U.S. Army squads under FORSCOM compete for the title of “Best Squad” during a head-to-head competition at the FORSCOM Best Squad Competition 2022 at Fort Hood, Texas, Aug. 17, 2022.

U.S. Army squads under FORSCOM compete for the title of “Best Squad” during a head-to-head competition at the FORSCOM Best Squad Competition 2022 at Fort Hood, Texas, Aug. 17, 2022. U.S. Army / Pvt. Kyler Hembree

State of the Army 2023

The service is prepping for war in the Pacific—and hoping its recruiting problems won’t continue for a fourth consecutive year.

United States Army officials are eager to talk about the future. They even have a framework ready for it called the “Army of 2030,” as well as a new and novel way of rehearsing for war that seems truly next-level. But the Army in 2023 has a growing and arguably more urgent matter to work out first: a steadily dwindling number of soldiers in uniform. 

It’s rare for a military service to face as much public scrutiny over personnel and recruiting shortfalls as the U.S. Army has endured over the past three years. During the last fiscal year, the service missed its recruiting goal by 15,000 soldiers, which is an entire division’s worth of troops. So what’s going on? And what will it take to reverse the trend?

Coming off two decades of war in the Middle East, today’s young Americans appear to be less interested in enlisting in the Army than they’ve been at almost any point in the last 50 years—going back to the first days of the “all-volunteer” force amid the final months of America’s embarrassing retreat from Vietnam. The reality is that life in the military today is often seen as simply too dangerous compared to other occupations, especially amid the current record-high employment in the U.S. That’s what service officials told the Associated Press last week following months of heated vitriol from conservative lawmakers, many of whom have trained their sights on diversity and inclusion programs in the Defense Department as enemy number one when it comes to the Army’s recent manpower shortfalls. 

“The number one priority in my mind for this year, particularly in light of the security environment, is fixing our recruiting problem,” Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said at an event Thursday in Washington. “And I think it's going to take more than a year to turn it around,” she said. Part of that effort will involve “reintroducing the Army to the American public,” as Wormuth described it. Service officials have occasionally cited the effective marketing of the 1980s-era “Be all you can be” ad campaign—and the service is reportedly reviving it for 2023. The Army is hoping to add 65,000 new recruits in the current fiscal year; Wormuth said it feels like a particularly ambitious goal, given how 2022 developed.  

Recruiting dynamics, however, are just one of several challenges facing Army officials during year three of President Joe Biden’s time in the White House. More broadly, the military is being asked by its elected officials to deter a growing Chinese military that seems to be increasingly comfortable assuming an aggressive and at times antagonistic posture in the waters and skies off its eastern coasts. 

For years, academics have looked to the coming decades as “China’s century,” thanks to its emergence as the world’s second-largest economy and a muscular geopolitical force. After almost a year of Russia trying and failing so far to take control of the entirety of Ukraine, many military observers now see China’s military as perhaps the world’s second-most-capable force, behind the U.S. And that has put new pressures on the U.S. Army to be relevant, if not front and center of discussions about how to posture U.S. and allied forces in the Pacific—should China choose to intervene in its region like Russia has done with Ukraine. 

“We are very focused on campaigning in the Indo-Pacific,” Wormuth said Thursday. “And the Pacific Pathways series of exercises is sort of the flagship set of activities for the United States Army.” The Army held eight of those exercises in the region during 2022; that number is expected to rise to 18 in 2023, Wormuth said. Service officials have also expanded ally participation in those regional drills. “Our goal is really to try to have Army forces in theater—either in exercises or working with allies and partners using our security force assistance brigade—seven to eight months out of the year to sort of continue to show combat-credible forces,” she said. 

The Army’s goal with the Pathways exercises is to put those “combat-credible forces forward in the region for extended periods of time,” Gen. Charles Flynn, commanding general of U.S. Army Pacific, explained at an event hosted by the American Enterprise Institute in Washington on Monday. "It increases our interoperability with our allies and partners—the human, technical, and procedural operability; and it increases confidence in our relationship together. The second thing it does is it increases our joint readiness, because we're operating as a joint force. And the third thing it does is it’s denying key terrain, human and physical terrain, from the [People's Republic of China], which are in all of the subregions across the area—from South Asia to Southeast Asia to Oceania to Northeast Asia to include the Arctic Circle.”

