The active-duty Army is in danger of failing to meet its recruiting goals, and is beginning to suffer from manpower strains like those that have dropped the National Guard and Reserves below full strength, according to Army figures and interviews with senior officers .
For the first time since 2001, the Army began the fiscal year in October with only 18.4 percent of the year's target of 80,000 active-duty recruits already in the pipeline. That amounts to less than half of last year's figure and falls well below the Army's goal of 25 percent.
Meanwhile, the Army is rushing incoming recruits into training as quickly as it can. Compared with last year, it has cut by 50 percent the average number of days between the time a recruit signs up and enters boot camp. It is adding more than 800 active-duty recruiters to the 5,201 who were on the job last year, as attracting each enlistee requires more effort and monetary incentives.
Driving the manpower crunch is the Army's goal of boosting the number of combat brigades needed to rotate into Iraq and handle other global contingencies. Yet Army officials see worrisome signs that young American men and women -- and their parents -- are growing wary of military service, largely because of the Iraq conflict.
"Very frankly, in a couple of places our recruiting pool is getting soft," said Lt. Gen. Franklin L. Hagenbeck, the Army's personnel chief. "We're hearing things like, 'Well, let's wait and see how this thing settles out in Iraq,' " he said in an interview. "For the active duty for '05 it's going to be tough to meet our goal, but I think we can. I think the telling year for us is going to be '06."
Other senior military officers have voiced similar concerns in recent days. "I anticipate that fiscal year '05 will be very challenging for both active and reserve component recruiting," Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a House Appropriations subcommittee Feb. 17. The Marine Corps fell short of its monthly recruiting quota in January for the first time in nearly a decade.
Because the Army is the main U.S. military ground force, its ability to draw recruits is critical to the nation's preparedness to fight current and future wars. The Army can sustain its ranks through retaining more experienced soldiers -- and indeed retention in 2004 was 107 percent -- but if too few young recruits sign up, the force will begin to age. Moreover, higher retention in the active-duty Army translates into a dwindling stream of recruits for the already troubled Army Guard and Reserve.
Army officials say the challenge is not yet a crisis. As of Jan. 31, the Army tallied 22,246 active-duty recruits for fiscal 2005, exceeding the year-to-date mission by more than 100.
Still, the recruiting difficulties reflect unprecedented demands on today's soldiers that are unlikely to let up soon. Never before has the all-volunteer Army deployed to war zones in such large numbers for multiple, yearlong tours. It is doing so with a total force cut by 300,000 troops -- from 28 active-duty and reserve divisions to 18 -- since the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
The Army is now working to add 30,000 soldiers by 2009, expanding the active-duty force from 482,000 to 512,000, as it builds 10 to 15 new combat brigades to add to divisions for overseas tours. But cultivating so many fresh recruits without lowering standards is a serious challenge, senior Army leaders say. "If you cut down 300,000 trees, you can do that pretty quick, but now grow 30,000 of them back," Gen. Peter Schoomaker, Army chief of staff, told a House Armed Services committee hearing Feb. 9. "It takes time, as you know, to grow the quality soldier."
Time, however, is what the Army lacks.
Beyond replacing normal turnover each year, officials say the Army must accelerate recruitment to meet an aggressive timeline for filling out the new brigades of 3,500 to 4,000 soldiers each, as well as to expand and reorganize the 33 existing brigades.
Newly trained troops are essentially being rationed out -- a process Army officers call "turning on the faucet" -- a few months before the brigades are to deploy to Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere. The military plans to keep about 120,000 troops in Iraq through 2006.
"The priority fill goes to deploying units to make sure they are at full strength before they go overseas," says Col. Joseph Anderson, who until this month served as chief of staff of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky.