- The Washington Times - Monday, February 26, 2007

As the tempo of military operations accelerates in Iraq and Afghanistan, an overstressed Army has embarked on a multiyear program to increase its authorized active-duty end-strength from 512,000 in 2006 to 547,000. It will do so by adding 7,000 to 9,000 soldiers per year.

This long-overdue expansion will be accomplished by increasing the number of first-time enlistments (the accession level) and by raising the number of current personnel who re-enlist (the retention level). This will not be an easy task. According to Steven Kosiak, a military-budget expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, “It may prove very difficult, or impossible, to achieve this end-strength increase without some — at least modest and perhaps significant — decline in troop quality.” Moreover, if Congress and the Pentagon seek to limit the deterioration in the impressive quality standards that the Army has achieved over the past quarter century, the cost may prove to be much higher that current budget projections suggest.

“Only three out of 10 young men between the ages of 17 and 24 can fully qualify for all of the criteria to join the armed forces today,” outgoing Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker reminded the House Armed Services Committee on Feb. 14. “And it’s a very, very competitive market out there.” An unemployment rate comfortably below 5 percent, doesn’t even begin to address the expectation of multiple deployments to deteriorating war zones.

The Army increased the number of high school dropouts it recruited in 2005 as it approached the 4 percent limit of “Category IV” recruits it accepts. Worth noting is that in 1980, as Army Secretary Francis Harvey recently told Congress, “50 percent of Army recruits were in Category IV,” an indication of the amazing progress the Army has made. However, after the Army fell 8 percent shy of its 2005 recruitment goal, according to a recent study by the Congressional Budget Office, “the quality of the [2006] recruits (defined in terms of the percentage who were high school graduates and the percentage scoring above the median on a qualification test) declined substantially, potentially posing difficulties for retention and performance in the future.” Also, the number of waivers the Army granted its recruits with criminal backgrounds soared by 65 percent between 2003 (fewer than 5,000) and 2006 (more than 8,000).

Meanwhile, in 2005 alone, in order to retain experienced soldiers, the Army spent more on its selective re-enlistment bonuses ($506 million) than it had spent over the four previous years combined ($486 million), according to the CBO. Like the 17,500 combat troops being deployed to Baghdad, which Gen. Schoomaker recently characterized as the “tip of the iceberg” when commenting on the additional support troops that will be needed, this surge in re-enlistment bonuses may also prove to be the “tip of the iceberg.” When it comes to national security, America must spend what it takes.

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