The Army should be wary of banking on more soldiers than expected renewing their contracts as recruiting is expected to fall short again in fiscal year 2023, which ends Sept. 30, according to experts.
Army officials say retention has reached historic highs and shows that, once people join the military, they actually want to stay in it. The Army has kept on about 3,700 more people this year than in fiscal 2022, Madison Bonzo, U.S. Army spokeswoman, told the Daily Caller News Foundation on Friday. But it was unclear how the actual number of those eligible to leave the Army differed between the two years.
Pressure to retain troops has increased as recruiting continues to slog, Military.com reported. Retention goals have gone up since prior to the COVID-19 pandemic even as recruiting numbers have fallen, a DCNF review of the data shows.
The service aimed to keep in at least 55,100 soldiers from those who approached exit windows and could conceivably leave in 2023, Army Under Secretary Gabe Camarillo told Congress in March. In 2021 and 2022, the Army retained 58,300 soldiers who were eligible to leave. That equaled 99% of those who were eligible to leave in those years, he said.
“We are not taking this for granted,” Camarillo said. (RELATED: Raising Pay Can’t Fix Military Recruiting, But It Would Help, Experts Say)
Many soldiers stay because the Army benefits program holds up well when compared to what’s available in the private sector, retired Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, former director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense, told the DCNF.
In addition, the service offers retention bonuses that average $14,000 but can reach up to $81,000 for a soldier who opts to renew his or her contract with the Army, according to Military.com. The Army also has worked to improve quality of life and provide stability for families, although it is a long way from achieving its ideal goals, Camarillo said.
The Army along with the other services “exhibited strong retention during the tenth month of [fiscal] 2023,” according to a DOD document covering recruiting data through the end of July, the latest month for which the data is available.
A comparison of data in July of previous years shows the Army exhibiting strong retention and often exceeding the year-to-date mission. For example, in 2022, a year when a 25% recruiting shortfall shocked the Army, it retained 58,000 troops or 104% of its retention mission, according to internal data viewed by Military.com.
“The Army can mitigate low recruitment with retention, but they pay a long term penalty for doing so,” Spoehr told the DCNF.
Part of the problem is that high retention rates can strain the resources Congress sets aside at the beginning of each fiscal year to pay for personnel, according to a Congressional Research Service report. Congress typically places a cap on the total number of officers and enlisted personnel each service can maintain each year and only provides enough money to pay for those troops.
Higher-than-expected retention, especially when combined with low accession totals, can lead to a military overstuffed with personnel at higher ranks, who are paid more and fill a limited number of available positions, the report said.
The Army becomes “too heavy in rank, and consequently the force costs more than it should and you have a mismatch with your force structure,” Spoehr explained.
The number of troops the Army expects to lose each year also factors into how it sets retention targets, Camarillo said in his testimony.
The administration in June asked Congress to move $700 million from other accounts to fund unexpected personnel costs coming from the Army having 2,000 more enlisted troops than planned for “along with a higher senior enlisted force,” documents show.
The Army also asked for money to fund 15,900 retention bonuses meant to incentivize troops in certain high-value occupations to re-enlist, the request shows.
Congress approved the reprogramming request in August, according to Defense News.
We regret to inform you that MILPER Message 23-370 has been published, rescinds the current Regular Army SRB Message. Unfortunately, we are unable to pay a bonus in conjunction with a reenlistment at this time. However, all assignments and reenlistment options remain in effect.
— U.S.ArmyRetention (@armyretention) September 12, 2023
“While not every Soldier receives a bonus, the increased retention increased the expenditures. In previous years, the Army was able to shift funds from other programs but rather than put other programs at risk, we elected to suspend the bonuses,” Bonzo, the Army spokeswoman, told the DCNF.
The bonuses will resume in October, marking the start of fiscal year 2024, according to a statement.
In 2022, the Army already estimated an additional $550 million to $600 million would be needed for expanded recruitment and retention bonuses for 2023, according to Army Public Affairs.
Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said in July the service expected to beat its active-duty targets from 2022 by “several thousand” by the end of fiscal year 2023, Army Times reported. Out of the 65,000 “stretch goal” for new recruits, the Army could bring in between 50,000 and 55,000 new soldiers, Wormuth said, according to Stars and Stripes.
The Army had brought on 38,000 new recruits as of the end of July and was on track to achieve just 77% of its goals for the year, according to the DOD personnel document. The Reserve component fared even worse.
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