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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 said at a Pentagon press conference. However, Gates said, “my questions are focused principally on whether they can do it, in terms of recruitment, and whether than 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.

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, Army Secretary Pete 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.

Such waivers must be approved at “a fairly senior level,” Gates noted, adding, “I don’t like the waivers, and I would like to have fewer of them.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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