The military personnel crisis in 2023

If you thought Afghanistan was bad, wait for the military personnel cliff in 2023.

Since Afghanistan fell, there have been plenty of discussions in the military ranks of “How did we get here?” Many military members are unhappy with how the withdraw was conducted. While there are only a few that make this public, there are many more that are quietly questioning the decision making that went into this disaster.

Afghanistan though is masking a much bigger, looming threat. I’ll go out on a limb and predict it now: the military is going to face a manpower crisis in 2023 when an “unexpected” number of people leave the service.

Don’t believe me? I’ve got three darn-good reasons its going to happen.

First, it’ll be the first year that members under the blended retirement system are up for re-enlistment. If you’re not familiar with it, the old military retirement system required 20 years of service before you could draw a pension. The pension was pretty good, equal to 50% of your base pay, and it followed you for life. Yes, if you were cagey on playing the stock market or invented the next best widget to sell on Amazon, you could do better, but if that was true, you probably weren’t in the military in the first place.

That system was replaced with the “Blended Retirement System,” which sounds like a drink you order at Tropical Smoothie, except this one blended cash and your tears into a lower grade slushy that was tough to swallow. BRS, as it is called, was a 401K program that the military would provide matching contributions. This sounds awesome, except:

  • The military only had a certain number of funds you could invest in
  • The military doesn’t start matching until 5 years
  • Most military members make well below average salary in their first five years

BRS was a way to save money. It was sold to the military as “more fair,” but it was all about saving money. More importantly, the military lost a big incentive for young service members to make the military a career. Most members sign on for an initial 5 year commitment. During this time, they receive a lot of initial training and typically deploy somewhere. For enlisted personnel walking in with only a high school degree, at five years they have schooling, the equivalent of an associates degree, and work experience. It’s enough to entice many to leave for greener pastures, and many do just that.

One of the big incentives to stay was the promise of a good career with a good retirement. So imagine a service member checking their BRS balance, and seeing a pretty paltry number because they didn’t make much money to contribute. Combined with new skills and a half-way decent job market, why would they stay?

BRS went into effect in 2018. Add five years, you get 2023.

Now, not everyone is in it for the money. Plenty of people join just to leave their crappy circumstances. I remember one of my Sailors telling me he could pick between working at a gas station his whole life or joining the Navy. In terms of non-financial reasons, this ranks as a high second reason. But that reason won’t stop the 2023 dropoff, and its pretty obvious why: once you have some mobility because you have skills, money and experience, you don’t have to return to where you came. Military members that left their small town, ghetto or whatever bad place they lived in previously have choices after 5 years of service, and they’re likely going to choose to live in a better place with more job prospects.

But wait! Don’t people serve out of a sense of honor and duty? They do, my dear reader, and that brings me to my third point. The military has been sold as an honorable profession, a meritocracy where one can serve their country. That image is being shattered. We just had a disastrous loss in Afghanistan and a significant refocus on “domestic extremism” (which was questioned by many service members). We keep repeating that the military is rife with sexual assault, despite the punishment rates being better than the civilian sector (due to non-judicial punishment and lower standards of proof than regular courts). When you keep hearing and seeing these messages, you have to ask, why bother? Why join, or if you are in, why stay?

It’s disheartening to say this, but the military is on track for a sharp decline in people willing to serve in 2023. I’m sure they’ll spin it in some positive way, but for all the reasons above, its going to happen. The members that signed up in 2018 will have less reasons to stay, and when you already have attrition rates near 30% in the first 3 years for some services, you need every reason possible to keep people around. Short of a significant correction in terms of pay, benefits, career satisfaction or popularity of mission, it’s going to be an ugly 2023.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.

Speaking of the authors views, you should buy his book “To Build A House: My Epic Saga in Custom Home Building,” available here on Amazon.