WASHINGTON – The Army is closing the books on one of the leanest recruiting years since it became an all-volunteer service three decades ago, missing its enlistment target by the largest margin since 1979 and raising questions about its plans for growth.
Many in Congress believe the Army (search) needs to get bigger — perhaps by 50,000 soldiers over its current 1 million — in order to meet its many overseas commitments, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army already is on a path to add 30,000 soldiers, but even that will be hard to achieve if recruiters cannot persuade more to join the service.
Officials insist the slump is not a crisis.
Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution think tank, said the recruiting shortfall this year does not matter greatly — for now.
"The bad news is that any shortfall shows how hard it would be to increase the Army's size by 50,000 or more as many of us think appropriate," O'Hanlon said. "We appear to have waited too long to try."
The Army has not published official figures yet, but it apparently finished the 12-month counting period that ends Friday with about 73,000 recruits. Its goal was 80,000. A gap of 7,000 enlistees would be the largest — in absolute number as well as in percentage terms — since 1979, according to Army records.
The Army National Guard and the Army Reserve, which are smaller than the regular Army, had even worse results.
The active-duty Army had not missed its target since 1999, when it was 6,290 recruits short; in 1998 it fell short by 801, and in 1995 it was off by 33. Prior to that the last shortfall was in 1979 when the Army missed by 17,054 during a period when the Army was much bigger and its recruiting goals were double today's.
Army officials knew at the outset that 2005 would be a tough year to snag new recruits. By May it was obvious that after four consecutive months of coming up short there was little chance of meeting the full-year goal.
A summertime surge of signups offered some hope the slump may be ending. An Army spokesman, Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty (search), said that despite the difficulties, recruiters were going full speed as the end of fiscal year 2005, Sept. 30, arrived.
"We have met the active Army's monthly recruiting goals since June, and we expect to meet it for September, which sends us into fiscal year 2006 on a winning streak," Hilferty said. He also noted that the Army has managed to meet its re-enlistment goals, even among units that have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But there are compelling reasons to think that Army recruiters are heading into a second consecutive year of recruiting shortfalls.
The outlook is dimmed by several key factors, including:
__The daily reports of American deaths in Iraq and the uncertain nature of the struggle against the insurgency have put a damper on young people's enthusiasm for joining the military, according to opinion surveys.
__The Army has a smaller-then-usual reservoir of enlistees as it begins the new recruiting year on Saturday. This pool comes from what the Army calls its delayed-entry program in which recruits commit to join the Army on condition that they ship to boot camp some months later.
Normally that pool is large enough at the start of the recruiting year to fill one-quarter of the Army's full-year need. But it has dwindled so low that the Army is starting its new recruiting year with perhaps only 5 percent "in the bank." The official figure on delayed entry recruits has not been released publicly, although Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, has said it is the smallest in history.
The factors working against the Army, Hilferty said, are a strong national economy that offers young people other choices, and "continued negative news from the Middle East." To offset that the Army has vastly increased the number of recruiters on the street, offered bigger signup bonuses and boosted advertising.
Charles Moskos (search), a military sociologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., said in an interview that the Army would attract more recruits if it could offer shorter enlistments than the current three-year norm.
As it stands, the Army faces a tough challenge for the foreseeable future.
"The future looks even grimmer. Recruiting is going to get harder and harder," Moskos said.