Attrition: Fat Chance

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July 13, 2018: The number of Americans physically, morally and educationally qualified to join the military continues to shrink. The problem has been developing since the 1990s and there appears no end in sight. Yet at the same time, the army has learned from recent (and past) combat experience that physical fitness is a matter of life or death in combat zones. So some policies will not change no matter how few eligible recruits there are.

An example of this occurred in 2012 when the U.S. Army tightened its physical requirements for new recruits. That meant that male recruits could not have a body fat percentage higher than 24 percent (it used to be 26) and for females was 30 percent (it used to be 32). But once they are in they must reduce that to 18 percent for males and 26 percent for females. The army tightened the body fat rules in 2012 because it was reducing its personnel strength and more soldiers wanted to stay in. Thus the army needed fewer new recruits each year. Because of the high unemployment rate since 2008, more people are trying to join. To do that they had to be thinner or at least not obese. Body fat percentages greater than the new army standards are considered "fat" by the medical community. Moreover, most men with 24 percent (and women with 30 percent) body fat would appear chubby. Most soldiers, especially those in jobs requiring a lot of physical activity have closer to 15 percent body fat (22 percent for women). New male recruits with 24 percent body fat have six months to get it down to 18 percent and keep it there.

This emphasis on low body fat was because Americans have, since the 1990s, become very fat and out-of-shape. There are currently 34 million Americans of prime military age (17-24). But because of bad lifestyle choices, only 28 percent of them (9.5 million) are physically eligible for service.

Each year the armed forces have to recruit 150,000 new troops. The military is allowed to waive some physical or mental standards, and this means that only about 20 percent of those 32 million potential recruits qualify. Each year recruiters have to convince about two percent of those eligible that they should join up. It's a tough job, made worse by a generation that eats too much, exercises too little, doesn't pay enough attention in school and engage in illegal activity. You not only have to be physically fit enough to join, you also have to be smart enough and have no criminal record.

The enormous growth in computer entertainment and subsequent massive reduction in the amount of exercise teenage boys get is the major reason for the body fat percentage crisis. As a result, one of the biggest problems American military recruiters have is unfit young Americans trying to enlist. Over half (now nearly 60 percent) of potential recruits are not eligible because they do not score high enough on the aptitude test the military uses to see if people have enough education and mental skills to handle military life. Many of those who score too low do so because they did not do well at school. A lot of these folks have high IQs but low motivation. Most of the remainder are not eligible for physical reasons. But get this, the most common physical disqualifier is being overweight. Over a third of the people of military age are considered obese. Many of these big folks are eager to join and are told how much weight they have to lose before they can enlist. Few return light enough to sign up. Motivation and self-discipline are important in the military, where making mistakes can be fatal. That especially true in combat, but only about ten percent of soldiers are in jobs that involve looking for a fight. The rest have support jobs, many of them involving going very important jobs for the troops doing the fighting. Mistakes here can get those guys killed. One reason the American army is a so much more effective force now that at any time in history is the screening of recruits and maintenance of those standards after the recruits are on the job.

During World War II the percentage of acceptable recruits was more than double what it is today. Young men and women were in better physical shape, fewer got into trouble with drugs or crime, and military educational standards were not as high because there were more non-technical jobs available.

The sharp decrease in physical fitness means that the service, especially the army, had to change its basic training to include more exercise that will get recruits into shape. That was one of the reasons why, in 2008, basic was increased from nine to ten weeks. After 2008 the government began adding lots of new training requirements that were regarded as essential, but commanders and troops saw them as counterproductive “social engineering.” These new requirements eventually crowded out lots of military training and led to a decline in effectiveness. The most obvious examples were in the navy, where there was, even in peacetime, a need for constant training so that ships could operate safely at sea. Several avoidable collisions in 2017-18 exposed how the navy had sacrificed a lot of that training to fulfill the new social engineering training requirements. In 2016 a retired marine general became the Secretary of Defense and suddenly military training got priority again. Everything, from basic recruit training to basic shipboard skills for sailors of all ranks once more had priority. The social engineering training requirements are still there but commanders now have the authority to decide what types of training have priority.

In 2007 the additional basic training time was, in theory, to instill basic combat skills early on. These skills were expanded using an additional week or so of additional combat training for some combat support troops before they hit the combat zone. The additional training was also meant to improve the discipline and general military effectiveness of new troops. During the 1990s, basic training was watered down quite a bit and that resulted in new recruits coming into their first units still acting a lot like civilians. The army has been trying to rectify that ever since. That effort was stalled between 2008 and 2016. But with the decline in exercise, and growth in obesity among teenagers, the army needed the extra week to get these recruits to look like soldiers and not out of shape video-gamers carrying real guns. Keeping them in shape, physically, after basic training proved easier than preserving the emphasis on military training. That’s a lesson the American military won’t forget. Inaction has consequences. But that diligence with post-basic training does little to solve the problems continuing to worsen among the young people who want to join.

This is not just an American problem. All Western nations (including Japan and South Korea) have similar problems with recruiting and maintaining training standards after recruit training. Even China is having the problem because so many Chinese families have suddenly become affluent since the 1980s.

 


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