The Bunker, delivered to our subscribers Wednesdays at 7 a.m., is a newsletter from the desk of National Security Analyst Mark Thompson. Sign up here to receive it first thing, or check back Wednesday afternoon for the online version.
This week in The Bunker: Army recruiting woes highlight a growing chasm between soldiers and citizens; Pentagon sending silver bullets to Ukraine; the looming war with China (holler if you’ve heard this one before); and more.
Army shoots itself in the boot
Well, that was quick. Barely a week after the U.S. Army declared in late June that it would allow some recruits lacking high school diplomas to enlist, it changed its mind. “They just pulled the rug out from under me,” a wannabe soldier told Army Times. “I don’t even want a complicated job — I will fill whatever spot they give me.” The Army has yet to explain the reversal.
The sheepskin whiplash comes as the service has met only 40% of its recruiting goal with barely three months left in the fiscal year. All the services are having trouble filling their ranks. That’s because of two numbers: a 3.6% unemployment rate, and the fact that 77% of young Americans are ineligible to sign up, for medical, criminal or other reasons. Even more strikingly, among that 23% eligible to put on the uniform, only 9% of them have a propensity to do so. That means only 2 of every 100 young Americans is inclined, and able, to enlist.
Unfortunately, they don’t always stay there. Recruits lacking high school diplomas have a washout rate double(PDF) that of graduates. “First-term attrition — in which a new enlisted recruit does not complete his or her first contract — is a costly and ongoing issue across all military service branches, averaging to thousands of dollars per enlistment and millions of total dollars per year,” a 2020 Rand Corp. study noted. The Army’s no-degree-needed pitch was just the latest in a series of bonuses (up to $50,000), eased restrictions, more lenient tattoo policies, student-loan relief, shorter tours, and pick-your-post options as ways of boosting more bodies into barracks.
“I view it as a systemic, long-term recruiting drought that is not going to ameliorate anytime soon,” retired Army Lieutenant General Thomas Spoehr of the Heritage Foundation told the Washington Examiner’s Jamie McIntyre July 7. “People I talk to say this year is bad, 2023 is going to be worse, and there's no saying that 2024 is not going to be worse still.”
U.S. military recruiting suffered following Vietnam and the end of the draft in 1973. Just before 9/11, The Bunker was visiting boot camps to see how requirements had been eased to keep as many recruits as possible in uniform. It became even tougher during the Afghan and Iraq wars, when a rash of Army recruiter suicides was blamed on the pressure they faced to sign up new soldiers.
The real problem seems to be a disconnect between the Army and its target (if you’ll excuse the term) — members of Generation Z, ages 18 to 25. A survey conducted for the Army in March “found that 73 percent of Gen Z claims to be familiar with the Army – the highest of any generation – but the data breakdown tells a different story about their limited understanding of the Army and its ability to deliver on their needs,” the service said. Nearly 1 in 3 believes most Army jobs involve combat (it’s floated around 10%[PDF] since Korea) and “only 51% think the Army allows time for recreation and hobbies,” it added. They plainly haven’t spent time on Army posts amid their pools, golf courses, sports fields, bowling lanes, and many other off-duty options.
This incredibility gap has led the service to roll out a new “Know Your Army” ad campaign to try to set the record straight. “The campaign introduces the lesser-known tangible and intangible benefits of Army service which include 30 days paid annual vacation, home-buying benefits through the VA loan, pension plans after only 20 years of service, paid parental leave, and a diverse mix of soldiers from every state in the U.S. and beyond,” the Army said in June.
“Young Americans tend to believe Army life is defined by sacrifice and deprivation, and that soldiers are a different breed from the rest of us,” the man hired to create the campaign said. “In fact, the benefits are incredible, and the people are relatable human beings. Who knew?” Not everyone is impressed by the ads.
This soldier-citizen chasm is the natural result of the end of the draft, the recent less-than-successful wars, the concentration of military bases in the Sunbelt, and the fact that the Army is in danger of becoming a family business. All conspire to isolate the military from those it has taken an oath to defend. Only 1 in 3 Americans under 30 has “high confidence” in the U.S. military, a 20-point drop between 2018 and 2021, according to a December survey(PDF) by the Reagan Foundation.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Bunker highlighted it in a Time magazine cover story more than a decade ago. “Never has the U.S. public been so separate, so removed, so isolated from the people it pays to protect it,” it read. “The real danger is that a military's strength ebbs the further away it gets from the society that sponsors and nurtures it.”
Based on the available evidence, the drifting apart, alas, continues.
MAKING ARTILLERY SMARTER
The U.S. lobs silver bullets to Ukraine
If you don’t have enough bullets, better aim carefully. That’s the logic behind the U.S. decision, announced July 8, to provide Ukraine with 1,000 highly-accurate artillery shells. Getting artillery shells to hit their targets can be complicated. They follow a predictable arc, but initial volleys can end up falling short or overshooting their mark, before adjustments can be made to rain steel on target. That devours ammo.
