The Army began its recruiting year Oct. 1 with fewer signed up for basic training than in any year since it became an all-volunteer service in 1973, a top general said Wednesday.

Gen. William S. Wallace, whose duties as commander of Army Training and Doctrine Command include management of recruiting, told reporters at the Pentagon that the historic dip will make it harder to achieve the full-year recruiting goal—after just barely reaching it in the year ended Sept. 30.

Achieving the Army's recruiting goals—a challenge in the best of times—is not only more difficult now but also of more consequence. That is because the Army has decided that it must grow its active-duty force by several thousand soldiers a year in order to relieve strain on war-weary troops.

Wallace said he expects to reach the goal of 80,000 recruits, with extra effort by his recruiters.

"It's going to be another tough recruiting year," the four-star general said.

Making it even tougher is the decline in what the Army calls its delayed entry pool, which is the group of enlistees who have signed contracts to join the Army but want to wait before shipping off to basic training. Normally the Army tries to start its recruiting year with a delayed entry pool equal to about 25 percent of its full-year goal, which in this case would equate to 20,000 recruits.

Instead, the Army began with 7,392 recruits, or about 9 percent of its full-year goal.

Last year at this time the Army was beginning its recruiting year with 12,062, or about 15 percent.

Wallace attributed the decline in the number of pre-signed recruits to the Army's decision last summer to begin offering a "quick ship" bonus of $20,000 to recruits willing to leave for basic training by the end of September. For some recruits that bonus is the equivalent of a year's pay.

The bonus program, which began July 25, was part of a last-minute push by the Army to meet its year-end recruiting goal, after having fallen short on recruiting numbers in May and June. It had the effect of getting many of the recruits who signed up after July 25 into basic training sooner than they would have otherwise, thus reducing the number with entry dates after Oct. 1.

"That is of concern for us because the delayed entry program gives us guaranteed enlistees to meter out across the year," Wallace said. Without that cushion to begin the recruiting year, recruiters are going to have to sign up enough people to meet the existing goal as well as replenish the pool for next year.

Wallace said he feels confident that the recruiters will succeed.

Last week, in remarks at a conference of Army recruiters, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he thinks they may have one of the toughest jobs in the Army right now.

Mullen saluted them for reaching their target this past year.

"I give them a lot of credit, it's a tough environment," Mullen said. "It wasn't that long ago that people were certainly questioning, or even predicting, that they may not hit it and they did."

On a separate subject, Wallace said that while he applauds the Army's effort to field a fleet of new mine-resistant vehicles to improve protection against roadside bombs in Iraq, he worries that the multibillion-dollar investment will become a substitute for other high-priority modernization programs.

"If we invest a huge amount in (those vehicles) it could become a de facto" Army modernization program, he said. "That bothers me a bit," he added, because it is not the right vehicle for the kinds of roles and missions foreseen for the Army in coming decades. It is not highly maneuverable in cities, for example, but for financial reasons might squeeze out other new vehicle programs.