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What declining Army recruitment numbers mean for the future of U.S. national security

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

For some context and analysis on some of what the secretary had to say, we turn now to Pentagon reporter Tom Bowman. Tom, thanks for being with us.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So let's start with what caught your ear the most as you heard the secretary.

BOWMAN: What's surprising is the fact that many young people tell her and recruiters about their fears of getting killed or wounded. Again, that was surprising because, of course, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are over. Small numbers of troops are in Syria, and there's no sense U.S. troops will ever be sent into Ukraine. So the secretary's right about - training foreign troops is a big job now, but with civilian jobs plentiful, it's a good economy. The Army will continue to struggle with recruiting.

Now, retired Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen recently told NPR, well, with the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, maybe the Army should be smaller. And if the U.S. embarks on any new wars, maybe they should look to a draft. Now, I don't think a draft is politically likely, and I doubt the Army would want to be smaller. But recruiting troubles could lead to that - a smaller Army - and as a consequence, the Army would have to rely more on the National Guard, Army Reserve to help fill its ranks.

RASCOE: The secretary was adamant that everyone is welcome in the Army. Can you talk a little bit more about what that really means in this day and age?

BOWMAN: Of course, now gays and lesbians can serve openly, and the military is now more accepting of transgender recruits. But the military is, by and large, a conservative organization. Most recruits come from Middle America - from, let's say, more traditional areas.

So the Army, as the secretary says, is focusing on team building and kind of, hey, we're all in this together. We're all Americans and serving our country. And I think it will be a continual leadership challenge along those lines - make sure everyone is respected. And what she said about dealing with sexual harassment and assault, that it's up to leaders, I think she's right, and that's the way to turn this around.

Now, the Army saw a 9% drop in reported sexual assaults last year, but the previous year, there was a 26% increase in reports involving soldiers. And now, that kind of an issue is clearly affecting the recruitment of women.

RASCOE: Secretary Wormuth also said 40% of Army women serve in states that curtail reproductive rights. So did that surprise you?

BOWMAN: It did. And it shows you the ongoing challenges of recruiting young women who tend to have higher military test scores, fewer brushes with the law. They make generally better recruits, so with the ongoing bitter political divide over abortion, providing reproductive access to female service members - that'll continue to be a political issue and also a recruiting headache.

RASCOE: Shifting gears a little bit - you speak to military analysts all the time. What are they telling you about the role of the Army compared to that of the Navy or Air Force? Like, if things escalate with China over Taiwan, what would the Army's role be?

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, the Army is very much involved quietly in training the Taiwanese military how to defend itself against a possible Chinese invasion. More recently, they're sending more officers over there to work at higher levels in Taiwan with military leaders and how to handle large-scale operations - also what weapons to buy.

But I do know that some Army leaders believe the focus on any possible China fight is with the Air Force and the Navy, though Army officers are quick to point out, listen, there's a lot of land in that region. And that's where the Army can train and work with partners and allies to thwart any possible Chinese moves.

RASCOE: NPR's Tom Bowman, thank you so much for joining us.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARK MCGUIRE'S "SILENT WEAPONS (THE ARCHITECTS OF MANIPULATION)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
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