As recruiters struggle, Air Force seeks recovery from ‘Top Gun’

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Race fans stop by the U.S. Air Force recruiting tent before a NASCAR race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Sunday, July 17, in Loudon, NH Recruiters are offering bigger bonuses and other incentives to those who register. And they’re taking advantage of the boost Hollywood can offer — like the buzz around “Top Gun.” (Charles Krupa)

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WASHINGTON — When “Top Gun: Maverick” hit theaters in late May, the Air Force was ready.

The blockbuster movie may feature Tom Cruise as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a Navy aviator, but for much of the movie-going public the distinction between Air Force and Navy fighter jets is lost . So Air Force recruiters struggling to meet their enlistment goals took boxes of free mugs and lanyards, and fanned out to movie theaters for the premiere, determined to capitalize on the excitement. by spraying around the film.

These are tough times for military recruiters. With COVID-19 complicating their work and low unemployment reducing the number of potential recruits, all armed forces are struggling to find young people who want to enlist and who can meet the physical, mental and moral demands.

The army in particular is in trouble. On Tuesday he said he would reduce the total number of soldiers he plans to have in the force over the next two years. If these trends continue, it could present challenges as it tries to meet future national security and warfare missions.

The situation is a little less serious for the Air Force, the Navy and the Marine Corps. The leaders of these branches say they hope to meet or just slightly miss their recruiting targets for this year. But they say they will have to tap into their pool of delayed entry candidates, which will leave them behind at the start of the next recruiting year.

Recruiters therefore offer bigger bonuses and other incentives to those who sign up. And they’re taking advantage of whatever boost Hollywood can offer — like the buzz surrounding the sequel to the 1986 hit “Top Gun.”

“When the original ‘Top Gun’ came out, the Navy and Air Force got a pretty good recruiting bump,” said Major General Edward Thomas, chief of the Army’s recruiting department. the air. “Frankly, we hope people will be excited about what we do again. Whether they want to aim high or fly in the Navy, we just want them to come join us. We want them to be excited about the service military.”

The Air Force said it typically enters each year with about 25% of its recruiting goal already locked in, but this year it will have about half that. The Navy and Marine Corps often have up to 50% of their targets at the start of the year, but will also see their percentage reduced.

Gen. Eric Smith, deputy commandant of the Marine Corps, said the Marines were more focused on retention than recruiting. He said the Marine Corps “will meet or be close to meeting” its recruiting goals this year, but at the expense of the 2023 pool. And when recruits have less time to prepare before reporting to the training camp, more fail to complete their training, he said.

The situation is more serious for the army, which, according to a senior general, faces “unprecedented challenges” in recruitment.

Gen. Joseph Martin, the Army’s vice chief of staff, said the service will have a total strength of 466,400 this year, up from an expected 476,000. It could end 2023 with between 445,000 and 452,000 soldiers, depending on the quality of recruitment and retention.

Just 2.5 months into the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, the Army has only reached 50% of its recruiting goal of 60,000 soldiers and, based on these trends, will likely miss that goal of 60,000 soldiers. nearly 25% on October 1.


We consider it to be the toughest recruiting environment we’ve seen in decades.

–Rear Adm. Lex Walker


A range of factors made recruitment more difficult across all departments.

Two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have closed schools and other major public events the military relies on to meet young people face to face.

Low unemployment means fewer people are looking for work. Private companies often pay more and are more agile in responding to a tight labor market by raising wages. Military salaries vary widely and are determined by Congress.

Across the country, fewer people know about the military. Many do not know anyone who has served and do not have bases in their area. As political and cultural divisions over race, abortion, vaccines and other issues tear the country apart, trust in government – ​​including the military – has declined.

At the same time, only about 23% of young adults are physically, mentally and morally qualified to serve without receiving any waiver. Moral behavior issues include drug use, gang ties, or a criminal record.

“We consider it to be the toughest recruiting environment we’ve had in decades,” said Rear Admiral Lex Walker, who heads Navy Recruiting Command. “The companies also offer great pay, they offer signing bonuses, help with college. They offer many of the same perks the Navy has historically used to recruit.”

Members of the U.S. Army National Guard stand outside the Army National Guard office during training April 21 in Washington.  In March, the local guard opened its first real recruiting office in the city since 2010. The army is significantly reducing the total number of soldiers it plans to have in the force over the next two years.
Members of the U.S. Army National Guard stand outside the Army National Guard office during training April 21 in Washington. In March, the local guard opened its first real recruiting office in the city since 2010. The army is significantly reducing the total number of soldiers it plans to have in the force over the next two years. (Photo: Mariam Zuhaib)

A short term solution is money. Air Force and Navy commanders have both said they need to ask for more bonus money this year as they begin to see the recruiting struggle worsen.

For the first time in a decade, the Air Force approved two additional rounds of bounties this fiscal year. Last October, the department budgeted $17.5 million for enlistment bonuses, but in April department heads added another $14 million, and in July they invested another $7 million. .

The Navy, Walker said, also increased bounties by about $100 million. He also relaxed some restrictions to allow some to be drafted who may not have previously been qualified. He said the Navy has expanded its waiver policy for certain prior marijuana uses and for tattoos — allowing recruits to have visible ones in more places, such as the neck. A new pilot program allows single parents with up to two children over the age of one to apply for a waiver to enlist as long as recruits have someone who can care for the children if deployed.

Recruiting officials also said it was crucial to educate the public about the military and the benefits available for service. They said recruiters and all members of the military should go out into their communities, connect with people and tell their stories.

Air Force Sergeant. That’s exactly what Eric Way did at the Regal Cinema in Waterford, Connecticut, at the premiere of “Top Gun: Maverick.” Standing in the lobby, surrounded by Air Force swag and banners, he caught the eye of a 22-year-old from Old Lyme, who later told him the film convinced him to s enlist.

Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Gervacio Maldonado, who helped organize the New England recruiting campaign centered around the film’s premiere, said recruiters spoke to the young man before the film and gave him information on social media to contact them more late.

It worked. The man has already made his first interview.

Maldonado said the man later told a recruiter that he had been debating the idea of ​​enlisting for some time and said that “after watching the movie, that was my tipping point and I want to start the process”.

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