WASHINGTON — Military recruiters today are being challenged by demographic trends showing a declining population of young people who are eligible and willing to serve.

As a new military service, the U.S. Space Force is still working on a recruiting strategy to attract the best and the brightest. The results so far are promising, said Maj. Gen. Ed Thomas, commander of the Air Force Recruiting Service.

In an interview with SpaceNews, Thomas described the Space Force as a “small and elite force” that requires a nontraditional approach to recruiting.

The Air Force Recruiting Service at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, supports both the Air Force and the Space Force. It hit its goal last year of recruiting nearly 400 guardians, as members of the Space Force are known. This coming year the target has been raised to 500. 

“There’s a lot of uniqueness about the Space Force,” said Thomas.

One key feature is how small it is compared to the other military branches. The Space Force is projected to have 16,000 uniformed and civilian guardians, compared to nearly 680,000 who serve in the U.S. Air Force.

The Space Force relies on the Air Force for most of its administrative and overhead support so it only recruits people to fill specialized jobs in satellite operations, intelligence and cyber security.

The Department of the Air Force has about 1,200 recruiters assigned to 24 squadrons. Each squadron has one recruiter dedicated to the Space Force.

Although recruiters face unfavorable demographics, the upside for the Space Force is that there’s more excitement about space than the United States has seen since the Apollo era, Thomas said.  

Space Force recruiters pitch the traditional benefits of military careers but they are also selling a larger vision, Thomas said. That is reflected in recent advertisements that showcase the importance of the space domain as the next frontier for national security and the role of space technology in everyday human life.

The latest recruiting ad titled “Protect” features chief of space operations Gen. John Raymond. One of his lines: “We are here to defend the freedom to operate in space, to be the guardians of our way of life.”

Thomas said marketing research shows that message resonates with some members of Generation Z, the Space Force’s target demographic in their early to mid-20s. 

“We’ve done a lot of focus groups looking at how we connect with and inspire Generation Z,” he said. “The idea that the Space Force is protecting space for all is very appealing to them.”

New way to evaluate candidates 

Under the model used by the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, candidates who volunteer to enlist are evaluated by regional recruiting offices, and each region of the country has to meet specific quotas for different job categories.  

Because the Space Force is so much smaller, the recruiting and selection process are centralized and managed at the national level, said Thomas.

Every applicant has to pass the standard Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) entrance exam. Space Force candidates also take a personality test called the Tailored Adaptive Personality Assessment System, and are asked to answer essay test questions such as why they are interested in joining the Space Force. 

A team of officials from Space Force headquarters and Air Force Recruiting Service — known as the “Board of Guardians” — evaluate applicants and select the ones who will be sent to basic military training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. After basic military training, guardians move on to Space Systems Operations technical training at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California.

Patricia Mulcahy, chief human capital officer of the Space Force, said the board “looks beyond applicants’ entrance exams to determine if they are not only qualified, but that they’ll also be a good fit for the culture and team-centric environment we are building.”

The Space Force in fiscal year 2021 signed up 395 enlisted guardians and nine officers. 

Thomas noted that Space Force recruits — with an average age of 22 and a half years and some college education — are slightly older and more educated than Air Force recruits. 

Of the 395 enlistees, 100% are U.S. citizens and 36% have almost a semester of college, including 11% with bachelor’s degrees. All had high ASVAB scores. “So a very well educated, slightly more experienced, highly qualified group,” said Thomas. “The Space Force is getting exceptionally high quality recruits.”

The next challenge is to attract more women, said Thomas. Only 20% of Space Force recruits last year were women, compared to 25% for the Air Force. Gender and racial diversity is “one of the areas that we’re working very hard,” said Thomas.

Also being debated are changes proposed by Raymond who has argued that the Space Force should have more flexibility to select recruits. In a recent document, the Space Force contends that existing models of military recruitment were designed to bring in large numbers of people and train them in narrowly defined and limiting specialties, and that model is incompatible with Space Force needs. 

Thomas said the Air Force provides exemptions and waivers from current service requirements on a case-by-case basis, and broader reforms are being discussed. 

“We are looking, for instance, at medical waivers,” he said.

A health issue might disqualify Army, Marine Corps or Air Force recruits who have to deploy overseas to areas where they may not have access to medical care.  Space Force guardians will not be deployed away from home at the same rate, said Thomas. “So there may be some medical conditions that would be more significant for an airman or a soldier that may not necessarily be disqualifying for a guardian.”

Most of the officers coming into the Space Force are graduates of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Approximately 1,000 cadets graduate every year, about 10% of whom will go to the Space Force. A small number of officers are ROTC graduates or commissioned from the Air Force Officer Training School at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...