WASHINGTON - The US Army has asked Congress to allow it to extend enlistment contracts offered to future soldiers by two years in order to "stabilize the force," as top defense officials warned that key recruitment targets for the year could be missed.
The request came as the House of Representatives on Wednesday put its stamp of approval on an 81.4-billion-dollar supplemental spending bill that contains new benefits for US troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the new money notwithstanding, Army Deputy Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Franklin Hagenbeck told a House subcommittee that yearly recruitment goals for the Army reserve and the National Guard were "at risk."
"In the manning area, we need Congress to change the maximum enlistment time from six years to eight years in order to help stabilize the force for longer periods of time," Hagenbeck went on to say.
The appeal coincided with the release of a new congressional report that showed that the intensifying anti-American insurgency in Iraq and continued violence in Afghanistan were followed by a distinct drop in the number of volunteers willing to serve in the branches of the military that see the most combat.
The Army reserve and Army National Guard respectively met only 87 percent and 80 percent of their overall recruiting goals in the first quarter of fiscal 2005, according to the study by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
The Air Force Reserve attained 91 percent of its target, the Air National Guard 71 percent and the Navy Reserve 77 percent.
The shortfalls could potentially have a noticeable effect on units operating in Iraq, Afghanistan and surrounding areas because, according to defense officials, reservists and guardsmen make up about 46 percent of the total force deployed there.
Recruitment problems are beginning to dog even active duty units that have not experienced them in a long time.
The Marine Corps, whose reputation for efficiency and toughness has always helped it attract ambitious young men and women, missed its goal by 84 recruits in January nd another 192 in February for the first time in 10 years, the GAO report said.
"There is no disputing the fact that the force is facing challenges," acknowledged Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Charles Abell.
The obvious cooling off in Americans' interest in military service is observed despite multiplying benefits and financial enticements offered by the Pentagon to those signing up for service.
The supplemental measure passed by the House, for example, increases the maximum service member group life insurance benefits from 250,000 dollars to 400,000 dollars.
The onetime death gratuity for combat fatalities received by family members is going up from 12,000 to 100,000 dollars.
At 150,000 dollars a pop, reenlistment bonuses paid to experienced Special Forces members are beginning to resemble Christmas paychecks on Wall Street, while one-time cash incentives for brand new recruits went up from 8,000 dollars to 10,000 dollars -- and to 20,000, if they agree to take one of the military jobs deemed hard to fill.
College scholarships, the principle reason why many young people join the military, have been boosted by the Army from 50,000 dollars to 70,000.
Still, Army reserve commander Lieutenant General James Helmly warned in January that with lengthy and grueling deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the reserve is rapidly turning into "a broken force" and may not be able to meet its operational requirements in the future.