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.
Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), incoming chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, has proposed reinstitution of the draft in part to address disparity concerns. And Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson, a Vietnam War veteran, said Thursday that he thought "society would benefit" from a draft. Nicholson later issued a statement to say that he did not support reinstitution of the draft.
Charles Moskos, a military sociologist and professor emeritus at Northwestern University, said that without a draft, the burden of war falls disproportionately on the working class. He noted that of his 1956 Princeton University class of 750 men, 450 served. In the Princeton University class of 2006 there were 1,108 men and women, but only nine so far have joined the military.
"They call this an all-volunteer military," Moskos said. "But in the United States we are paying people to die for us."
Moskos said the other advantage of a draft was that it is far cheaper than a volunteer military. Supporters of the volunteer force concede building up a larger force is costly.
"I think it is going to be very expensive," said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.). "But you cannot avoid it. We have a situation now where we do not have a strategic reserve.... This is no longer a nice thing, this has become essential."
After missing 2005 recruiting goals, the Army sharply increased bonuses offered to those willing to sign up for extended tours. In January, the maximum for a recruit enlisting for four years or more in the active-duty Army was doubled from $20,000 to $40,000. Six-year commitments for the reserves went from $10,000 to $20,000.
The Army in October also unveiled a new marketing campaign aimed at recruits, called "Army Strong," which will cost the service $200 million every year.
The incentives have borne fruit. The 2006 recruiting season, which ended in October, saw the Army pull in 80,635 recruits, just over its 80,000 goal. It has stayed above targets since then.
But it may not be the most cost-effective approach. A Congressional Budget Office study released in October found that adding more recruiters on the ground generated more enlistees, and frequently cost less, than national ad campaigns and increased bonuses.
The CBO said an additional 800 to 1,100 recruiters, which would cost up to $150 million every year, could increase the number of enlistees annually by 6,500 to eventually reach new targets. By relying on enlistment bonuses, on the other hand, the costs would run as high as $430 million.
The CBO warned, however, that adding 15,000 to 20,000 soldiers by 2010 would take recruitment and retention rates that had never been sustained over long periods.
"Whether the Army components will be able to increase their forces to authorized end-strength levels is an open question," the CBO warned.
Reed said that because of the recruiting problems, and the ongoing war, the growth of the military would have to be incremental. "It will be a real struggle for many, many reasons," Reed said. "It is hard to recruit now given the story is all abut Iraq, about the conflict there, casualties there."
But Reed, a former Army officer, said the challenges were worth tackling to avoid the problems of a draft and the division it creates in the country.
"They are getting people who want to be there," Reed said. "It's a lot different than someone saying, 'I am here against my will.' "