Republican senators on Wednesday pressured senior officials with the Navy, Army and Air Force on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training, which they said was among “woke” policies that are compounding recruitment challenges across nearly all military branches.
Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.) said the Biden administration was “hellbent” on politicizing the military and slammed the under secretaries for the Navy, Air Force and Army for defending an “obsession with this equity agenda.”
“The offspring of identity politics, which is incredibly divisive, has now made its way through DEI trainings in these branches,” Schmitt said. “It is naive to believe this is not divisive among recruits or people in the military.”
Under Secretary of the Navy Erik Raven responded at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on recruitment challenges, saying that diverse teams were essential for “warfighting capability.” Acting Under Secretary of the Air Force Kristyn Jones said diversity and equity also improves retention rates.
“We’re not looking at any quotas,” she said. “But we are looking for where there are barriers that are impacting certain parts of our population in different ways. …. For example, barriers we had with women who were choosing to leave our service because of some of the policies we had.”
Besides the Marine Corps and the Space Force, every military branch is struggling to meet its recruitment target goals, which have already been shrunk to meet the lower demand.
In the last fiscal year, the Army was 15,000 recruits short of a 60,000 goal, while both the Navy and the Air Force barely met targets for active duty personnel.
The Pentagon has pointed to various challenges, including a declining interest for military service among the youngest generation of Americans and a competitive labor market. Many Americans are also not eligible for service based on health requirements or prior criminal misconduct.
The Defense Department has not identified DEI training or particular policies under GOP scrutiny as a barrier to recruitment, and officials have said more diversity in the military helps tackle problems and come up with unique solutions.
According to the Pentagon, about 41 percent of the military identifies as part of a minority group.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said recent surveys have not found a large number of servicemembers listing “woke” policies as a major issue across the military.
“Diversity and inclusion strengthen our military,” Reed said. “By every measure, America’s military is more lethal than it has ever been. It is also more diverse and inclusive than ever before. And this is not a coincidence — our military looks more and more like the nation it represents.”
The new Republican House majority has honed in on DEI initiatives and policies to address climate change at the Pentagon as unnecessary expenses, and threats to the military’s readiness.
House Republicans have called for cuts to “woke” programs in the next fiscal year defense budget as part of a larger fight over spending and the debt ceiling.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, devoted a large part of his introductory remarks to the Pentagon’s DEI training and efforts to weed out extremism in the ranks, both of which he said “dissuade young people from enlisting.”
“They suggest to the American people the military has a problem with diversity and extremism,” Wicker said. “In truth, the military is the greatest civil rights program in the history of the world.”
While the under secretaries agreed extremism only affected a small percentage of the armed forces, they did not say it posed a recruitment challenge.
Sen. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) called out DEI training, gender ideology and abortion access in the military, calling them “social experiments” and “radical agendas.”
After his remarks, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) countered that diversity boosts military effectiveness when U.S. troops deploy to other nations.
“The fact the Illinois National Guard has Polish-speaking personnel who can actually be in Ukraine helping train Ukrainians because we have those language abilities is good,” she said. “It in fact helps with our readiness.”