Military Attrition:

Better Data, Coupled With Policy Changes, Could Help the Services Reduce Early Separations

NSIAD-98-213: Published: Sep 15, 1998. Publicly Released: Sep 15, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed historical attrition rates for enlisted personnel who serve at least 6 months but leave military service before completing their first contract terms, focusing on: (1) the rate and timing of attrition during enlistees' first terms; (2) the extent of the Department of Defense's (DOD) investment in recruiting and training first-term enlistees; (3) reasons for first-term attrition after training; (4) service members' perceptions of quality-of-life factors that contribute to attrition; and (5) actions DOD and the armed services are taking to reduce enlistees' attrition.

GAO noted that: (1) first-term attrition has been a long-standing and complex problem for the services; (2) while all four services are concerned about attrition, they have made few formal policy changes aimed at reducing attrition in specific target populations; (3) although the services collect survey data to assess attitudes about military service and quality of life, they do not use this data to analyze why separations are occurring or to formulate policy changes or actions aimed at reducing early attrition; (4) between fiscal year (FY) 1982 through FY 1993, 31.7 percent of all enlistees did not complete their first terms of service; (5) for Army, Navy, and Air Force enlistees who entered the services in FY 1993, attrition rates were higher than they had been in over a decade; (6) DOD's data on attrition does not include all enlistees allowed to separate early from the military; (7) using the FY 1993 cost estimates, GAO calculates that the services spent $1.3 billion on the 72,670 enlistees who entered the services in FY 1993 and departed prematurely; (8) because these enlistees were separated early, the services did not get a full return on their investment; (9) official reasons for the separation of enlistees who entered the services in FY 1993 varied by gender and service; (10) variances in the types of separations among the services indicate that the services interpret separation codes differently, that their separation policies differ, that the services have very different attrition problems, or some combination of these explanations; (11) in its 1997 report on attrition from basic training, GAO recommended ways for DOD to improve the use of these separation codes to build a more complete database on reasons for servicewide attrition; (12) GAO's recommendations have been incorporated into the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 1998, and DOD has begun to comply with these legislative requirements; (13) all four services are concerned about attrition, and the Army and the Air Force have set numerical targets for reducing it; (14) GAO found that the services did not always have adequate data on the exact reasons for separation; (15) without such data and formal policy changes, numerical targets will be arbitrary, and success in reducing attrition may either be coincidental or result in the failure to discharge enlistees who really should be separated; and (16) allowing many enlistees to easily separate with honorable discharges may inadvertently serve as a disincentive for them to persevere.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD partially implemented this recommendation, but intends no further action. Specifically, the Navy took no action, despite the fact that GAO's data indicated that it had the highest number of enlistees allowed early releases. The Marine Corps took no action but had few persons in this category. The Army reviewed its policies, but, like the Marine Corps, it grants few enlistees early releases. The Air Force is the only service that has reviewed its policies and decreased the number of its early releases.

    Recommendation: To capture more accurately the numbers of enlisted personnel separated before the end of their first terms, the Secretary of Defense should direct the service secretaries to include as a separate category the numbers of first-term personnel released more than 90 days before the end of their contract terms when they report first-term attrition rates.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: All the services administered quality-of-life surveys and identified initiatives aimed at reducing the attrition of first-term personnel. For example, the Navy designed a survey to be given to personnel at "transition points," including when they separate or enlist. The Marine Corps uses both exit and retention surveys and the Navy Postgraduate School conducted an analysis. The Army administered entry and exit surveys to first-term enlistees to obtain root causes of attrition. The Air Force has administered biannual surveys and, in April 2000, began to institute exit surveys for use in addressing retention. In late 1999, DOD administered a survey of active-duty personnel that included many items aimed at assessing quality of life. In April 2000, DOD conducted a military exit survey to assess the decision of service members to leave. The final report with a completed analysis of the military exit survey was completed in February 2002, and was distributed to the military services.

    Recommendation: In order to provide more information on what factors are related to first-term attrition, the Secretary of Defense should direct the service secretaries to use existing quality-of-life surveys or create new ones to: (1) collect information on the factors contributing to first-term enlistees' separation; and (2) identify quality-of-life initiatives aimed at reducing the attrition of first-term personnel.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In testimonies and other forums, DOD and the services have made reducing attrition an important goal. For example, Navy officials admit that they cannot afford to weed out recruits. They have initiated many remedial programs to reduce attrition. The July 1999 Marine Corps Commandant's Planning Guidance emphasized leadership responsibility for mentoring Marines and providing a framework for success. The Army's philosophy has changed from "Prove to us you're good enough to be in our Army and we'll let you in" to "It's going to be tough, but we will train you. We will get you through it." Finally, three times each year, Air Force recruiting, basic training, and technical commands meet to discuss issues including reducing attrition.

    Recommendation: To retain as many first-term enlistees as possible, the Secretary of Defense should direct the service secretaries to continually emphasize to all commissioned and noncommissioned officers the costs of first-term attrition, the difficulty of acquiring new enlistees to replace early losses, and the importance of providing positive leadership in targeting first-term enlistees who could be encouraged to complete their contractual obligations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: All four services have introduced new programs aimed at retaining enlistees who might earlier have been summarily discharged. For example, the Navy has instituted six remedial programs targeting enlistees in basic training. It also plans to provide more remedial attention to enlistees in the fleet who are having minor disciplinary problems and experiencing hardships. The Marine Corps has begun new programs in basic training to target persons threatening suicide and suffering physical problems such as lower extremity injuries. Fort Jackson, the Army's largest basic training site, has developed programs designed to remediate enlistees experiencing problems with injuries and with adjustment, language, physical fitness, behavioral, and academic problems. After training, the Army plans to target enlistees who have previously been separated for desertion or minor disciplinary problems. Finally, the Air Force has begun to target for special attention persons in basic training who suffer physical injuries and psychological problems and enlistees who make false declarations of homosexuality. After training, the Air Force is providing remedial attention to enlistees with minor disciplinary problems.

    Recommendation: To retain as many first-term enlistees as possible, the Secretary of Defense should direct the service secretaries to collect more complete data on specific groups of enlistees whom the services wish to target for remedial action and issue guidance and formal policy changes to local commanders indicating what specific actions--such as more counseling, optional testing, further job choices, or remedial training--can be taken to prevent the early discharge of these targeted groups. Possibilities for targeting include enlistees being separated for minor disciplinary infractions, failure to pass physical fitness tests and career development tests, one-time drug use, and pregnancy.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  5. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOD has said that it has no plans to implement this recommendation. However, GAO continues to believe that it is important to avoid the "volunteer in--volunteer out" philosophy of essentially releasing those who decide they no longer want to be in the military. If an unfavorable type of discharge was made a consequence of not completing their service obligation, GAO believes it would act as a disincentive and that attrition would be reduced.

    Recommendation: To retain as many first-term enlistees as possible, the Secretary of Defense should direct the service secretaries to reassess the appropriateness of providing favorable types of discharge to enlistees whose behavior or performance led to their early separation and ensure that proper incentives exist to encourage enlistees to complete their first terms.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense


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