As recruiters struggle, Air Force seeks lift from ‘Top Gun’

  • Ryker Morton, 3, is helped while hanging on a chin-up bar after stopping at the U.S. Air Force recruiting tent Sunday at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

WASHINGTON — When “Top Gun: Maverick” roared into theaters in late May, the Air Force was ready.

The smash hit movie may feature Tom Cruise as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a hotshot Navy aviator, but to much of the movie-going public, the distinction between Air Force and Navy fighter jets is lost. So Air Force recruiters struggling to meet their enlistment goals took boxes of free mugs and lanyards, and fanned out to movie theaters for the premiere, determined to capitalize on the jet-fueled excitement surrounding the film.

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These are tough times for military recruiters. With COVID-19 complicating their work and low unemployment reducing the number of potential recruits, all services are having problems finding young people who want to join and can meet the physical, mental and moral requirements.

The Army especially is struggling. On Tuesday, it said it will cut the total number of soldiers it expects to have in the force over the next two years. If those trends continue, that could present challenges as it tries to meet future national security and warfighting missions.

The situation is somewhat less dire for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. Leaders of those branches say they hope to meet or just slightly miss their recruiting goals for this year. But they say they will have to dip into their pool of delayed entry applicants, which will put them behind as they begin the next recruiting year.

So recruiters are offering bigger bonuses and other incentives to those who sign up. And they are seizing on the boost that Hollywood may offer – such as the buzz over the sequel to the 1986 hit “Top Gun.”

“When the original ‘Top Gun’ was released, the Navy and Air Force received a pretty good recruiting bump,” said Maj. Gen. Edward Thomas, head of Air Force Recruiting Service. “Frankly, we hope people get excited all over again about what we do. Whether they want to aim high or fly Navy, we just want them to come join us. We want them to be excited about military service.”

The Air Force said it usually goes into each year with about 25% of its recruiting goal already locked in, but this year will have about half of that. The Navy and Marine Corps often have as much as 50% of their goals at the start of the year, but also will see their percentage slashed.

Gen. Eric Smith, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps., said the Marines are focusing more on retention than recruiting. He said the Marine Corps “will make or come very close to making” its recruiting goals this year, but at the expense of the 2023 pool. And when recruits have less time to prepare before reporting to boot camp, more fail to complete their training, he said.

The situation is more dire for the Army, which a top general says faces “unprecedented challenges” in recruitments.

Gen. Joseph Martin, vice chief of staff for the Army, said the service will have a total force of 466,400 this year, down from the expected 476,000. It could end 2023 with between 445,000 and 452,000 soldiers, depending on how well recruiting and retention go.

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