The U.S. military is one of the finest fighting forces the world has ever seen, but even with the most modern technology and military hardware at its command, its still relies on its most important weapon: manpower, and that weapon is at serious risk.
Approximately 71 percent of Americans ages 17 to 24, the military's main recruitment source, are ineligibly to serve, according to the Pentagon. That's 24 million of the 34 million people in that age group. This means that the U.S. military has only 10 million people from which it can replenish its ranks in the future.
"We need a constant flow of volunteers in our military," retired Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr told me in an interview. "So if we don't have people that are qualified, our military is going to suffer."
Ten million may sound like a lot, but in reality, it's not much. Spoehr noted that major U.S. companies are also competing for this pool of young people, and considering the U.S. military is an all-volunteer force, that makes it all the more difficult to get them to join. The entire U.S. military has approximately 2.2 million members, including reserve personnel. Spoehr noted that the Army alone requires 80,000 recruits per year to replenish itself.
"They have to not only be qualified, they have to want to volunteer to join the military," noted Spoehr.
Spoehr, who now serves as the director of the Heritage Foundation's Center for National Defense, and his co-author Bridget Handy recently published a report detailing exactly why the military is facing such a difficult recruitment environment. They found that the issues plaguing military recruitment go well beyond national security. The major drivers impeding the recruitment pool include health problems, a severe lack of physical fitness, sub-standard education and crime.
Health and physical fitness were responsible for 59 percent of the ineligible individuals, which largely stems from America's ongoing obesity epidemic.
"It has really picked up in the last ten years, Americans have just become much more obese and overweight," noted Spoehr. "About ten years ago, there were only two states were a third of Americans were obese. Now there are thirty states where a third of the Americans are obese."
The next major impediment is education. About 25 percent can't join because they do not have a high school or General Education Development diploma, a requirement for military service. Another 10 percent are not eligible due to criminal activity. Nearly 1 million juveniles were arrested in 2015, according to the Department of Justice. Depending on the record, that can also prevent a young person from serving.
If the U.S. can't keep up its military recruitment, it will obviously suffer from a manpower shortage at a time when manpower is becoming increasingly more relevant in international security. U.S. adversaries like Russia, China and North Korea all have larger armed forces than the U.S. in terms of raw numbers. Granted, none have the same level of training, experience or ability, but they also don't have as many military commitments across the globe.