To build a bigger force, Army tries new tack

Retention of soldiers – via bonuses and special training – to be key as the service strives to expand as ordered.

The US Army is under orders to grow bigger over the next five years, but so far its focus is less on recruiting brand-new soldiers and more on trying to keep the ones it already has.

So far, it's a different strategy – some say a riskier one – than what's being used by the Marine Corps. Both services are acting in response to Secretary Robert Gates's announcement in January that he wanted to expand the two forces by 2012 to prevent them from becoming overstretched.

For the Army, that would mean bringing as many as 9,000 additional recruits into the fold each year, on top of the 80,000-soldier annual goal it already has for its active component. But rather than increase its recruiting goal for fiscal 2008, as the Marine Corps is doing, the Army so far is opting to offer thousands of dollars in bonuses, college education, and an array of other incentives to men and women already in uniform to see if it can become bigger by enticing more people to stay.

The Corps is trying to grow by about 27,000 marines through a combination of recruiting and retention. As a result, its recruiting mission for fiscal 2008 increased by about 2,300 over last year.

Same goal as 2007

There is no indication that the Army's recruiting mission will increase anytime soon, says Lt. Col. Robert Tallman, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon.

"The Army will use a combination of recruiting as we normally do and a heavier focus on retention" to achieve the ultimate goal. Army officials expect to reach an "end strength" of 547,000 by 2010. Currently, the force is at 520,000.

The Army may well increase its goal later in the year to as high as 86,000, says one senior Pentagon official. But for now, the service's apparent reluctance to increase its annual recruiting goal beyond 80,000 comes in part because Army officials don't want to raise the number only to fall short, says the official.

"They don't want to be caught having missed it."

The Army's choice to focus on retaining soldiers rather than on trying to find all new ones is a reflection of the realities of recruiting these days. The combination of a low jobless rate and the increased tendency of military-age individuals to pursue higher education after high school has made it difficult for the Army to compete. At the same time, military officials lament that the "couch potato" generation, which is more obese than previous enlistees, has a harder time meeting the military's not-that-rigid physical fitness requirements. All of that comes against the backdrop of an unpopular war that has lasted longer than many had expected.

"We have a sinking pool of qualified candidates," says Curtis Gilroy, who oversees recruiting for the Pentagon. "That's one of the reasons why we're focusing on the retention. We have to retain more soldiers if we're going to grow the Army [in full] by 65,000."

Shortage of officers

But retaining soldiers isn't easy, either, as any Army commander can attest. Although retention rates remain generally high among combat units, shortages among mid-grade officers and mid-career enlisted ranks have persisted in the service in recent years.

The "surge" of forces in Iraq since January 2007, Army restructuring, and the creation of a new combatant command in Africa all have contributed to the shortages. Among officers, retention of lieutenants and captains has stayed about the same – about 92 percent stay in uniform – but there are more missions to fill. The new burdens on the Army in recent years have resulted in the shortages, Army officials say.

"The number of Army captains available has not kept pace with growing requirements," an Army document on retention states. The Army estimates that it needs about 3,500 more active-duty captains and also majors.

The shortage has also led to a promotion rate of nearly 97 percent for majors and 98 percent for captains – meaning most of those officers are being promoted faster than usual and perhaps some who wouldn't be qualified for promotion are getting the nod anyway.

As a result, the Army is pushing to retain more. For example, it is offering as much as $35,000 apiece in bonuses to captains who have crucial skills, as well as civilian graduate-school programs, specialized military schooling such as language training, and "post of choice," in which an officer is allowed to choose where he or she will be assigned.

But after nearly five years of the war in Iraq and repeated deployments for many of these officers, the allure of the civilian world beckons – a point not lost on Army officials struggling to keep up.

"The Army wants to influence the career decisions of talented officers who are heavily recruited by corporate America," the Army document says. "To retain the best, the Army must recognize their competitive worth in corporate America, and provide tangible incentives that complement the intangible value of Army service."

Both the Army and Marine Corps met their active component recruiting goals for fiscal 2007, which ended Sept. 30. But the Army, which is nearly three times the size of the Corps, has struggled all the more to make its goals. This year its "delayed entry pool" – a cushion of recruits who have already enlisted but have yet to ship to basic training – is at one of its lowest levels in years.

That pool, from which the Army can draw during slower recruiting periods over the course of the year, sits at about 9 percent – down significantly from the Army's historic comfort level of about 25 percent.

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