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Cracks in the Army

The service is being held together by lowered standards and bonuses. But for how much longer?

March 23, 2008

Everyone knows the U.S. Army is overstretched by the simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The dirty little secret is that nobody knows how much longer it can keep it up before its fighting capability declines. A year? Probably, with lowered recruiting standards and big bonuses. Three years? No one in Washington will answer that question. But recent indicators are making some tough generals queasy.

First, the good news. The Marine Corps and the Air Force are doing fine. They continue to attract capable young people, and they're managing to retain their top officer talent. And all of the services, including the Army, met or exceeded their recruitment goals for February, no small feat given the near certainty that those who enlist now will soon be sent to Iraq.

But a closer look shows just how far the Army has had to lower its standards to keep itself in soldiers. The following "metrics" -- data the military collects to assess its strength -- were compiled from open sources by the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

In 2006, the percentage of Army recruits who were high school graduates (82%) was the lowest since 1981, and their scores on the military's aptitude test were the worst since 1985. The number of "moral waivers" issued to those with criminal records more than tripled since 1996, to 8,500 in 2006. Worse, the number of recruits with felony convictions was up 30% in 2006 compared with 2005. And the Army apparently stooped to social promotion: 94% of recruits graduated from basic training in 2006, compared with 82% in 2005.

Keeping the all-volunteer Army at full strength in wartime hasn't been cheap, either. The cost per troop soared to $120,000 in 2006 from $75,000 in 2001. And to keep reenlistments up, the Army had to pay retention bonuses of $735 million in 2006, up more than eightfold from the $85 million paid in 2003. Even so, officer shortages are a problem, and at the rank of http://http:\ "> , the backbone of the command structure, the Army is at 60% strength in Iraq. Moreover, for the last year it hasn't had the 3,200 troops needed to fill a brigade designated as militarily "required" for Afghanistan.

Senior officers who remember when the Army did break during the Vietnam War say they're amazed by how brilliantly the volunteer force is performing, despite stop-loss orders and brutal schedules of up to 15 months' deployment and just one year home before another tour. The Army believes that soldiers should deploy no more than one year in three, to keep stress on family life manageable. The fear is that if the stress becomes too much -- as measured by soldiers going AWOL, refusing orders or declining en masse to reenlist -- it will be too late to rescue morale.

This is relevant now because the presidential candidates are making campaign-trail promises they may not be able to keep. Republican John McCain, judging the risk to U.S. national security of Iraq unraveling to be far greater than that of the Army unraveling, has said he would keep troops in Iraq for 100 years if necessary. But will there be enough volunteers in the sixth year of the Iraq war? If not, would he contemplate the political anathema of a draft? Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton think breaking the Army is riskier than withdrawing from Iraq, and Obama also promises to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan -- a position advocated by this page. But if the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates -- and there are signs that it could -- where would we get the manpower to "surge" there?

On the campaign trail, it's bad politics to admit that there are limits to U.S. power. But failure to warn voters that the looming military manpower shortage may limit our foreign policy options could well come back to haunt the next commander in chief.

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