“We are laying into Operation Pathways activity sets in a wide range of locations where we're either dynamically deployed or permanently positioned there—mostly in Korea and Japan—but also we're rotating forces there,” Flynn said. On Monday, for example, the Army was exercising “in Thailand with Cobra Gold and Hanuman Guardian. We'll go to Balikatan and Salaknib in the Philippines,” said Flynn. Next, “We'll jump down to Garuda Shield in Indonesia on the islands of Sumatra, Java, and Borneo. And then down to Talisman Saber in Australia, then up into Japan. Effectively, what we're doing by creating these interior lines is we're taking time and space away from the PRC so we can extend indications and warnings.”

Possible conflict in the Pacific is also why the Army has spent the past several years  and millions of dollars on its “long-range fires” program. The effort seeks to extend the range of available missiles soldiers might fire in combat. Among its notable successes is the Extended Range Cannon Artillery, or ERCA, which can hit targets 43 miles away. The first battalion of those are expected this calendar year. 

Building missiles that can travel farther remains the Army’s top priority, service officials said this fall. They also think they can field a new Precision Strike missile that can travel more than 300 miles to its target, launched by the now-famous HIMARS system. That new weapon is expected to make its first appearance this year, alongside a hypersonic missile program with a goal of creating a weapon with a range of greater than 1,000 miles. 

Two dozen weapons and new-systems prototypes are expected in 2023, outgoing Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said at the most recentAssociation of the U.S. Army convention, held each October in Washington. McConville is in his final year as Army chief, a position he’s held since the summer of 2019. It’s unclear who will replace McConville; but whoever it is, the challenges ahead will remain the same. 

“In the future, we are not going to be outgunned, we are not going to be out-ranged, and we’re not going to be outmaneuvered on the battlefield,” McConville promised at AUSA. However, when it comes to allies, he said, “You can buy the most expensive weapons systems, but you can’t buy courage and commitment.” And that latter part is something Army officials claim to have witnessed training soldiers from Ukraine, especially after Russia’s invasion one year ago. That’s a notable difference, they say, compared to the two decades spent trying to build an Afghan army from the ground up—only to have the entire project, and the country, fall to shambles in less than a month, as it did in August 2021. 

But the Army today is juggling a few particularly complex challenges with wide-ranging potential consequences on future conflicts, from Europe to the Pacific. Those include dramatically but sustainably ramping up production of artillery and munitions transferred to Ukraine to help fight off Russian invaders. 

“We've gone from [producing] 14,000 a month to 20,000 a month,” Wormuth said Thursday. “We’re going to ramp up again,” she promised, “and basically by 2025, we're going to be doing 70,000 rounds a month.” Army officials also recently obtained “multi-year procurement authority from Congress in the last round of legislation,” said Wormuth. “And I think that's really helpful because one of the things I know I've heard from CEOs is if we're going to ramp up production, we need to have a constant demand signal to you know, to put our money out there.” 

“As we transform you know, we’re going to have to build new organizations,” McConville said last Thursday in Washington. “So as we go into long-range shooting fires, well guess what? We're going to build those type of units. We're going to build more air and missile defense [units]. We're going to build counter[-drone] type organizations.” And that’s because the Army is testing and fielding newer and more sophisticated equipment and weapons. It’s done this in an annual event known as Project Convergence, which is a growing exercise featuring units from other services as well as other nations—with the goal of integrating many disparate elements into one synchronized goal or mission. 

“The secret of the future is really Convergence,” McConville said Thursday. “If you have a hypersonic missile that goes way fast and goes way far, but it takes you days to get it actually on the target, then you're not taking advantage of the speed” necessary for the current era of warfare. Improving that speed is one of the Army’s primary goals for Project Convergence. 

However, for some in uniform, the Army has more intimate problems it still needs to fix in order to improve as an organization and become a place America’s youth will turn in the years ahead, several soldiers told Defense One. And some of those problems concern old habits soldiers and leaders developed during those decades of counterinsurgency and surge deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. 

“Where the Army needs course correction is in its culture,” one officer said. “It needs to be more flexible for the needs of a new generation, needs to overhaul its horrible screening system for recruits, [and it] needs to actually get rid of the leaders that are toxic and ineffective versus promoting them.” Individually, those are difficult challenges, he admitted; collectively, they could take many months to improve. 

Patrick Tucker contributed to this report.

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