ST. LOUIS — The U.S. Army must embrace online tactics and virtual worlds to attract younger generations and retain them as soldiers, the deputy commanding general of Training and Doctrine Command said, as the service is again expected to miss its recruitment goals.

Lt. Gen. Maria Gervais on May 21 told attendees of the GEOINT Symposium in St. Louis that the Army, the military’s largest branch, must “leverage immersive-type environments to expand awareness of the numerous opportunities available when you serve,” especially in a recruiting environment that is “the toughest it has ever been since the inception of the all-volunteer force 50 years ago.”

The service missed its fiscal 2022 recruiting goal by roughly 15,000 new soldiers, leaving it shorthanded. Another shortfall is expected for 2023.

Among the most promising new technologies that could help reverse the trend, Gervais said, is the metaverse: a heady subject that is different things to different people, but boils down to the meshing of in-hand peripherals with immersive digital spaces, social interaction from wherever and an online presence foreign to older crowds.

“We already do some things, but our reach is extremely limited. And we need to do better connecting with our younger generations,” Gervais said. “The metaverse could be a way to extend our reach, improve our brand awareness through advertisement placement, and creating an experience, which could pique the interest and expand the awareness of serving in the military for our youth.”

Searches for “metaverse” peaked in late 2021 and early 2022, according to Google Trends, and has since tapered off.

A virtual experience could more easily draw in Generation Z and its successor, Generation Alpha, according to Gervais, who previously led the Synthetic Training Environment Cross-Functional Team, tasked with polishing the latest in highly accurate military mapping and simulation. The Army earlier this year extended its deal with Maxar Technologies, geospatial intelligence specialists, to work on One World Terrain, a critical piece of the Synthetic Training Environment.

Whereas previous generations were targeted with ads in print and on television — such as the revived “Be all you can be” campaign — and through community outreach, the youngest cohorts require new finesse, Gervais said. The service’s own first-person shooter video game, America’s Army, was shut down in 2022 after more than a decade of sustainment. The series, decried by some as propaganda, showed players the ins and outs of combat as well as soldier life.

“Recruiting the next generation of soldiers and leaders will take the Army investing in modernizing the way it operates,” Gervais said. “They interact differently, and they desire to be engaged differently. And we must transition from our Industrial Age accessions processes and policies and move towards a digital-informed accessions and training process.”

Colin Demarest was a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covered military networks, cyber and IT. Colin had previously covered the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.

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