It's the most impressive batch of recruiters the Air Force could hope to assemble. Brett is a dashing fighter pilot. Lia is his match, flying helicopters. Broc is the wisecracking mechanic who can fix an aircraft in a flash--while the enemy is closing in. Then there's Sanchez, the quiet professional, who's trained to parachute into hostile territory, eliminate the enemy, and rescue any friendlies who may be in trouble.
Don't look for this marketing dream team in an Air Force recruiting station, though. They're the stars of "Stealth Force," a sort of adventure series that runs on airforce.com, the principal Web site for people interested in an Air Force career. If they succeed at their mission, these online characters could help the Air Force finally come to grips with its most severe recruiting crunch in decades.
The United States military for four straight years has failed to attract enough recruits to fill the ranks. In a search for solutions, the armed services are turning to--what else?--the Internet. The campaign plan goes well beyond typical corporate recruiting efforts such as listing jobs on the employment sites hotjobs.com and monster.com. Military online recruiters hope that "branding" campaigns-using online games, puzzles, e-dramas, and other interactive offerings--will sell kids on the military long before they are old enough to enlist.
"A lot of these kids don't even know we exist," says TSgt. Chuck Marshall, the Air Force's interactive recruiting chief. "We want to have such a fun and interesting Web site that kids will talk about it at school and talk about it with their friends."
Stealth Force is designed for teenagers aged 13 through 17, with the hope that it will put the Air Force in mind once they approach high school graduation. Another site, called Air Force Link Jr. (af.mil/aflinkjr/), aims to attract the attention of kids even earlier, at the ages of six through 12. That site, launched last year, features about a dozen games and puzzles-including a word search with clues like "radar" and "sonic"-an online "coloring book" in which kids can dandy up the Air Force's forthcoming F-22 fighter, and a picture game that calls on the players to identify cryptic-looking images such as a close-up of a B-2 bomber canopy.
Stealth Force, which debuted last November, features a core group of characters who are assigned to a secret Air Force unit. Its vaguely defined job: "Defend the nation against Rebel harm." Each adventure (all of which are set in 2010) comprises several episodes that are updated monthly and end in classic cliff-hanger style. Will Brett evade the "sonic detonator" fired by an enemy jet? Will Lia be able to maneuver the rescue chopper into a tiny canyon?
Each episode is a noninteractive "flash movie." Optional games at the same site carry on the basic theme of the series. In "Jungle Maneuvers," for instance, players would get to help Sanchez, the rescue specialist, run like Pacman through a maze of trees and gather up first-aid kits and energy packs that help keep his strength up--and earn points for the player. In another game, players would race against a clock to select the right tools and parts to fix the engine of the downed helicopter.
The Air Force hopes that lots of flash technology allowing fluid motion on the screen will help set its site apart from the pack, and there is a pack. "We're trying to distinguish ourselves from the other services," says Jonathan Skaines, the art director for Dallas-based Sixty Foot Spider, USAF's Internet development agency. "We want to brand the high-tech image."
Even though the Stealth Force games are fairly simplistic, they do hold a decisive edge over the competition. So far, the only other military-sponsored online game is a primitive effort on www.navyjobs.com called "The Mission."
The Mission, says the Navy, targets Net surfers 15 and under. The player represents a Navy fighter pilot on the aircraft carrier USS Truman. Across the screen flashes a message that some SEALs need air support. As the player follows the game prompts, he is led to different stations on the carrier. The object is to acquaint players with the kinds of things that take place on a big-deck carrier, other than launches of high-tech aircraft and their pilots into the wild blue. There are brief encounters, for instance, with a tactical action officer who gets the air support operation up and running and an aviation storekeeper who provides equipment for aircraft. Each offers a testimonial about how exciting it is to be in the Navy. Yet all of the displays are static, and the game has no voices, just boxes with written dialogue.
In a Nutshell
Finally, two F/A-18 fighters are airborne, and the game reaches its climactic moment. The player gets to click on a button that fires a missile at two enemy fighters. When he does this, the bogeys suddenly peel away, intimidated by the Navy fighters. One of the dialogue boxes sums up the meaning of it all: "I guess those two don't want to test their fate against the highly trained Navy pilots."
The services' online games are new and targeted at teens still too young to enlist, so the Pentagon has no data to indicate whether or not they actually will help strengthen the Pentagon's recruiting performance. Military officials see hopeful signs. In January, the most recent month for which figures are available, the Stealth Force site got more than 85,000 hits, up from some 49,000 in the previous month. In January, a focus group was asked about Stealth Force, and about half of the participants said they would bookmark the site. Three-fourths said they would recommend it to a friend.
