The Manning Shortfall Bow Wave is Only Starting
It appears that the recruiting and retention challenges are breaking above the ambient noise at the start of 2QFY23. We go through these cycles, but if things seem a bit different to you this time, your instincts are right.
The ebb and flow of manning the Navy is a regular story - but there is one major cause that is different this time around and is beyond the control of anyone - it is an almost geographic or structural in nature as will be outlined later in the post.
Layered on top of this structural challenge to recruiting and retention are challenges of our own creation and are fully in our control - a headwind of our own creation via decisions and policies that even if changed overnight, their effects will linger for years...and their negative effect will increase with time unless changes are made sooner more than later.
There are about 9,000 operational sea-duty gaps, with the highest gaps appearing in the most sea-intensive ratings...
The first thing to came to mind when I read that were the "too clever by half" efforts to "solve" afloat manning that help lead to the horrible summer of 2017. I do believe that we have tried to address this problem of throwing unqualified people just to make the metrics work, but that temptation will always be there.
I would really like to see the data over time with that gap number. What has it been for, say, the last 20 years? I know that graph exists...I'd love to see it just so we know how the challenge in in FY23 than it was in FY2013, FY2003, etc. Ships that belong at sea need Sailors, so this multi-causal problem will require more than one effort to fix it.
Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener said the Navy is experimenting with a new pilot program aimed at eliminating the number of temporary additional duty, or TEMADD, sailors that are taken from their primary duty stations.
Again, this brings more questions than anything else. There is nothing "new" about this problem that would make it a cause of today's difficulties ... unless we have allowed a known problem to get worse. Where are those TEMADD Sailors going? How do FY2023 numbers compare to FY2020? FY2015?
If we're talking schools, well good googly moogly, this was a problem when I was a JO. Heck, back in 2011 when I was only 2-yrs post-active duty, in San Diego I asked the senior Lieutenant of a riverine craft doing a static display what was the number one thing he wanted from Navy leadership.
His answer was, roughly, "Don't have my Sailors show up only long enough to check in before they are sent off to school to be qualified to do their job. If I'm short an EN1 and Millington tells me, 'You have an EN1 I just sent you.' I tell them, 'Yeah, he checked in last week, will sit here for eight more weeks before going to a six month school. By then my most experienced EN2 is separating. Heck, he goes on terminal leave in two months. That EN1 not only is no good to me, the way he was sent to me only makes my problem worse."
We then spent a few minutes saying bad things about Millington before I asked him what his plans were. I'll consolidate and paraphrase roughly. "I'm getting out next year. I'm a Lieutenant in a riverine command. I have no competitive future on active duty."
Like I said, not a new problem.
So, back to the challenge we're talking about today. As we saw with previous shortfalls, everyone hits the "Easy Button."
“The reality is we need to buy more people,” Kitchener said. “And I think right now we’re committed to buying more people; we’re just having a hard time recruiting.”
The Navy is offering multiple enlistment and retention bonuses to recruit and keep sailors. For example, future sailors or veterans who re-up right now can combine the maximum enlistment bonus with a maximum student loan repayment to cap out at $115,000 — if they ship out before March. The Navy first introduced the policy last year and kept it for FY23.
Well, yes, money helps, but it is only going to get you so far.
What is the structural problem I mentioned at the top of the post?
2023 is not 2003 or even 2013. This is the most important graph for understanding our manning problem.
Demographics is destiny. Always was, always will be. Each year, the a new cohort of children born 18-20 years earlier become the source material to recruit in to the military.
Is it easier or harder to get more people from a shrinking pool?
Yes, we have that problem - but like our geography and natural resources, the USA has this as a comparative advantage, in a fashion.
Compared to other developed nations, our demographics are rather good. Have you seen Korea's?
The People's Republic of China?
As a species, human society has never see such a demographic profile. The developed world and its militaries will have to figure out how work around it. So, yes, the USA and its Navy has a demographic challenge, but so do our friends and competitors ... we just look healthier.
Oh, in case demographics and population trees are new to you and you don't really understand how different things have changed for the USA, the below graph is helpful.
So much of how we think about manning and retention in our military is based on outdated assumptions about demographics. Look again at the first graph. The USA will have a slightly easier time with a larger cohort of 18-20-year olds in 2028, but then that pool shrinks again, fast.
The easiest time to recruit officers and enlisted in the last half century was ... 2011 - and that pool is simply not coming back.
