This recent article in the Army Times has created a lot of buzz about whether or not the National Guard is poised to face recruiting and retention issues. And while I think the article raises some valid points, I believe there are three bigger questions we should be asking.
Is the National Guard facing an identity crisis, are we measuring retention and recruiting success properly, and is cost-analysis looking at the whole picture?
The Bottom Line Up Front – An Identity Crisis?
Are we the weekend warriors who are the primary go-to for domestic missions and a capable back-up in times of war? Or are we just a more affordable active-duty-esque force trying to keep up?
The answer to that question frames this entire discussion, and it depends on where you look and who you ask.
If you look at the marketing efforts of the National Guard over the years, you’d probably believe the primary mission is the homeland. Head over to the Guard’s homepage right now, and the first thing you see reads:
And watch any Guard commercial from the past few years, and you see a steady stream of clips from state missions, community outreach, and neighborly help in a time of need.
However, this domestic-focused approach to recruitment doesn’t match up with posture statements and the perceived direction of the program (and anyone with a quality 1SG knows ‘perception is reality’).
- NGB Posture Statement 2021 – “The warfight [sic] is a primary mission and at the heart of everything the National Guard does.”
- NGB Posture Statement 2020 – “First, fighting America’s wars is the primary mission of the National Guard.”
- NGB Posture Statement 2019 – “Fighting America’s wars will always be the primary mission of the National Guard.”
So, I ask again— Are we the weekend warriors who are the primary go-to for domestic missions and a capable back-up in times of war? Or are we just a more affordable active-duty-esque force trying to keep up?
I’m not saying one is right, or one is wrong, but it can’t be both.
Are We Measuring Retention and Recruiting Success Properly?
The article that sparked these thoughts asked if the National Guard was facing a looming retention and recruitment crisis because of how actively the Guard has been used over the past year. And while I think this is a question we should always be asking, I’m worried the approach may be all about quantity and not about quality.
I believe there’s a strong positive correlation between soldiers who have successes in their civilian lives and soldiers who are good soldiers.
- A soldier who is able to keep a good job in the civilian world is one who is probably great at things like being on time, being organized, effectively using time management, staying motivated, etc. All qualities of a great soldier at all levels.
- A soldier who has a civilian job where they have a leadership role is going to have more experience and a wider skill set at being a leader. All great things you want in an organization.
- A soldier who is earning certificates, attending trade schools, or going to college is probably going to be more motivated, goal-oriented, and have a wider skill set they can bring to the Guard.
The problem? Higher OPTEMPO, deployment rotations that could be handled by active duty, and a marketing message that doesn’t line up with the reality—all of these things are going to have a greater impact on the soldiers identified above.
I don’t believe the Guard will ever have a problem filling the ranks with numbers. However, from my anecdotal look around, I believe we could see higher numbers of quality leaders at all levels leave the organization in the coming years.
What do I think should be done about it?
Again, this is my personal opinion, but I have no problems at all with any of the state missions and activations, and I don’t believe any current soldier should either. Whether you look at the marketing efforts or the posture statements, it’s what we signed up for.
The questions come when you start to identify the primary mission of the Guard and how that’s being used to recruit soldiers. If the primary mission is to be an active-duty-esque organization that’s just a more affordable option for the country—okay. But that needs to make a stronger showing on the recruitment side of the house.
If our primary mission matches the marketing efforts (and arguably what a lot of current soldiers believe it is), then doing things like using the Guard for deployments that could be logistically covered by active duty is going to cause problems. A quote I’ve heard more times than I can count from National Guard soldiers is, “If I wanted to go active duty, I would have just gone active duty.”
An additional problem is that identifying a problem is tough. If retention and recruitment benchmarks stay at only a quantity quota with no quality element, it’ll be pretty hard to identify any issues. We need 100 soldiers; we get 100 soldiers—all is well.
However, I believe the quality of retained and recruited soldiers is extremely important (and I’m not just referring to higher ranks).
What does that look like? I don’t mean putting more weight on recruiters. They already have enough to deal with and do a good job at it. What I mean is figuring out if the current climate, mission, and direction of the Guard are affecting the quality of the force. I believe something can be devised through the right data sets, but I’ll leave that for another day.
Is the National Guard Just a More Affordable Form of Active Duty?
“Today’s National Guard is more accessible, adaptable and affordable than ever in its 377 year history, and at historic levels of readiness.” General Frank J. Grass Chief, National Guard Bureau (NG Posture Statement 2015)
“There’s wide agreement in our (Senate) caucus with this independent commission’s findings that the National Guard is the most cost-effective solution for the nation’s defense.” Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) (NG Posture Statement 2015)
“The National Guard helps DoD achieve greater performance and affordability by optimizing the inherent cost-savings of the National Guard and posturing our forces for predictable operational requirements.” (NG Posture Statement 2020)
It seems quite clear that a more affordable alternative to active duty forces may be the goal of the National Guard. And while I self-admittedly don’t have all of the numbers, I’d be curious to see if indirect costs resulting from the issues outlined in this article are considered in that cost-analysis.
- If there is an issue with retention quality, are the costs of recruiting and retraining replacements considered?
- If there is an issue with retention quality, are the costs of having a lower quality force doing the job considered?
The Bottom Line
I ask one more time— Are we the weekend warriors who are the primary go-to for domestic missions and a capable back-up in times of war? Or are we just a more affordable active-duty-esque force trying to keep up?
I’m not saying publicly one is right, or one is wrong, but it can’t be both.
The thoughts and ideas in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent any opinions made in an official capacity.
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