WASHINGTON – Army National Guard leaders held a discussion forum during the annual Association of the United States Army meeting in Washington to discuss how the Army Guard plans to attract new talent and modernize alongside the Army.
The panel, led by Army National Guard Director Lt. Gen. Jon Jensen, examined recruiting and retention efforts, division alignment, adaptation to digital culture, climate resiliency and how they affect overall modernization efforts.
Recruiting constraints and adaptive strategies dominated the 90-minute discussion. The Army Guard fell short of its fiscal year 2022 recruiting goal by about 12,000 recruits, leaving the Army Guard more than 6,000 people below its authorized end strength of 336,000.
“I am very confident that through the work and leadership of our adjutants general that we’re going to be able to turn this around very quickly,” said Jensen. “I’m a strong believer that recruiting is about connections.”
Jensen said the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the ability to make those connections.
“During the COVID years of 2020, 2021, we really lost connection with young men and young women across America,” he said. “We didn’t have access to them in high schools, we didn’t have access to them in other activities, and for many of those months, we were not even drilling as units. And so, I think it’s natural that with lost connection, we lost the ability to recruit.”
Army Maj. Gen. John Harris, adjutant general of the Ohio National Guard, agreed, adding that because the Army Guard has readiness centers in more than 2,400 communities, it’s in the best position to solve the recruiting problem.
“We know the challenges of America,” said Harris. “I think we have an obligation, more than anyone else, to ensure our ranks are representative of our communities.”
Harris said the Army Guard must take a nuanced approach to understanding all factors that contribute to an individual’s propensity to serve.
“I just don’t accept that propensity to serve is decreasing,” said Harris. “We can’t think of this ‘propensity’ issue as a monolithic challenge that we can’t overcome. It’s very important that we dissect it and get after solving it.”
Harris said he believes those factors include a decline in direct military ties in American families, stringent recruiting and vaccine requirements, and negative public perceptions about the risks of military service.
Harris touted the Army Guard’s 11% attrition rate for fiscal year 2022, which exceeded the goal to maintain attrition below 13%, as a positive sign that Soldiers are choosing to stay in uniform. Yet, he acknowledged the Army Guard’s biggest challenge is putting resources toward recruiting more enlisted members.
“I’m not talking about just accession and retention bonuses,” said Harris. “While they provide a short-term fix, they do not fix the underlying conditions that are impacting our ability to recruit and retain talent.“
And that impact must be addressed, he said, adding that long-term retention of Soldiers is important as it helps build cohesive teams.
“It is imperative that we build cohesive, disciplined teams that are fit to fight,” said Harris.
Maj. Gen. Timothy Thombleson, commander of the 38th Infantry Division, Indiana Army National Guard, outlined how those teams are reorganizing and preparing for the future fight as part of Total Army modernization efforts. That includes a return to the division as the primary combat formation.
“It’s a great time to be one of the Army National Guard division commanders as we re-establish the division across the nation as the unit of action and move away from a brigade-centric unit of counterinsurgency,” said Thombleson. “We’re bringing back division artillery and converting or fielding electronic warfare battalions. We’re bringing more staff functionality into space, cyber and electronic warfare for multidomain operations.”
This realignment will better enable the Army Guard to plan training and operations with subordinate units in different states, setting the conditions for large-scale operational readiness. It also means the Army Guard will modernize in a predictable and sustainable manner.
Jensen explained that under the regionally aligned readiness and modernization plans, timelines are tailored to provide predictability and spread out the impacts of demanding implementation requirements on units, Soldiers and families as much as possible. He encouraged leaders to communicate modernization and life cycle schedules to keep Soldiers fully aware of their role in the process.
“We have to be very careful of the perception that if my unit is not part of a modernization effort now, then I’m not relevant,” said Jensen. “We’re going to have a period of time where there’s tiered modernization – not tiered readiness – and I would say that’s the case across the Army. Our Soldiers ask for predictability to balance their obligations and ensure that they are ready to meet the mission successfully.”
Thombleson emphasized the Army Guard’s commitment to readiness through continued realistic battlefield training. That includes multiple Army Guard brigade rotations at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, and the Army National Guard’s eXportable Combat Training Center program. He also stressed the need for interoperability and synchronized information across the force.
The Army Guard is innovating its communication platforms to accomplish that.
Brig. Gen. Stefanie Horvath, mobilization assistant director of operations at U.S. Cyber Command, described a data-centric approach that distributes timely and relevant information to the networked division staff to use when planning operations.
“We know that staffs have had to manage a high volume of data while executing major contingency operations and conducting multidomain operations,” she said. “With data-centricity, division staffs no longer have to chase spreadsheets in the inbox or push data that’s not relevant because everyone is now using the same data source in a variety of views. This opens up staffs to conduct more analysis and do more division coordinating activities.”
It also has applications off the battlefield, including helping Soldiers get paid on time.
“Many states increased state active duty deployments for emergency responses to COVID, civil unrest, hurricane relief and supporting wildfires, but there is not one good application that accurately reports all Soldiers’ performance,” said Horvath. “Data-centricity connects their performance of duties with the Defense Finance Accounting Service, to pay them for the active duty performed.”
Modernization, she said, drove “us to create something that didn’t exist before.”
Similarly, modernization also means the Army Guard is implementing projects aligned with Army climate strategy goals for installation resiliency and training for extreme weather conditions.
“The Army Guard is adhering to the Army climate strategy by constructing microgrid projects, incorporating alternate energy sources, transitioning to an all-electric non-tactical vehicle fleet, retrofitting our facilities to improve energy efficiency and savings,” said, Col. Anthony Hammett, the Army Guard’s chief of installations, environment and energy. “As Secretary [of the Army Christine] Wormuth has stated, climate change isn’t a distant future; it’s a reality and must be addressed now. We in the Army National Guard are doing just that.”
When asked what issue keeps him up at night, Jensen said he is most concerned about doing everything he can to make Army Guard life more predictable and sustainable for Soldiers, families and employers.
“There’s always been friction between three pieces of a Reserve Component Soldier’s life,” said Jensen. “As leaders, we have to be mindful of the Soldier, their family, and their employer. Every unit counts, every Soldier counts and readiness counts. And it all starts with filling our formations.”