National Guard Bureau leaders are sounding the alarm about the service’s worst recruiting landscape in generations.
For the first time in years, two top officials warn, the Army and Air National Guard will miss their end-strength goals this fiscal year, which ends Friday.
Guardsmen refusing COVID-19 vaccinations, a major Army official adds, may hurt the Guard’s readiness and end-strength even more.
“And they have told me, pretty much unanimously in every location I go, just how difficult the current recruiting challenges are that they’re facing,” Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson, the Guard Bureau chief, said of the Guard’s recruiters last Tuesday.
“For many of them, it’s unprecedented in their time as a recruiter,” he continued during a NGB media roundtable.
“And the reason why this is a concern, obviously, is if you look at last year or the year prior to that, we have always met or authorized in strength, and [it] is probably due to [a] myriad of factors that affect all services."
Hokanson revealed the Air Guard would fall 3,000 airmen short of its 108,300 authorized end strength for fiscal year 2022, 97.2% of its goal.
The Army Guard would miss its 336,000 authorized strength by 6,000 soldiers, 98.1% of its target, this fiscal year.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of competition for many folks by many industries as well as universities,” Hokanson said.
“We need to make adjustments based on the current environment because for the long term, our nation needs a National Guard the size that we are, or maybe even larger, to meet all the requirements that we have,” he continued.
“And it’s up to us to make sure that we fill our formations so that they’re ready when our nation needs us."
Anson D. Smith, the deputy chief of the Army Guard’s Strength Maintenance Division, said COVID-19 vaccinations could increase the component’s problems.
Smith estimated the Army Guard could lose 9,000 soldiers refusing to get COVID-19 vaccinations in fiscal year 2023.
In fiscal 2024, he continued, another 5,000 soldiers could be discharged from the Army Guard for the same reason.
Smith added the Army Guard is awaiting Army Secretary Christine E. Wormuth’s second phase COVID-19 memorandum.
Per Smith, the memo could force personnel without medical or religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine out of the Army Guard.
The NGB reported 89.9% of the Army Guard is fully vaccinated against COVID as of Sept. 19, with another 91% partially vaccinated.
As of the same date, 94.5% of the Air Guard were fully vaccinated and 94.7% were partially vaccinated.
Hokanson suggested improving the Guard’s health care, educational benefits and incentive pay could help the service reduce today’s personnel shortfalls and boost readiness.
“Health care is absolutely critical to making that happen,” Hokanson said.
Current congressional estimates peg the cost of providing health care to every Guard soldier and airman at $718 million annually, he said.
That cost would be greatly offset by improved recruiting, higher readiness rates and reduced post-mobilization medical procedures, according to NGAUS and other supporters.
Zero-cost TRICARE ranks among the top NGAUS legislative priorities.
— By Mark Hensch