Support our mission

Greater congressional oversight of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and more open discussions of rising recruiting and retention challenges are two likely outcomes of Democrats taking control in January.

Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., who will chair the House Armed Services Committee, said wartime declines in recruit quality will be examined, as well as worrisome trends in retention. Skelton is particularly concerned about an exodus of Army senior captains and junior majors with 10 or more years.

“They’re bailing out,” he said in a conference call with reporters a day after elections established Democrats as majority party for the 110th Congress. The loss of midgrade officers “affects the future leadership of the Army and hopefully we can take a good look at that.”

The armed services committee will bolster its supervisory role by re-establishing the subcommittee on oversight and investigations. Republicans dismantled the panel on gaining control of the House in 1995.

“In the past the Congress has not asked the tough questions or held the administration to account,” said Skelton. “That’s my primary effort as chairman.”

He noted that the late Bill Nichols, while chairman of the oversight subcommittee in the 1980s, initiated investigations that led to passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Act, which forced the services to train and operate jointly.

In the area of personnel, if quality is allowed to slip, he said, “you can have a major problem. You can have all the fancy weapons systems in the world but if you don’t have the first-rate people to work with them, you haven’t gained a great deal.”

A new Congressional Budget Office report on recruiting and retention, which Skelton had requested, discusses manning challenges for all of the services, particularly ground forces rotating through Iraq and Afghanistan.

The report also details a drop in Army recruit quality as measured by two traditional yardsticks: the percentage of high school graduates among recruits and their scores on the Armed Forces Qualifications Test.

Non-high school graduates are almost twice as likely to leave service before completing service obligations, according to performance data. Test scores show a recruit’s aptitude, trainability and performance potential.

The Army’s most recent recruit quality data, measured against historical information that Defense officials provided separately, confirm that the largest service alone is facing quality slippage not felt in a few decades.

Each branch of service aims to recruit at least 90 percent high school graduates. Also, at least 60 percent of recruits should have entrance test scores in Categories I through IIIA, which is average and above.

Since the war in Iraq, the Army has found those goals difficult to meet. In fiscal 2006, which ended Sept. 30, only 81 percent of Army recruits were high school graduates. That is the smallest proportion of graduates that the Army has brought in since 1981, the first year of the Reagan administration.

Even that 81 percent figure is softer than it seems. The Army for several years has excluded from its formula for determining proportion of high school grads up to 4,000 recruits brought in under its Tier Two Attrition Study (TTAS) program. The intent of TTAS is to see whether nongraduates, if screened using other criteria, will stay in service for as long, and perform as well, as high school graduates. The study results have been mixed.

That aside, if TTAS recruits were counted like all others, the Army would see its proportion of recruits listed as high school graduates fall below 80 percent, which was last reported by the Army in 1980, the final year of the Carter administration.

Two other aspects of the Army high school graduate data have raised concern among manpower analysts. One is that the drop in the proportion of graduates is so large, 11 percentage points over two years.

A second worry is that the Army usually sees its proportion of high school graduate recruits increase after graduation, in the months of June through September. Last summer, for the first time, no such spike occurred. Army recruiters continued to enlist a surprisingly high proportion of youth who had passed high school equivalency tests or had an attendance certificate rather than diploma.

Entrance test scores, a second quality measure, also show decline. In fiscal 2006, only 61 percent of Army recruits had scores in Categories I through IIIA on their entrance tests. This was the smallest proportion of Army recruits who score average or above in 21 years.

In fiscal 2005, the Army accepted 4 percent of recruits with test scores in Category IV, the lowest acceptable. In fiscal 2006, the Army again brushed up against that maximum, taking in 3.8 percent of recruits from the pool of Category IV scores. The last time the Army needed so many lower-scoring recruits to meet recruiting quotes was in 1989, when 7 percent of recruits were Category IV, meaning scores between the 10th and 30th percentile of all recruit-age youth.

These results occurred through 2006 despite hefty increases in enlistment bonuses, more generous offerings through the Army College Fund and active duty pay raises set above wage growth in the private sector.

Some manpower analysts believe Defense officials have been reluctant to publicize or frankly discuss cracks in recruit quality for the Army. Some suggest politics is the reason, that administration officials fear another talking point for exiting Iraq. Others believe there is legitimate concern about morale. Troops face tough enough challenges without reading or hearing about their declining “quality.” It can be a particularly sensitive subject to explore in wartime, most certainly in a war where troops and their families seem to be the only Americans making wartime sacrifices.

To comment, e-mail, write to Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA, 20120-1111 or visit:

Stripes in 7

around the web

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up