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Army seeks faster growth

It hopes to ease strain. To keep soldiers, it may offer more enticements.

September 28, 2007|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Army's top official called Thursday for the acceleration of a multiyear expansion of the country's biggest fighting force, a move that probably would require radical new approaches for keeping soldiers in uniform.

Army Secretary Pete Geren said the planned expansion from its official size of 482,000 to 547,000, announced by President Bush in December as the first post-Cold War increase in U.S. forces, should be completed in four years rather than five to alleviate the strain on troops from frequent combat tours.

Defense officials planning for the increase have voiced concern over recent loosening of standards for new enlistees because of the heavy pressure to meet recruiting goals.

The new Army plan would attempt to build the larger force in a shorter time by instead moving aggressively to retain personnel.

The military has begun to consider options beyond the traditional cash bonuses and college scholarships to entice soldiers to continue service. New approaches under consideration include the promise of graduate school for young officers and the offer of educational benefits for career soldiers' children.

The new approaches reflect the continuing fallout of the 4 1/2-year-old Iraq war. Prolonged and repeated deployments have created new stresses on troops, which have forced the Army to reevaluate how it provides for soldiers and their families.

"The demographics of the Army change, the needs of the soldiers change, stress on the force changes," Geren said. "We have to continue to find ways to adjust our benefits package, writ large, to meet those different needs."

At the same time, the Pentagon will consider ways to curb enticement of valuable soldiers by high-paying private-sector employers. One step under consideration is the use of "noncompete" clauses to prevent private security firms and other contractors doing business with the Pentagon from hiring experienced employees from the enlisted ranks.

Such clauses are used in private workplaces to protect proprietary information. Pentagon lawyers are considering whether they could be used in documents signed by contractors.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday that he was inclined to support the Army plan to speed up the expansion. But he said he would not allow the Army to enlist more recruits without high school diplomas.

"I have been very explicit that as least as long as I'm here, I will not allow them to lower the standard," Gates said at a news conference.

About 76% of current Army recruits have high school diplomas, Gates said, down from more than 90% in past years. "We'd like to see that get back up," Gates said.

A final decision on whether to speed up the growth plan may depend on whether the Army makes its recruiting goals for the 12-month period ending Sunday, Army officials said.

The Army has already boosted recruiting goals to help expand the force by about 7,000 soldiers a year to meet congressional authorization for a temporary increase of 30,000. The Army struggled to meet those higher targets, missing monthly goals in May and June. Although the recruiting pace picked up in July and August, the Army would need to have recruited about 8,000 soldiers in September to make its goal for the year.

Although the recruiting results for the fiscal year are not in, Army officials said they believed they were very close to their 12-month goal.

The proposal to speed up the expansion has been controversial within the Pentagon. Defense officials said that David Chu, undersecretary for personnel and readiness, was opposed to speeding up the expansion of the Army because of cost. Geren said speeding up the expansion by a year would cost $2.7 billion to $2.8 billion.

Other financial considerations contribute to the push to accelerate the Army's expansion. A senior Pentagon official said the Army wanted a faster timetable because of concerns that the service's growth could be halted if Defense budgets fell as the troop levels in Iraq declined.

"The Army believes they need to take care of funding for growth in this climate," the official said. "Once the war tapers off, there is less of an appetite. They want to strike while the iron is hot."

The Bush administration's latest war funding request is the largest of the Iraq war, at nearly $190 billion. But military officials believe such high levels are not likely to last much longer.

Speaking Wednesday at the conservative Heritage Foundation, Peter Kunkel, the Army comptroller, noted that Congress ratcheted back military spending before the end of the wars in Korea and Vietnam and even near the end of the Cold War.

"What does that mean for our conflict today?" Kunkel said. "One lesson you can learn is that peak funding occurs before the cessation of hostilities."

Geren, who held a breakfast meeting with reporters Thursday, said the Army wanted to expand more rapidly because of the ongoing demand for ground troops.

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