Pentagon seeking more money for recruitment ads as Air Force expect more shortfalls

The Defense Department wants to spend $40 million to promote military service to young people as lawmakers warn the Army, Navy and Air Force are on track to miss their enlistment goals this year amid persistent recruitment struggles.

Pentagon officials pitched the investment to members of a Senate Armed Services Committee subpanel on Wednesday as a pivotal tool for reversing enlistment shortfalls and selling a positive image of the military to a young population with little inclination to serve.

“We need to do a better job of telling our story, the benefits of military service and what it can provide,” said Gilbert Cisneros, the undersecretary of defense of personnel and readiness.

The funding request for the Defense Department’s joint military advertising, market research and studies program is included in the department’s budget request for fiscal 2024, which begins Oct. 1. The individual services have their own additional budgets for marketing, Cisneros said.

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., cautioned Wednesday that the Army, Navy and Air Force will likely miss their recruiting goals by tens of thousands of recruits this year if current trends hold. He urged the military to make “effective use of marketing” a priority.

The Army, which fell short of its recruiting goal last year by 15,000 recruits, debuted a $117 million advertisement campaign last week with two new commercials inspired by the 1980s-era Army slogan, “Be All You Can Be.” The clips feature actor Jonathan Majors, who starred in “Creed III” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” and is the son and grandson of veterans.

The Navy launched a “Forged by the Sea” ad campaign on its 247th birthday in October targeting Generation Z on social media. The service only met its active-duty enlistment goal last year by heavily dipping into its delayed entry pool, according to the Navy. It failed to reach the desired recruitment for active duty and Reserve officers.

The Air Force is expected this year to miss its active-duty enlistment target for the first time since 1999, said Alex Wagner, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for manpower and reserve affairs. He named several factors contributing to the military’s recruitment woes, including historically low unemployment and a lack of recruiter access to schools that limited campus visits during the coronavirus pandemic.

But the largest problem is propensity to serve, Wagner said. A mere 9% of Americans aged 17 to 24 who are eligible to serve show an interest in serving in the military, the lowest since the height of the Iraq War in 2007, according to the Pentagon. Only about 23% of young Americans meet the physical and academic standards required for service.

Wagner linked low interest to the growing lack of familiarity with the military. In 1995, 40% of Americans had a parent who served compared to less than 13% of Americans today, he said. An inflection point in the widening divide between civilians and service members came after 9/11, when military installations became more hardened and secure and closed themselves off from the communities around them, Wagner said.

“That lack of familiarity has been filled in by a public narrative that emphasizes the risks of service while missing the benefits,” he said.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said the military must work to counter a steady drumbeat of negative depictions in the news media.

“If you tell everybody every day in The Washington Post and The New York Times that the military is full of extremists, which it is not, you’re going to have people say, ‘Oh jeez, I don’t want to send my son or daughter there,’” he said. “We should appeal to the patriotism and desire, that’s been in this country for 200-plus years, to deploy and fight for their country.”

Pentagon officials said they intend to devote more resources to making the public more aware of military service and specifically reaching “influencers” such as teachers, parents, grandparents and other adults who young people might admire and respect.

“The additional funding request... is focused on building the brand and making sure that when the time for a decision comes, they’re at least aware that military service, or public service even, is an option to them,” said Thomas Constable, the acting assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs.

Increased funding for the military’s joint advertising program will also provide a “baseline” for each of the services to develop their own marketing campaigns, he said. The program aims to appeal to a more diverse group of potential recruits than ever before, he said.

“We don’t like leaving any money on the table or any population unchecked, especially with all the skills that they bring us or the opportunity to better reflect the American public,” Constable said. “You should expect to see more marketing, more advertising geared towards a broader population.”

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