Air Force to Miss Recruiting Goals for First Time in More Than 2 Decades

Oath of Enlistment for members joining the U.S. Air Force
Oath of Enlistment for members joining the U.S. Air Force at the Tri-Cities Airport, July 27, 2023. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kaitlyn Ergish)

NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland -- The Air Force will, as expected, miss its active-duty recruiting goals for the first time since 1999, Secretary Frank Kendall said during a conference here Monday.

"We're almost to the end of the fiscal year, and the expectation is we're going to come in short about 10%," Kendall told during a media round table, adding that the service plans to address long-standing recruiting issues in an effort to improve next year. "I'm overall encouraged by where we are in recruiting, but we still have a lot of work."

The last time the Air Force did not reach 100% of its recruitment goal was 1999, according to the Air Force Recruiting Service. That was when Millenials -- who were born between 1981 and 1996 -- first began to reach the age of service. In 1979, the Air Force also missed its goals when Generation X began to become of age to serve, according to a 2002 research paper from Air University.

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The current shortfall is the result of lingering effects from the COVID-19 pandemic, strong employment numbers, and cultural headwinds making it more difficult to convince Generation Z to join the ranks.

Leslie Brown, a spokeswoman for the Air Force Recruiting Service, told in an emailed statement that, while the service is on track to be behind by 10% this fiscal year, recruiting prospects are already looking better for next year.

"Currently, the active duty is projected to miss [its] goal by about 10%," Brown said. "We are cautiously optimistic though as we head into FY24. We've seen some positive trends such as the positive growth of our DEP [delayed-entry program], which is double what it was this time last year. It's still lower than we want it to be, but we are continuing to see increases."

Brown added that the Air Force has already filled all of its job requirements for October, the start of the fiscal year, and has only 15 more to fill for November, something the service sees as a positive trend.

Kendall originally predicted the 10% shortfall at the Air and Space Force Association's Warfare Symposium Conference in Aurora, Colorado, in March. The Air Force Recruiting Service has been working hard to turn the tide this year, issuing a variety of policy changes and new initiatives aimed at recruiting.

These include offering medals and promotions for recruiting; streamlining the naturalization process so recruits can become citizens during basic military training; offering reserve bonuses for prior-service airmen; reinstating the Enlisted College Loan Repayment Program; allowing certain tattoos on the hands and neck; and unveiling a new smartphone feature that allows airmen to send info on almost anyone to a recruiter.

July marked the 50th anniversary of the American military moving to an all-volunteer force, doing away with the draft, lotteries and conscripting young men into service. Since then, the military has had to work to make service a value proposition, offering a wide range of bonuses and benefits, as well as removing previous barriers to enlistment in order to hit the needed recruitment numbers.

But during the past few years, the U.S. has seen some of its lowest unemployment rates in decades, which has fed the recruiting woes. Added to that, the Pentagon has released studies showing that only 23% of American youth are eligible to serve due to being overweight, using drugs, or having mental and physical health problems.

The Air Force Recruiting Service has told in the past year that less than 10% of the young population is interested in serving in the first place -- 50% can't even name all the military service branches.

Despite those trends, Kendall said he remains optimistic that the recruiting service will be able to address some of those issues.

"I don't think at the end of the day that this is going to be a fundamental constraint for national security, at least not for the Department of the Air Force," Kendall said.

-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

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