WASHINGTON — President Bush's call to build up the size of the Army and Marine Corps confronts the U.S. military with a sizable and potentially costly challenge, especially given its recent history of war-related recruiting problems. But one solution remains firmly off the table: reinstituting a draft.
Bush last week endorsed proposals to increase the size of the two services. The proposals have wide support, from those who advocate a short-term boost in the number of troops in Iraq as well as those who say a larger overall force will be needed even if troops are moved out of Iraq.
By boosting incentives and bonus money, adding recruiters and continuing to increase the military advertising budget, the Army should be able to sign up an additional 10,000 people a year within the current all-volunteer system, according to many military experts. But they add that such an increase would be costly. An additional 10,000 soldiers would cost at least an additional $1.2 billion annually.
"We've been at it for 30-plus years," said Theodore G. Stroup Jr., a retired lieutenant general and former head of the Army personnel system. "We do not want to go back to a draft."
Supporters of the volunteer force say it is of much higher quality than that of the draft era, which ended in 1973. But critics suggest the Army already has lowered its standards to meet current recruiting goals and would have to lower them even more to meet a larger goal.
Since the beginning of the Iraq war, the number of recruits with high school diplomas has fallen sharply, according to a new study by the National Priorities Project, a research group in Massachusetts. The number of soldiers with a general equivalency diploma -- as opposed to a high school diploma -- rose from 13.1% in 2004 to 26.7% in 2006, according to the study, based on Army documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request.
"Someone holding a regular high school diploma may still have more options than someone holding some alternative credential," said Anita Dancs, the research director for the priorities project.
Current and former defense officials deny that changes in recruitment standards have adversely affected quality.
"The quality of the force is outstanding," said Bernard Rostker, a former undersecretary of Defense and onetime head of the Selective Service system. "There are plenty of people who we don't take today who are quite adequate to do the jobs we need."
Although top generals were reluctant to give up the draft in the 1970s and move to the all-volunteer force, most in the military today believe that a reinstatement of conscription would reduce the professionalism and experience of the force.
The Iraq war is the longest the all-volunteer Army has had to fight, and the demands of the yearlong rotations in and out of Iraq are straining the military and its sprawling recruiting system.
Bush voiced support for calls to increase the size of the Army and Marines but did not specify how large an increase he wanted over the 507,000 now serving. The Assn. of the U.S. Army, the service's influential advocacy group, has proposed an increase of 100,000. Other proposals call for increases of 20,000 to 30,000.
After struggling in 2004, the Army missed its recruiting target in 2005. To meet its recruiting goal of 80,000 new soldiers in 2006, the Army was forced to loosen rules for those they were willing to accept. Commanders have allowed an increase in the number of "Category 4" recruits, enlistees who score the lowest on military aptitude tests, and have raised the enlistment age from 35 to 42.
According to Army data, the service also has issued more than 13,600 medical or "moral character" waivers to recruits in 2006, up more than 2,500 over last year's levels. Waivers given to recruits who had been engaged in "serious misconduct" in the past -- crimes, repeated instances of substance abuse or misconduct involving weapons -- nearly doubled, from 630 to 1,017, and those for recruits with misdemeanors on their records went from 4,587 to 6,542.
As recruiting problems have grown, so has the economic disparity within the military. According to the National Priorities Project, the number of recruits from wealthy neighborhoods continues to decline. Although wealthy ZIP codes have long been underrepresented in the armed forces, the numbers dropped further from 2004 to 2006, said Dancs, the group's research director.
"They are having a difficult time signing up recruits into the armed forces, and that does seem to be tied to the unpopularity of the Iraq war," she said. "Our data shows those with more options pursue other options."
The study by the priorities project can be found on the group's website at www.nationalpriorities.org/militaryrecruits06.