Military Must Recruit More Women, Immigrants for the Future Force, Experts Say
At symposium on building the all-volunteer force of 2040, panelists push back on criticism of diversity initiatives.
ANNAPOLIS, Maryland—The military must recruit more women and more immigrants—and change its culture to embrace diversity as a strength—to be successful in the future, experts said Wednesday at a symposium timed to the 50th anniversary of the all-volunteer force.
The remarks come at a time when politicians and conservative commentators have blamed “wokeness,” a catch-all term generally used to deride diversity and inclusion initiatives and programs for female service members, for what they believe is a decline in military effectiveness. For example, on Wednesday, Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., recently named chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness, tweeted, “I am ready to get to work to better equip our military and turn our focus away from woke priorities and back to winning wars.”
A Reagan National Defense Survey late last year found a decreased confidence in the military among respondents, with 62 percent believing military leadership has become overly politicized, and 50 percent believing “so-called ‘woke’ practices” were undermining military effectiveness.
But Lindsay Cohn, an associate professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College, rejected the idea that “wokeness” is hurting recruiting, saying there is plenty of data showing why people don’t join the military, and “wokeness is not on the list.”
“We don’t have any indication that people are not joining the military because they’re afraid it’s too woke, or because they’re afraid it’s too soft,” Cohn said during a panel discussion at the recruiting symposium, which was organized by the Marine Corps and hosted by the U.S. Naval Institute.
Instead, she said, research shows that trust in the military is “becoming more and more a partisan issue,” and that trust is going down “primarily among Republicans”—but is still very high.
Meredith Kleykamp, an associate professor at the University of Maryland and director of the Center for Research on Military Organization, noted that the Reagan surveyors did not specifically talk to young people who could potentially join the military.
“We are not recruiting whoever the population is that is responding to that poll exclusively. We’re recruiting” 18- to 25-year-olds, who hold “very different views” about social justice, Kleykamp said. “Sometimes it feels like…we’re recruiting the people who are already in” instead of appealing to the next generation.
Data presented at the symposium by Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute and Richard Fry of Pew Research Center showed that immigrants and women are likely to make up a larger percentage of the recruiting pool in 2040, and are more likely to have the education and skills necessary to join the military. In 2022, 44 percent of 25- to 29-year-old women had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to 35 percent of men, Fry noted.
Service recruiting data shows that the percentage of female recruits declined from fiscal 2020 to 2021 for the Army, Navy, and Air Force, but increased slightly for the Marine Corps after a decline from fiscal 2019 to 2020.
Gen. Eric Smith, the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, noted in opening remarks that only about 25 percent of the American population is qualified to enter service, and most disqualifiers are physical—either medication or fitness.
“It’s a wicked problem, and the numbers are not in our favor,” Smith said.
Smith, who served as a recruiter and said his son is currently serving on Marine Corps recruiting duty, also said recruiters have two sayings: “Don’t try to qualify the unqualified” and “fish where there’s fish.”
But Cohn, Kleykamp, and other panelists pushed back on the latter. The military will have to be “a little inefficient” in its recruiting efforts in the future, Cohn said, and will have to “expand your idea of who the fish are.”
“I’m not saying that physical strength doesn’t matter,” or that courage doesn’t matter, she added, but “we need to stop assuming that certain segments of the population doesn’t have those things.”
Beth Asch, a senior economist at RAND, pointed out that two-thirds of the people who enlist in the military come from the group that initially did not have a propensity to serve—the “negatively propensed” group.
“Recruiting is not going after the propensed group,” Asch said, adding that the military is more an “all-recruited force,” than “all-volunteer.”
The goal of the symposium was to “seek ways to have an [all-volunteer force] in 2040 that is dominant on complex battlefields, affordable, and consistent with our national values and way of life,” said Col. Eric Reid, director of the Marine Corps’ talent management strategy group.
Smith opened the event with a warning: “War is coming again, and it always does, sadly. Some would argue it’s already begun. And if we don’t have individuals to defend this nation, then we’re going to have a different lifestyle.”
But experts said further politicization of the military will only harm those recruiting efforts.
Cohn and other panelists noted the changing demographics of the recruiting pool will require a change in culture as well, and to do that, the military must “replace the old culture with a positive alternative. You cannot simply walk into the office and say, ‘OK, everybody has to take the porn posters down, we don’t do that anymore,’ and walk out and think that we’ve changed the culture. You haven’t.”
Instead, it must be replaced with a different model, and that change must “come from the top down.” But “in the current political environment in this country, that’s difficult,” because there’s not a consensus on what the ideal culture is, she said.
Reid told Defense One the military’s "ability to recruit and retain a capable all-volunteer force could be hindered if hyper-partisan domestic politics are projected onto military policies. I worry that we will have a serious uphill fight if individual military policy decisions can be used to immediately alienate half of the national recruiting base and their influencers. Military service must remain a non-partisan calling."
Todd Harrison, managing director of Metrea Strategic Insights, said he believes the current recruiting system is on an “unsustainable trajectory,” and that to fix it, all the services must think about “who the workforce is and who we want to attract and retain.”
“Too often I see what we’re doing as a policy is trying to throw money at problems,” Harrison said, suggesting that instead, the military services should start to question long-held assumptions, such as the wisdom and necessity of frequent permanent-change-of-station moves.
And, he said, the Marine Corps must decide whether it wants to be the same in the future as it is today—and whether it wants to be fair and equitable or if it wants to be a meritocracy.
“I want the best and brightest. I want the Chinese to never dare fight us, right, because I want them to look at our force and say, ‘My god, these guys are sharp.’ I don’t care if they look at our force and say, ‘My god, they’re fair,’” he said.