Military Growing More Distant from Most Americans, Hicks Says

After 50 years, the All-Volunteer Force still works and is the right model, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said Nov. 7. However, to fill the ranks in a hot labor market, the Pentagon needs to expand its eligibilities and make the benefits it offers more relevant and well known.

Congress also needs to stop using the military as a political pawn and predictably fund the defense budget, she asserted, calling out Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-Ala.) ongoing hold on military promotions and noting that since 2010, the Defense Department has operated for a cumulative four years under continuing resolutions.

Speaking at the Center for a New American Security to talk about the All-Volunteer Force, which took effect in 1973, Hicks said the fact that “it has lasted for 50 years and that we have built the finest force in the world is a testament to its strength, and I believe that it remains the best model for the U.S. military,”

Its success can’t be taken for granted. She said the two goals facing the creators of the AVF—“healthy civil-military relations and recruiting and retaining the force we need”—require constant attention.

Recruiting for all the services has gotten tougher in the last few years, Hicks acknowledged, attributing a good portion of that challenge to the COVID-19 pandemic, which closed schools and halted face-to-face recruiting with teens and those in their early 20s.

Add to that “the lowest unemployment rate in more than 50 years,” and it should come as no surprise that recruitment is not hitting targets, Hicks said, and “we’ve been hard at work recovering.”

Among the approaches are “programs and policy changes that will increase the pool of eligible candidates, from raising the maximum ages of enlistment and launching new programs that help potential recruits meet eligibility requirements; to offering a variety of incentives, such as bonuses, to recruits and recruiters, and releasing targeted ad campaigns that amplify the benefits of military service. And we continue to look for creative solutions.”

The biggest draws to military service remain educational opportunities, training, the opportunity to lead, travel, to fulfill a willingness to serve, and be part of “something bigger than your self,” Hicks said.

But along with those broad benefits, the DOD is focusing on practical benefits, Hicks said. It’s making more commissaries available, and lowering their prices, and especially working toward making childcare more available. The Defense Department provides care for more than 360,000 children already, but Hicks acknowledged that there are “long waiting lists” and that this issue is getting top-level attention.

Hicks also said the Pentagon is setting new standards for pay and allowances to keep soldiers with families out of poverty, so that minimum compensation is “150 percent of the poverty level.”  

On the bright side, Hicks said, “we have been surpassing our retention goals, and we take that as a strong indicator that we’re meeting our value proposition, and that matters.”

A chronic recruiting problem is the dwindling number of Americans who have served in the military, Hicks said. Whereas in 1980, some 18 percent of Americans had served, today it is only seven percent. There is a growing deficit of veterans who can explain the benefits of military service to friends and family members, she said.

The U.S. military relies on “society’s familiarity with the military as a recruitment tool and to bridge the divide between civilians and service members and their families,” Hicks noted. Fewer and fewer eligible recruits have “direct ties” to someone who served.

That also makes it harder to maintain “healthy civil-military relations,” she said.

“We must ensure that as a society, we are familiar with the military, with military families, and what they do, and the sacrifices that they make for the nation,” Hicks asserted. While Americans’ trust in entities such as “Congress, the courts, our justice system, public schools, the press, businesses small and large, and so on has been on decline,” the military remains “one of our more trusted institutions,” she said, and both trust and recruiting is helped by ensuring “fairness, equality, and personal liberties” in the ranks.

“For our part, remaining an apolitical institution is critical to maintaining that trust and confidence, and especially in this moment in history,” Hicks insisted. It’s critical that the armed forces avoid “politicization and remain nonpartisan.” Servicemembers are “routinely trained and educated on this very issue,” she said.

Leaders should reinforce this norm and protect servicemembers “from being dragged into the political fray or being colored or affected by policy disagreements that they, by design, have no control over,” Hicks observed.

Passing the fiscal 2024 Defense Appropriations Act would go a long way toward reinforcing the idea of apolitical support of the military, she said, noting that “the clock is ticking” on the current continuing resolution, which expires Nov. 17.

“The now-routine failure to secure needed resources for defense and for the whole government erodes military trust in civilian leaders,” she said.

“We cannot afford any further delays. I can assure you that Russia and the [People’s Republic of China] are not going to slow down while we get our house in order.”

She criticized Tuberville’s months-long hold on general and flag officer promotions as “unnecessary, unprecedented, and unsafe. It’s bad for the military, it’s bad for military families, and it’s bad for America, and it needs to stop now.”

She offered appreciation for the confirmation of senior officers who have been cleared to their new jobs in recent weeks—including the Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David W. Allvin—“but it is not enough. We need all these nominations to move forward now, and I hope that the Senate will recognize that and move swiftly to confirm the nearly 360 remaining men and women into their positions.”

Hicks said the Pentagon will continue to “amplify” the benefits of military service, promoting military-wide pay raises of more than 10 percent over two years, if the fiscal 2024 budget is approved. These raises are the highest military raises in 20 years, she said.

Hicks said the DOD is also looking at Space Force’s success in “career permeability,” which allows movement back and forth between full-time and part-time work, as a way to fill the ranks.

The Pentagon is working with the various states to ensure licensing reciprocity and similar spousal career protection so partners don’t have to abandon a career when a military family moves from one state to another. She’s also pushing for more “career intermissions,” where service members can take a leave to work with industry and return to service later; a program that only some 500 people have taken advantage of in the years it’s been available.

The Marine Corps “has not had a recruiting challenge,” Hicks noted, and the other services are looking at how that branch “selects its recruiters and rewards them” in an effort to “take what works for them out of that model.”

From the various panels commissioned to examine the recruiting issue, one recommendation was to establish a “chief talent management officer” for the DOD, “which is a best practice in other organizations and institutions. We’ve done that and he’s getting going, starting with some pilots in some key areas and trying to, again, build a community of practice both around function — what we call functional community managers.” Those communities include cyber experts and financial managers. “This is “really getting leadership focus,” she said.

The controversial policy compensating members for out-of-state travel “if they can’t get” needed healthcare reproductive nearby is one of the ways the administration is addressing that issue, Hicks said.    

The good news: surveys show “strong evidence that [Generation] Z has a deep desire, like many generations before” for service and “to make sure they’re contributing to something bigger than themselves.” Gen Z is generally considered to be those born from the late 1990s to around 2010.

“We just have to make sure the military is a place both that really delivers on that and that they see us delivering on that, and that’s the job that’s left to us,” Hicks said.