Army has its work cut out for it to build the force, Esper says

The Army is competing with a healthy economy and a small pool of eligible recruits to increase its ranks.

The Army is planning on increasing its force to at least 500,000 active duty soldiers, but high private sector employment rates make the Army a less desirable option for some and high obesity rates in the United States exclude others from service.

The Pentagon estimates only about 30 percent of 17-to-24-year-olds actually qualify for military service and Army Secretary Mark Esper readily admits the service has its work cut out for it as it plans its expansion.

To mitigate those issues, Esper said Army Training and Doctrine Command and Army Recruiting Command are working on a new, holistic plan to overhaul recruiting that will be unveiled to leadership in the next month.

“Whether it’s putting more recruiters on the streets, which we actually began in the spring, but we won’t see the effects until 2019,” Esper said Wednesday at a breakfast with reporters in Washington. “We are looking at everything from cleaning up our storefronts to moving our recruiting locations. How do we better leverage resources like the Golden Knights, the Army band? How do I better utilize myself and the undersecretary? But yes, it’s a tough recruiting environment.”

The Army already instituted some initiatives this summer, one of which allowed soldiers to go to their hometown for a few weeks to help with recruiting outreach.

On the other hand, the service is not giving way on its standards for recruitment. Esper tightened previous guidance that gave waivers to recruits with a history of substance abuse or mental illness. Esper now must personally sign off on waivers for people with a history of mood disorders, substance abuse or suicide attempts.

While the service is competing to recruit new soldiers, it is also working to retain current ones and keep its soldiers it has healthy enough to deploy.

In February, the Defense Department announced the military services are to start kicking out service members who have been nondeployable for a year or more starting in October.

The Army holds the largest number of those nondeployable service members.

“We share the view if you’re nondeployable, then in most cases, you’re of not much utility because we play away games,” Esper said. “You have to be able to deploy to go fight the war. If I can’t deploy someone over here, that means I’m deploying somebody over there twice as often. At one point in time, we had a nondeployablity rate of about 15 percent. Do the math, out of a 1.3 million [total force] Army that’s 150,000 people.”

Esper said the rate is now down to about 9 percent. The Army has not yet started pushing people out of the service, but as October nears Esper says the Army is prepared to begin enforcing the policy. That could take at least a small chunk out of soldiers from the Army’s pool.

As for soldiers already in the force, the Army plans to use the latest changes to the defense personnel system in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to its advantage, Esper said.

“I think we need a new personnel system, one that is focused on talent management. I spent about an hour and a half yesterday with our Talent Management Task Force. This is one of the issues that came up. How do we quickly implement some of the changes that were given to us?” Esper said. “What can we do in the near term while we try to figure out the longer term end state we want to achieve? The task force is working on that now.”

The law gives services the ability to change the promotion timeline for certain occupations.

It also expands officer spot promotions up to the colonel level. This would allow the service to give a lower ranking officer a higher rank on-the-spot if he or she takes a high demand or challenging job.

Finally, the NDAA repeals age restrictions on how old someone must be to reach a certain rank.

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