from an epidemic of soldiers, sailors and airmen leaving earlier than expected. In France, officials say the average military career is now a year shorter than it used to be. In Britain, official figures show that for every eight people who leave, only five join the army.

As NATO sends troops to Eastern and Central Europe and the US and regional allies prepare for a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan as early as 2027, tensions could further escalate. Research conducted by the American newspaper "Army Times" showed that in the tank units of the US Army - which had a particularly grueling schedule supporting the deployment of forces in Europe and the Middle East - the suicide rate was twice as high as the average in the military, which is partially reflected as a result of overwork.

Although the deployment of forces first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan had its challenges, the less bloody but still demanding challenges of the 2020s may reflect badly on morale, to say the least.

11 suicides were recorded on the carrier "USS George Washington" while it was anchored in Norfolk, Virginia for more than a year for maintenance. This is partly related to dissatisfaction with poor accommodation and conditions.

If American fears about rising tensions with China, Russia, and North Korea are justified, the pressure on military personnel can only increase. Unmanned systems and better management can fill the gaps to some extent, but one of the challenges for the US and its allies is to avoid a situation where their military personnel are already exhausted before the real battle begins.

The author is a Reuters columnist

Translation: NB

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