AURORA, Colorado -- Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said the service is struggling to add new airmen to its ranks and will likely miss its active-duty, reserve and Air National Guard recruiting goals this year.
Speaking Tuesday at the Air and Space Force Association's Air Warfare Symposium in Colorado, Kendall pointed to decreased interest in wanting to serve in the military as one of the main contributing factors to a projected shortfall in this year's recruiting numbers.
"We are currently projecting about a 10% shortfall this year in the active Air Force and more in the Guard and Reserve," he said. "We are swimming upstream against reduced propensity to serve nationally across the board and a limited percentage of qualified candidates."
Kendall's speech follows a Military.com report last year on a Pentagon study that found 77% of young Americans would not qualify for military service without a waiver due to being overweight, using drugs, or having mental and physical health problems.
The struggle to find new recruits from that small pool was already present during a difficult 2022. Maj. Gen. Ed Thomas, commander of the Air Force Recruiting Service, told reporters at last year's Air and Space Force Association's conference that the service was behind recruiting targets by between 1,500 to 2,000 airmen for each component of the reserve and Guard.
While the service managed to meet its active-duty goals last year, Thomas said that it had reached into its bank of recruits who had delayed entry into the service. Typically, the Air Force starts out with 25% of its recruits ready to begin training by the start of the year, having already signed up the previous year -- often through the delayed-entry program. That number dwindled to 10% for the start of fiscal 2023, leaving the service in need of even greater success finding interested recruiting targets.
Kendall said during his speech he wanted the uniformed members in the crowd to help grow and spread the message about joining the services, adding that, while recruiting numbers are dire, retention numbers are not.
"We need this community to help spread the word to America's youth that there are great opportunities in the U.S. military, especially in the Air Force, Space Force -- in all components: Active, Guard and reserve," Kendall said. "As evidence of that fact, retention numbers look very good. We're keeping the people that we get, but we need to get more people."
Last week, the Department of the Air Force announced that it is now allowing tattoos on the neck and hands, a policy change aimed at bringing younger talent into the ranks.
The policy announcement cited an increase in tattoos as another headwind to filling the ranks.
"The Department of the Air Force is committed to recruiting talented and qualified individuals, while retaining the experienced Airmen and Guardians currently serving," it said last week in a press release. "One of the leading barriers currently being tackled is the increased prevalence of hand and neck tattoos among America's youth."
In that same policy announcement, Thomas also acknowledged that amending tattoo rules won't ultimately fix the recruiting issue.
"While we met our active-duty recruiting goals last year, record-low unemployment rates and steadily declining familiarity with the U.S. military today leaves us uncertain whether we can achieve our goals this year," he said in the release. "We are starting to see some positive results of our training program, policy changes and our enhanced marketing efforts, but military recruiting will remain a long-term challenge."
-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.