Speaking of pools, this should give everyone pause;
The Navy met its active duty enlisted recruitment goals for fiscal 2022, but fell short among active duty and reserve officers, as well as reserve enlisted personnel. The service is also prepared for an even more challenging year in recruiting; it drained its Delayed Entry Program pool to the lowest the service has experienced in 40 years to meet its active duty enlisted recruitment benchmarks for FY22.
You can only do that once and that trick is done. Over at twitter retired Admiral John Harvey, USN made a solid point on this;
I see a lot of reacting, pulling from the historical tool box and otherwise dealing with symptoms to try to move the needle inside a POM cycle. However, we got here for a variety of reasons years in the making that will not respond quickly to the degree we think they will as described above.
Some things, like demographics, we can't do anything about. As we face that shrinking pool we will see again in 2028, there are things we need to act on now to help change perceptions that can linger for years before they change.
To make these changes, it will require admissions of error, and that is the problem. Feelings will be hurt. Rice bowls will be turned over. As that those feelings and rice bowls contributed to the problem we have, that shouldn't bother well meaning people.
Here they are; Image, Leadership, Reputation:
Image: What do our candidates see and hear? In the civilian world, every call is a sales call and every customer is a referral source for new business. In the military, every photograph, event, and gathering in uniform is a recruiting event. We have covered it here in detail previously so no need to point to examples, but who would want to join a service whose ships look uncared for? Whose Sailors are all wearing three or four different uniforms ... brown boots, black boots, camo, blue hat, tan hat ... etc? What messages do rusty ships and disheveled Sailors send to friends and enemies? Why does it seem that so many leaders in our Navy seem to want to dress like they are in the Army or the USMC when they are CONUS or afloat? Are they ashamed of being Sailors? Are they even recognized as being Sailors by potential recruits? Does any of this make the Navy an attractive place to join or stay in - or a place to avoid?
Leadership: What are candidates' future bosses saying? When senior leadership is seen and heard from, what are they talking about? Would you want to join an organization whose leadership seems mostly concerned that they employ a bunch of racists, sexists, rapists, and domestic terrorists? Do you want to work for leaders who never seem to defend their people ... who at first chance will defer to the latest slander and promise to "do something about it" when they know there really isn't an "it" but won't support their people by saying so? What about over a decade trying to act as if there were no costs, no down side to making 8, 9, 11-month deployments with a short turnaround as the "new normal?" What about the reality of people spending the balance of their first enlistment in a ship during overhaul because we can plan for the expected?
Reputation: What do others think of their Navy a candidate may want to join? One of the worst examples of governmental corruption at scale this century in the United States was/is the "Fat Leonard" scandal. It has been 13-years, almost four times longer than it took to fight WWII, and the primary player, Leonard Francis, has yet to go to trial and even escaped from home arrest earlier this year. On a regular basis, we have IGs investigate someone for an accusation of X, X is never found, but they still dig until they find Y and then destroy a person's decade long service - often draining their personal funds defending themselves in the process. We burn a multi-billion dollar large deck amphib in port, blame it on an undesignated Seaman, drag his name, life, family, and fortune through a court system only to find him not guilty ... all while scrapping the evidence needed to find the cause in the process. The chief uniformed leader, the CNO, invests what little personal and professional capital he has left promoting the toxically divisive racial essentialism of Ibram X. Kendi. This is going on while at the same time parents all across Northern Virginia and the United States are in open rebellion against the public schools in their area for promoting the same Critical Race Theory adjacent racialist practices in their schools. Would those same parents want their kids to join an organization who admits they like having pictures in promotion boards so they can actively discriminate on the basis of race? Really?
These all add up. Drip, drip, drip ... the issues with the Navy's image, the defensive crouch and thirsty virtue signaling of its leadership, and the own goals degrading its reputation among the general public - a very different cohort than those the Potomac Flotilla socializes with - has etched a mark on the Navy's attractiveness that cannot be buffed out in a year or two. No, it will take a few years to stabilize the ship and to get it underway on a better course.
There are enough challenges out there in recruiting numbers that we need, we need to scrape off the self-applied accretions making the effort even more challenging. It won't come without other costs, but if the goal is to move the needle out of orange and in to yellow, then we need to focus on those things we can control.
Start with image, leadership, and reputation. All three have lesser included actions that will come along if you can do these three things better to remove reasons not to join the Navy, and equally important, come off the list for those who want to leave the Navy.