Military struggles to hold strength

Losses in Iraq, Afghanistan lead potential recruits to think twice

Soldiers can expect more missions

August 14, 2005|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - With the Army expecting to be thousands of recruits short of its goal this fall, and next year's recruiting prospects looking even worse, the nation's largest military service will likely be an older force, facing more frequent missions and struggling to fill key jobs, say analysts and former officers.

Moreover, if the recruiting trends continue for the Army and its reserves, the U.S. military will be made up largely of volunteers from the nation's rural areas and the South.

Despite pledging tens of thousands of dollars in sign-up bonuses, sending thousands more recruiters into the streets, and mounting a new ad campaign aimed at encouraging parents to support recruitment, the job for recruiters seems to be getting more difficult.

Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army's chief of staff, told Congress recently that 2006 "may be the toughest recruiting environment ever." Besides the active Army, the Army Reserve and the National Guard also are expected to miss their yearly goals and fall thousands of recruits short, officials said.

The rising casualty rate in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with a stronger economy that is creating better jobs at home, has 17-to-24-year-olds, who might otherwise join up, thinking twice. And Army polling data show that parents have increasingly soured on letting their children take part in the war on terror.

A senior Army officer said privately that the best recruitment tool would be a reduction in U.S. forces in Iraq. But President Bush said last week that no decision has been made on when the 138,000 troops will start to come home, despite statements by some senior Army generals reductions of 20,000 or more soldiers could be expected by the spring.

Lt. Col. Mike Jones, deputy recruiting and retention chief for the National Guard Bureau, said Guard recruiting is finally starting to pick up, spurred by more recruiters and increased bonuses. But Guard officials concede that they won't be back to full strength - about 350,000 soldiers - until next summer. Army officials predict that the active-duty force could fall short by 7,000 to 9,000 recruits when the federal fiscal year ends Sept. 30, the first time it has missed an annual enlistment quota since 1999.

At the same time, Army officials are beginning to see the effects of long and repeated deployments. Young officers, principally Army captains, are beginning to leave at higher rates, although specific percentages were not available. The Army is considering a number of incentive packages to persuade them to stay, officials said.

And last month, the Pentagon asked Congress to increase the maximum age for military recruits to 42 for all branches of the armed services, up from the current age of 39.

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales Jr., former commandant of the Army War College, said the recruiting trouble "means you'll have an aging force" with higher personnel costs, and the Army will likely retain marginal troops because of the shortages.

The impact of thousands fewer recruits this year and next will also likely burden the soldiers overseas or preparing to head back for another tour.

"The ripple effects are more extensions to tours and earlier repeat tours," said retired Army Lt. Gen. Theodore G. Stroup Jr., who was chief of Army personnel during the 1991 Persian Gulf war. "The Army will continue to be stretched and strained."

Leonard Wong, a retired Army officer and an analyst at the Army War College, said the Army could continue its current effort to boost its fighting ranks by pulling soldiers from administrative jobs, sending them into fighting units and outsourcing their old jobs to civilians.

"These are Band-Aids," Wong said. "We can start outsourcing like crazy."

Recruiting methods also could undergo a transformation.

"This is the first time that the American military has tried to recruit for a volunteer war since the Civil War," said Scales. "What it means is you've got to change the way you recruit."

Scales said the Army has three options: reduce its missions, increase recruiting or institute a draft. Only option two is politically supportable, he said.

To succeed, he believes the Army must provide more money for those willing to go into harm's way for their country - not just in signing bonuses but in regular pay. And he favors recruitment of more foreign-born residents, particularly Middle Easterners, with a promise of citizenship.

Army recruiting maps show that the best areas for attracting new soldiers continue to be rural areas and the South. Those maps show a wide crescent that begins in Montana and North Dakota, cuts a swath south through the Midwest, dips deep into Texas, then curls up along the Eastern Seaboard, stopping short of Maryland. Recruiters are finding their work particularly difficult in Northern cities and among women and African-Americans.

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