Overall, airforce.com each month produces names of about 5,000 persons who ask for more information about joining the Air Force and meet the service's age and educational requirements. Those names are passed on to field recruiters, who then follow the usual procedure for wooing the prospect into the service.
Those leads might prove to go a long way toward making up for stubborn recruiting shortfalls over the last two years. In 1999, the Air Force wanted to recruit 33,800 new members. It fell short by more than 1,700. This year, the service is aiming for 34,000 enlistees, but it projects it will come up 1,000 short of the goal. Actual USAF end strength is several thousand spaces below the authorized level.
"I am very concerned," says Carol A. DiBattiste, the undersecretary of the Air Force and a central figure in USAF's get-back-on-track recruiting effort. "We've declared a wartime mentality."
Recruiting problems aren't unique to the Air Force. All services are affected. The end of the 1990s military drawdown and the roaring economy have forced all of the military services to work harder to fill the ranks. Working against them is the fact that teenagers show less and less interest in joining the armed forces. Each year, the Pentagon conducts a study to determine the propensity of young Americans to serve. In 1989, at the close of the Cold War, such a propensity could be found in 17 percent of males aged 16 through 21. One decade later, that figure had fallen to only 12 percent.
Still, the Air Force's recruiting problems have lasted longer and cut deeper, compared to the other services. The Navy, for example, came up short in 1998 by 7,000 recruits and barely met its end strength last year. The Army and Marine Corps, similarly, enjoyed recent success meeting numerical end strength requirements. One underlying problem may be that the likely Air Force recruit-someone interested in a technical career and with strong academic achievement-is precisely the kind of young person in great demand in the superheated US economy. The Air Force has declared that it will not lower standards to increase numbers.
The services still cannot determine how many actual enlistments have come from Internet leads. That fact highlights one of the Pentagon's biggest recruiting weaknesses-inability to measure the extent to which something does or does not work.
"They have trouble figuring out what's effective with the whole program," says Ed Burke of Andersen Consulting, a firm hired by the Pentagon last year to help straighten out military recruiting.
Cold Calls and Malls
Burke maintains that imaginative Internet recruiting promises to be more effective than traditional reliance on 20,000 noncommissioned officers making cold calls, approaching teenaged prospects in malls, and otherwise hunting down the more than 100,000 men and women needed every year.
Internet recruiting could make it easier to categorize potential recruits by interest and demographic profile and even capture e-mail addresses for future recruiting calls.
There are worries, however, about aggressive data mining. "We don't want to overpressure people into thinking they have to sign up now," says Skaines. "We're not going to be overbearing on recruiting."
The other services seem to agree with that approach. Visitors to goarmy.com, for instance, can join chat rooms to ask recruiters about life in the Army without ever giving their real names.
Most recruiting experts doubt that faceless online encounters will ever supplant the no-nonsense sergeant calling to sell young men and women on military service. And the Air Force isn't relying solely on Internet gimmicks to bridge the recruiting gap. The Air Force hopes that, by the end of 2000, it will have expanded its "sales force" to 2,000 recruiters, up from about 900 last November.
Two recent recruiting "summits" produced more than 100 number-raising initiatives. Among them: increased spending on new advertising and bonuses for persons to enter certain fields. One new deal offers eligible recruits up to $10,000 to repay college loans. Congress may also provide some relief. The 2001 defense budget request includes funds to continue incremental pay increases.
Still, say officials, the sophisticated new online tools offer promise of dramatic advances. The Air Force, Army, and Navy recruiting officials all are developing online games that could feature multiple players and complex character development that help determine the player's interests and capabilities. It is the desire for this kind of information that consumes many hours of recruiting time each day.
The Navy is developing a game modeled on EverQuest, the popular fantasy game in which players make decisions that affect the skills and traits of their characters. At one level, explains Lt. Cmdr. Nick Dodge, director of electronic recruiting for the Navy, a player will decide what kind of Navy job he wants. If he becomes a mechanic, but his interests indicate he should be a warehouseman, he will lose "strength points." Then the player will go through an aptitude evaluation. Along the way, he will move from basic recruit to supervisor, responsible for running an engine shop or parts facility or some other department during a military operation.
"This is what kids today are interested in," says Dodge. "It's not necessarily blowing stuff up. It's using your intellect to solve problems."
Can the military keep such young people entertained? Will the mundane aspects of military life be a turnoff? While Stealth Force may be attracting lots of eyeballs, its creators admit that most people in the Air Force lead lives that are far less exciting than those lived by Brett, Lia, Broc, and Sanchez.
"We understand it [the online image of service life] is not a realistic kind of situation," says Skaines. "If it were realistic, it would probably be boring."
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