- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 12, 2005

What does it take to attract qualified people to the U.S. military? The Pentagon’s release of final fiscal year 2005 recruiting and retention data confirms that this billion-dollar question needs to be revisited again. The recruiting catastrophe many feared after poor spring results never came to pass, but the numbers in the Army, the Army Reserves and National Guard are all bad omens. The Army’s 6,627-recruit shortfall was its biggest in 26 years. No wonder Iran is taunting the United States over its apparently reduced capabilities in the Persian Gulf region.

The news isn’t all bad: As expected, the Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force each exceeded their annual recruiting goals. Those services traditionally fill the ranks more easily than the Army and its reserve components, and that hasn’t changed. Equally encouraging, it appears that the Pentagon’s efforts to keep our existing soldiers, even in the most manpower-troubled places, are working. All the services except the Navy exceeded their annual retention goals. There were losses in the reserve components, but these were within the Pentagon’s “acceptable limits.” This suggests that even if the war in Iraq is driving away new recruits the way some critics of the Bush administration contend, at least it isn’t driving away the people already fighting.

But existing soldiers aren’t the problem; new ones are. The Army and its reserve components are still struggling to attract recruits. Although the Army rebounded nicely from the spring by signing 105 percent of the recruits it sought for July through September, this still left it at 92 percent of its 2005 goal of 80,000 new recruits. Things were even worse in the National Guard and the Army Reserves. The Guard reached only 80 percent of its annual goal and the Army Reserve 84 percent. No doubt the increased likelihood of being sent overseas accounts for much of the recruiting problem — an effect that will lessen as the Pentagon rotates more guardsmen and reservists home but one that is unlikely to go away completely as long as the war on terror continues.

For a sense of why the problem matters, consider what our enemies say about it. “There will not be a war ahead of us. The situation in America does not allow them to create new fronts,” Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani told an Iranian news agency last week. That suggests the United States is not striking fear into the mullahs’ hearts the way it should be.

What does it take to increase the numbers? The Pentagon is experimenting with still larger signing bonuses, finder’s fees for successful referrals and making “Call-to-duty” ambassadors of combat veterans who come home on leave. But none of this appears to be enough.

Congress has the authority to think big about fixing the all-volunteer force. It mandated the Army’s current size limitations. It has recently called to expand the Army by several thousand soldiers. It can do more. It should start with hearings to examine the options, which we will be highlighting on this page in subsequent editorials.

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