The war in Ukraine has become an artillery slog, with the Russian invaders slowly gaining ground in the industrialized, eastern part of the country. That’s because they’ve been firing more than 10,000 rounds a day, compared to Ukraine’s 5,000. But that balance may shift once Ukraine starts using these more accurate rounds in their 155mm howitzers. “It offers Ukraine precise capability for specific targets,” a senior Pentagon official said. “It will save ammunition.”
The Pentagon refused to say what kind of rounds these are, citing operational security. Reporters quickly suggested they were GPS-guided M982 Excalibur — named for King Arthur’s sword — shells. “On average, it can take at least 10 conventional munitions to accomplish what one Excalibur weapon can,” manufacturer Raytheon says. But those shells are expensive, built from the ground up. It’s more likely Ukraine is getting M1156 precision guidance kits. These can be screwed into the nose of standard rounds to improve their accuracy, also via GPS and tail fins, “at a fraction of the cost of more advanced munitions,” according to maker Northrop.
The shipment signals the commitment of the U.S. and its allies to Ukraine in the five-month-old war. “If the Russians think they can outlast the Ukrainians, they need to rethink that,” the Pentagon official said. “We are already pivoting towards thinking about what the Ukrainians will need in the months and years ahead.” A lot more than 1,000 of those “near-precision” shells, for starters.
REALITY, OR A RERUN?
The China Spindrome
An Air Force general recently sketched a distressing picture of any future U.S.-China military showdown. “I would tell you anecdotally that China is still, after gains we’ve made in the last five years or so, about five to six times faster than us in acquisition,” Major General Cameron Holt, the service’s contracting chief, told the Government Contracting Pricing Summit (yes there is such a thing) in San Diego last month. “In purchasing-power parity, they spend about $1 to our $20 to get to the same capability. It’s math, ladies and gentlemen. We are going to lose if we can’t figure out how to drop the cost and increase the speed in our defense supply chains.”
“We are going to lose.”
You might think of them as fighting words. But they’re also spending words.
Holt is a big cog in the war machine. As his service’s deputy assistant secretary for contracting, he oversees a procurement pipeline handling $825 billion — that’s nearly $1 trillion, for the innumerates among us — in military hardware. He manages spending more than $1 billion a week.
This puts The Bunker in a bind: the Pentagon has been lousy at developing weapons for the 40+ years he has been following the trade. Yet its cheerleaders have been just as bad at exaggerating military threats. It’s tough to know who to root for.
The Bunker recalls the slick Soviet Military Power books the Pentagon published annually during the Reagan years that hyped the Red threat (here’s the first edition[PDF]). They were lavishly illustrated with James Bond-ish artwork created by Defense Intelligence Agency artists; reporters were told the illustrators used top-secret photographs for their paintings, with just enough air-brushing to avoid betraying U.S. “sources and methods.” As the Soviet Union disintegrated, the annual tomes became less frequent, and less colorful. Both eventually ended up atop the gray ash heap of history.
Now the Pentagon is annually publishing what you could call China Military Power. But that would too closely echo the hyperbolic Russian offerings of 40 years ago. So, with typical Defense Department flair, it’s called Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China (PDF). The latest Pentagon bugaboo — Chinese hypersonic weapons — is mentioned 13 times in the Defense Department’s latest China report. The Pentagon made clear July 8 how desperate it is to keep up, asking in a contract solicitation if the Defense Production Act needs to be invoked to ensure the U.S. defense industry can produce enough U.S. hypersonic weapons to keep Beijing at bay.
History makes one wonder if the Pentagon’s hypersonic focus is hyperbolic, too.
WHAT WE'RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently
The Pentagon announced July 5 that troops involved with testing, using, and/or cleaning up after nuclear weapons are now eligible for the Atomic Veterans Commemorative Service Medal.
So it’s not as snappy as the “duck-and-cover” mantra The Bunker recalls from his youth, but New York City’s 90-second spot about what to do in case of nuclear attack, released July 11, fits right in amid the Big Apple’s random shootings and being pushed onto subway tracks.*
*We know this isn’t a read. So sue us.
A July 6 report from the Congressional Research Service notes that set-aside government contracts for Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Businesses rose from $554 million in 2001 to $23.7 billion in 2020.
On June 30, the Justice Department announced a San Antonio jury had convicted a trio of faking a small business “in order to secure over $240 million in government contracts that were set aside for Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Businesses in order to benefit their larger, nonqualifying businesses.”
The Army compiled its “top 35 signature modernization priorities,” Andrew Eversden reported in Breaking Defense July 5, suggesting the service has no idea what “priority” means.
…to Kathy Gannon, the intrepid Associated Press reporter who recently retired after spending 35 years covering Afghanistan. Whether you know her name or not, you can thank her for much of what you do know about that forlorn, landlocked nation. In 2014, a uniformed Afghan police officer riddled her body with seven bullets, and killed AP photographer Anja Niedringhaus sitting next to her. She tells her story in this July 3 AP remembrance.
And a toast to you, Dear Reader, for spending some time with The Bunker this week. Appreciate you spreading the word by forwarding this on and encouraging folks to sign up here.