An Army recruiting shortfall of more than 6,700 active-duty soldiers has set back a multi-year plan to expand the nation's land combat forces by 40,000 troops to ease the strain created by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, senior Army leaders said yesterday.
The Army brought in nearly 73,300 active-duty recruits in the fiscal year that ended Friday -- about 1,000 fewer than the average over the past 10 years but well short of the 80,000 needed to generate the planned boost in Army strength.
"We are short of where we need to be to grow the Army to 355,000" combat troops from today's figure of 315,000, Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey said at a news conference yesterday.
Those troops are vital to the Army's plan to add 10 combat brigades, increasing the number from 33 to 43 by the end of fiscal 2007. It has completed three, with two more in progress. Recruiting difficulties have dampened the possibility, raised earlier this year, of a further expansion to 48 brigades, Army officials said, although they said no decision had been made.
Still, the Army's vice chief of staff, Gen. Richard Cody, told reporters that the Army remains "on track" to build the 10 new brigades.
This is partly because the Army has a high retention rate -- keeping 108 percent of its target retention number -- with units that have served in Iraq and Afghanistan maintaining high rates of reenlistment, he said. But the gap in recruits means the Army will not yet be able to lift "stop-loss" orders, under which certain soldiers must remain in high-demand jobs beyond the expiration of their contracts, he said.
Low unemployment, the Iraq war and a greater reluctance of parents to approve of their children's enlisting are the main factors behind the Army's failure to meet its recruiting target for the first time since 1999, Harvey said. The shortfall comes despite the increase of recruiters from 9,000 to 12,000 for the Army's active duty, reserves and National Guard, and an addition of $130 million to the advertising budget for recruiting.
"I'm not going to sit here and tell you that we've got positive momentum, that the problem's solved. I don't know yet," he said.
The Army is beginning the fiscal year with its smallest pool of recruits already in the pipeline in more than a decade -- just 12 percent of its new target of 80,000 recruits, compared with the goal of 25 percent.
Facing the prospect of another challenging fiscal year, the Army is pressing Congress to approve a slew of new incentives. These include doubling the maximum enlistment bonus, from $20,000 to $40,000, and an Army home mortgage program that would make a $25,000 down payment for soldiers who stay in the service for four years. Another program would offer a "finder's fee" of $2,500 to soldiers who identify a recruit who goes on to complete training.
To expand the recruiting pool, the Army is also lowering test guidelines to bring them in line with existing Defense Department minimum qualification standards -- essentially opening the door to more recruits with average and below-average scores.
"We're not changing standards -- we're just going to abide by long-standing DOD standards," Harvey said.