The US military sought to bring in 150,000 recruits last year but failed to meet its goals by some 15 percent. This crisis is not a mystery.
Recruitment is low because only 23 percent of Americans between 17 and 24 are eligible to join the military. In most cases, they’re not physically fit or can’t pass the required tests.
Furthermore, potential recruits experience a job market more competitive with military service than ever. With other jobs paying better and offering similar benefits, military service just isn’t compelling.
Other reasons recruitment numbers are down are a perceived “wokeness” in the military, COVID-19 restrictions, Military Health System Genesis, the possibility of great power conflict, and a lack of faith in government.
There are many resource-heavy solutions to the problem: paying service members more and beefing up GI Bill incentives, for instance. There are even some practical, low-resource solutions that should be implemented right away, like getting rid of certain tattoo restrictions, diverting marketing money to hire social media influencers, and cutting down the turnaround time it takes to get waivers.
However, there is another, less conventional option: creating an American Foreign Legion.
American Foreign Legion
Ukraine has made it clear that foreign fighters can be effective in modern warfighting. Though unorthodox, a foreign legion may be the solution America needs to reverse course on the recruitment crisis.
The American Foreign Legion (AFL) would be made up entirely of non-citizens. Recruits would not require permission to work in the United States or have a Permanent Residence Card, a high school diploma, or speak English upon enlistment.
The candidates would be motivated by citizenship and prestige, and they would be paid fairly. The AFL would be recruiting from a completely different pool than existing US military branches, which is its primary benefit to the joint force.
French Foreign Legion
France offers a prime example of a country with a modern foreign legion.
The French Foreign Legion has a strength of 8,000 men and boasts a selection rate of 15 percent, which is between that of US Navy SEALs and US Army Rangers. These 8,000 men were not French citizens, and without the French Foreign Legion would have never had the opportunity to fight for France.
The AFL could scale much larger. It could prioritize screening for foreign influence and emphasize the compartmentalization of sensitive material, ensuring minimal security risks. The US already gives clearances to foreigners, who, in some cases, have never even visited America, so this is not uncharted territory.
The legion also gives military-aged men and women another opportunity to gain legal US citizenship, potentially slightly lowering the rate of illegal immigration.
An AFL would lower combat deployments for American citizens and create the opportunity for an extra-selective, high-performing branch with rigorous physical fitness requirements and a stable of intelligent, bilingual enlistees from a myriad of different cultures. Entire books could be written on the benefit additional linguists could provide to the force; some could even be prior enlistees from different militaries (as seen in the FFL) and bring a unique perspective to the table.
Another positive aspect of foreign legions is their ability to maintain low-intensity conflict.
Brian Farrell, in his 2011 master’s thesis Should the United States create an American Foreign Legion, makes several good arguments supporting the AFL.
He argues it might be the best way to enhance cultural and linguistic expertise in the military. Then, using the troop rotations in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan as an example, he makes the case that the frequency of rotation used in the past would no longer be necessary, enabling improved situational awareness among troops and causing less logistical headaches through his proposed long-term deployments.
He ultimately concludes that he does not favor an AFL because it would appear too imperialistic. The problem with that argument is twofold.
First, the force’s lethality should always be considered before optics. Secondly, Farrell drafted his thesis in 2011, a very different time in national security. Now, the US doesn’t seek to advance its military footprint but maintain the posture it already has. Farrell obviously wasn’t aware of the 2022 recruiting crisis.
He then argues the establishment of an American Foreign Legion would be an expense the Department of Defense could not afford, as he foresaw a decrease in defense spending. He was correct in his time, but defense spending has steadily risen since 2015.
Farrell even argues that AFL deployments would be cheaper than the conventional US military, making it cost-effective in the long run. Farrell’s views on the practical use and military advantages of an American Foreign Legion have withstood the test of time, but his primary apprehensions with an AFL have not.
The United States can solve its recruitment problem while creating one of the most capable military services on the planet. General Alain Lardet of the French Foreign Legion said, “every year around 8,000 men knock on our door, we have 147 nationalities at present…” Bear in mind, this is not recruiters going out and hunting down recruits, this is potential recruits traveling to France to knock on recruiters’ doors.
The American Foreign Legion could be as selective as it pleases. It could require high test scores and non-English speaking candidates to pass the defense language aptitude battery. The recruits could easily be held to a higher physical standard than in any other US service.
An AFL means a more culturally aware force and a force that is easier to sustain during long deployments. It means cheaper conflicts and less war profiteering. It means access to a pool of recruits that would have otherwise been off the table.
As it stands, our military is facing a world of great power competition with a dwindling force. If the recruitment crisis continues, the US must change its force posture and prepare to accommodate a weakened force or start drafting military-aged men and women.
An American Foreign Legion is the most complete solution to this problem.
Ray Vawter (@rayvawter) is a national security commentator who has experience in the think tank space, counterterrorism analysis, and higher education. He currently works in Human Intelligence in the US military.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.
The Defense Post aims to publish a wide range of high-quality opinion and analysis from a diverse array of people – do you want to send us yours? Click here to submit an op-ed.