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Military enlistment has declined in recent decades. The Department of Defense (DoD) said it faces “unprecedented recruiting challenges,” as 77% of young adults in the US are unqualified to serve.

At the end of the 2023 fiscal year (September 2023), three branches reported falling short of their recruitment goals: the Navy was at 80% of its target number, the Army was at 77%, and the Air Force was at 89%. The Marine Corps and Space Force were the only branches to meet their recruitment goals.

The total number of active-duty service members in the US armed forces declined roughly 6% from 2012 to 2022, from 1.4 million to 1.3 million.

How much has military enlistment dropped?

Slightly more than 148,000 people enlisted in the US armed forces in 2020, a 58% decline from 1980, when 360,745 new people enlisted in the military. The number of applications to the military has dropped 73% over that same time, from 768,532 to 205,105. while the military’s acceptance rate increased from 46.9% to 72.3%.

The Department of Defense said the COVID-19 pandemic introduced significant challenges to recruiting in 2020, and the US Army Recruiting Command notes that the current labor market is the “most challenging … since the inception of the all-volunteer force,” in part because the majority of young adults are disqualified for service because of “obesity, drugs, physical and mental health problems, misconduct, and aptitude.”

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Which military branches are growing? Which are shrinking?

Every military branch has fewer active-duty personnel than it did in the latter half of the 20th century. Total enlistment in the armed forces peaked in the late 1960s during the Vietnam War. The Army had its most members in 1968, more than 1.5 million personnel. In 2022, the Army had about 466,000 service members — 30% of its 1968 high.

In recent years, the Navy has been the only branch to see overall growth, increasing active-duty personnel by about 8% from 2011 (324,666) to 2020 (346,520). The Army shrank 15% over that decade, the Marine Corps declined about 12%, and the Air Force remained nearly flat.

The total number of cadets and midshipmen (active-duty members who are in ROTC or military academies) across all branches declined 2.4%.

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How has the size of the military’s entry-level workforce changed?

The total number of enlistees at entry-level pay grades (E-1, E-2, and E-3) declined 10.6% between 2012 and 2022, from 318,550 to 284,661.

The Army saw the largest decline, at 24.7%, while the Marine Corps declined 13.9% and the Air Force declined 2.5%. Again, the Navy is the only branch to grow; its entry-level enlistees grew 5.5%.

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What does enlistment look like across the country?

The DoD Office of People Analytics reported that five states accounted for more than 40% of all new military recruits in 2020:

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, this list includes several of the most populous states. To better account for population differences, the DoD also calculates a representation ratio that shows how a state’s recruitment level compares to its share of the US population of 18-to-24-year olds.

By this calculation, enlistees from Hawaii, Florida, and Virginia are the most overrepresented in the military relative to their state populations. Those from North Dakota, Massachusetts, and Utah are the most underrepresented.

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What benefits can recruits receive?

The armed services offer enlistment bonuses to attract new recruits, plus ongoing benefits to support service members and their families. The US military offers scholarships and tuition assistance for service members, veterans, and their families.

Service members who retire from the military with 20 or more years of service receive a pension. Military pension benefits are based on an average of the highest 36 months of basic pay during an individual’s term of service.

After serving, veterans can receive assistance for transitioning out of the military, career counseling, mental health counseling, and no- or low-cost VA health insurance.

Where did this data come from?

Data on the military branches’ 2023 recruitment goals comes from a quarterly Defense Department’s press release. Application and enlistment data comes from the Population Representation in the Military Services: Fiscal Year 2020 Summary Report, which was released by the Defense Department’s Office of People Analytics in 2023. Data about which military branches are growing and shrinking comes from the DoD’s Personnel, Workforce Reports & Publications. This analysis uses numbers from September of each fiscal year.

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Office of People Analytics