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ARLINGTON, Va. — Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday that he is “inclined to approve” an Army request to cut a year off of the five-year plan to expand the active-duty force.

“I’m probably going to recommend that they go ahead and give it a try,” he told reporters during a Pentagon press conference.

However, Gates said, “my questions are focused principally on whether they can do it, in terms of recruitment, and whether they can do so without lowering standards.”

President Bush approved a plan in January to increase the active-duty Army by 74,000 soldiers over five years, increasing end strength from 512,000 to 586,000 soldiers. The Marine Corps is also expanding.

Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, many lawmakers had been suggesting that the Army expand.

But Army leaders had staunchly resisted the move, saying that the money should be spent on modernizing equipment.

By 2006, however, the handwriting was on the wall: the Army was not large enough to handle the pace of deployments.

When President Bush decided to send an additional 30,000 troops to Iraq to stabilize the country, many soldiers who were tapped were on their third, fourth and even fifth deployment, and many units had spent just a year back home before getting called up.

And as strains on troop continue to mount, Army officials realize the service needs to grow even faster than anticipated, Army Secretary Pete Geren said Thursday.

“We have concluded that we could expedite the growth by a year, and that would reduce stress on the force,” Geren said.

Geren said the Army estimates it will cost an extra $2.7 billion to $2.8 billion — mainly in added personnel costs — to accomplish the increase in four years rather than five.

In order to speed up the expansion, the Army would need to boost its recruiting efforts, and increase the number of soldiers who re-enlist, Geren said.

But the active-duty Army has been struggling to meet its recruiting goals as they are, even without the added pressures of accelerated Army growth.

Gates said Thursday that just 76 percent of the Army’s recruits are high-school graduates and “we’d like to see that get back up.”

He also said that he “does not like waivers” that allow recruits to join even if they have problems with their records such as misdemeanor convictions.

As of July, 11.6 percent of new active-duty and Army Reserve troops in 2007 had received so-called “moral waivers,” up from 7.9 percent in fiscal year 2006, according to figures from the U.S. Army Recruiting Command.

Moral waivers are granted for offenses ranging in seriousness from misdemeanors such as vandalism to felonies such as burglary and aggravated assault.

In fiscal 2003 and 2004, soldiers granted waivers accounted for 4.6 percent of new recruits; in 2005, it was 6.2 percent.

Despite the fact that such waivers must be approved at “a fairly senior level,” Gates said, “I don’t like the waivers, and I would like to have fewer of them.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report from Washington.

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