The Army announced yesterday that it missed its recruiting goal for the fourth consecutive month, a deepening manpower crisis that officials said would require a dramatic summer push for recruits if the service is to avoid missing its annual enlistment target for the first time since 1999.
The Army will make a "monumental effort" to bring in the average 10,000 recruits a month required this summer, said Maj. Gen. Michael D. Rochelle, head of the Army's recruiting command. An additional 500 active-duty recruiters will be added in the next two months -- on top of an increase of 1,000 earlier this year.
The Pentagon is also considering asking Congress to double the enlistment bonus it can offer to the most-prized recruits -- from $20,000 to $40,000 -- and to raise the age limit for Army active-duty service from 35 to 40, he said.
"The challenge is one of historic proportions," Rochelle said, acknowledging that he is not sure whether the traditional summer surge in Army recruits will take place, or how large it might be.
Violent, long deployments to Iraq and a sound job market at home have combined to reduce what the Army calls the "propensity to en- list" -- the percentage of young Americans willing to consider Army service -- which dropped from 11 percent last year to about 7 percent this year.
"What I don't know, in all candor, is how the reduced propensity will dampen" the recruiting prospects of summer, Rochelle said in an interview. "I wish the summer period were about twice as long."
The Army's recruiting difficulties are only expected to grow. "Next year promises quite frankly, given the size of our entry pool, to be an even tougher fight," he said. "God forbid a downward trend" in the willingness to serve, he added.
The Army missed its May active-duty recruiting goal of 6,700 by 1,661 recruits, pushing the shortfall for fiscal 2005 to 8,321 -- or more than a month's worth of recruits. The shortfall would have been 37 percent if the Army had not lowered its May goal. Overall, the Army has sent 40,964 enlistees to boot camp, and has four months to nearly double that figure to reach the 80,000 goal for this fiscal year.
Army, Navy and Marine Corps reserve forces also missed their goals for May. Army National Guard enlistments for the month fell short by 29 percent, Army Reserves by 18 percent, Marine Corps Reserves by 12 percent and Navy Reserves by 4 percent, according to figures released yesterday by the Pentagon.
The Army is struggling the most, as it provides the bulk of the forces fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is working to increase in size to 512,000 by adding 30,000 troops to fill 10 new brigades.
The sluggish flow of enlistments means that Army boot camps are less than half full -- training at 46 percent of their capacity this month, compared with 91 percent in May 2004, said Harvey Perritt, spokesman for the Army's Training and Doctrine Command. For example, the Army's infantry training center at Fort Benning, Ga., had by May trained only 8,700 of its fiscal year goal of 24,500 infantrymen.
The Army can meet its goals only with a "massive influx of recruits" to boot camp this summer, Perritt said.
To produce that summer windfall, the Army is paying an increasingly high price -- in dollars and in drawing resources from other missions -- while the nation's all-volunteer Army is facing its longest sustained combat ever.
The 500 additional recruiters the Army plans to bring on this summer will be seasoned noncommissioned officers taken from active-duty units, Rochelle said, representing "a very substantial sacrifice" for an Army stretched thin in Iraq.
More recruiters on the payroll, in addition to a major advertising campaign, and increased recruiting bonuses of as much as $20,000 have substantially increased the average cost of recruiting one person -- from $1,250 two years ago to $1,500 today, he said.
Projecting even bigger problems next year, the Army is preparing to ask Congress to approve higher incentives and legal changes to broaden the pool of candidates. The Army has leveraged incentives "right to the legislative limits in every category," Rochelle said. Proposals under consideration in the Pentagon include doubling the maximum enlistment bonus to $40,000 for troops in high-demand jobs such as intelligence, infantry, special operations and civil affairs, as well as linguists, Rochelle said.
Another proposal would raise the age limit for active-duty Army recruits from 35 to 40. The Army raised that limit for its reserve elements in March, but increasing it for the active-duty force requires congressional approval. Rochelle said the change would bring in soldiers with greater experience and maturity, while making little difference in terms of physical abilities -- saying that today's 40-year-olds are in better physical shape than they were when the law was written.
Army officials stress that they are not lowering standards in the push for recruits. But they acknowledge they are slightly less selective in some areas -- for example, by taking more enlistees who lack high school diplomas.
The Army also moved this month to take a harder look at keeping first-term soldiers in the force who might otherwise have been kicked out for problems such as drug abuse, poor conduct, or for failure to meet fitness or body-fat standards.
The change grew from concern in the Army over a rise in the number of soldiers departing before serving a full three-year term -- from 14.2 percent last year to nearly 15 percent in the first half of fiscal 2005. To reduce that attrition, the Army put higher-level officers in charge of such decisions, to ensure that soldiers are not let go unnecessarily.
A nationwide initiative launched last month to allow people to serve 15-month terms, not including training, has so far drawn only 44 additional recruits. But Rochelle said some people initially attracted to recruiting stations by the offer may have signed up for longer terms after learning of the greater benefits.