WASHINGTON, Jan. 27 (UPI) -- Since September 2001, the number of junior enlisted soldiers -- the bulk of the Army, and on whose shoulders rest most of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan -- has declined by nearly 20,000 total, according to Defense Department statistics.
And despite Army efforts to add soldiers to its payroll and historically high retention rates, the active duty force actually shrunk by 6,800 from 2004 to 2005.
These declines come as the Army is trying to increase its force to 512,400 soldiers, up from a baseline of about 480,000 in 2001.
The temporary increase -- scheduled to be accomplished by 2009 -- is meant to allow the Army some wiggle room in its corps to reorganize and train 10 divisions into 42 smaller, more independent "brigade combat teams" while at the same time continuing the fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But from November 2004 to November 2005, the number of active duty soldiers declined by nearly 6,000, almost entirely in the enlisted ranks, according to Defense Department statistics. In November 2004, there were 497,584 soldiers, 412,895 of them enlisted. By November 2005, there were only 491,542, with 407,118 enlisted.
At the same time, the Army announced that it had missed its fiscal year 2005 recruiting goal of 80,000 by about 6,700 recruits. Even if it had recruited the full 80,000, the Army would not have increased its size.
According to a report issued Wednesday, and confirmed by the Army, the Army has about 19,000 fewer privates compared to the number on the payroll in September 2001 -- before either the Afghan or Iraq wars began. In 2001 there were 124,513. Now there are 106,374.
Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, the spokesman for the Army's personnel chief, said that is a selective use of data. If the number specialists, the rank above private, is added, there is only a 4,700 man difference. A specialist can do the work of a private, and is actually preferred for the job because he or she has more experience.
"There is stress on our forces, but not because of any shortage of uniformed personnel," Hilferty told UPI.
In fact, there are 16,225 more enlisted soldiers now than in 2001 but the bulk of that increase came at the rank of specialist and above, according to Dave McGinnis, a retired Army and Pentagon analyst and now private consultant who carefully tracks Army personnel numbers.
According to McGinnis and others concerned about the size of the Army, the increase offset masks the decline of about 19,000 junior enlisted soldiers from 2001.
"The steep decline in the Army's three lower enlisted grades are the result of a steady decline in the number of recruits entering the Army ... contrary to the popular perception created by the Army's insistence that it was achieving its recruiting 'goal,'" McGinnis states.
"Even though they've been making their recruiting goal they have not been recruiting enough people," he said.
The declining lower enlisted ranks poses a potential problem a few years down the line: fewer junior soldiers to choose from means the Army can be less selective in who it promotes to the vital non-commissioned officer jobs. Simply put, the Army hierarchy is a pyramid, and the base is shrinking relative to its middle.
The Army is already feeling the pinch: In March 2005, Stars and Stripes reported the service automatically put 19,000 qualified corporals and specialists on the promotion list for sergeant, rather than waiting for them to be recommended for promotion by a commander. Not all 19,000 would be promoted, but the Army was finding commanders had not recommended enough junior enlisted to fill all the sergeant jobs.
"You can kind of muddle through in the short-term but this is setting up a critical long-term imbalance in the force," said Michelle Flournoy, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, one of the authors of a Democratic-sponsored report issued Wednesday warning the Army is not adequately funded or manned to carry out its transformation as well as the twin wars.
"The seed corn isn't going into the Army," agreed McGinnis.
The Army has proudly touted the fact that for the last seven months it has met its recruiting goals, suggesting the troubles of 2005 were only temporary. Moreover, soldiers at all levels are reenlisting at rates that exceed the Army's goals, even among the junior enlisted ranks.
"In 2005 we wanted to reenlist 26,935 first-termers -- those who have never reenlisted before. We got 27,818, or 106 percent of the goal," Hilferty told UPI.
Generally, the Army tries to keep about half the eligible junior enlisted personnel beyond their first three or four-year contract. It fluctuates from year to year. In 2003 it was 64 percent; in 2004 it was 48 percent. In 2005 it was 52.7 percent, he said.
The problem is, according to McGinnis, neither the recruiting and reenlistment goals are ambitious enough to increase the size of the Army to what the Army has said it needs to be.
"The goals are irrelevant -- the mission of the army is to recruit enough people" to fill 512,000 slots, he said.
Endstrength numbers seem to bear that out. While the Army is ostensibly trying to increase to 512,400, even if it had made its recruiting goal last year -- it missed by 6,700 -- it would not have grown at all.
McGinnis believes the goals have been set artificially low to make them achievable. For instance, the recruiting goal for October 2005 was 4,700, which the Army exceeded by recruiting 4,925. But in October 2004, the goal was 6,935. In November 2005, the Army also exceeded its goal but recruited about 1,000 fewer than it did in November 2004. The Army says its recruiting goals will be much higher later in the year to close the gap.
McGinnis also warns there is another looming problem the Army is not talking about: stop-loss. Stop-loss is a policy that prevents soldiers who complete their service obligations from leaving the Army until their units redeploy from Iraq and Afghanistan. According to McGinnis, between 10,000 and 16,000 soldiers now deployed to Iraq -- and soon to return -- will leave the Army almost en masse.
He bases that estimate on the number of soldiers who left the Army after the first deployed units returned from Iraq in late 2003.
"When the first rotation came back, the Army fell more than 10,000, from about 309,000 to 297,000 (junior enlisted) in the course of three months, October to December," McGinnis said.
"There is a hidden time bomb sitting there. When stop loss is finally stopped and people held over are allowed to leave, there are another 10,000 to 16,000 that are almost going to disappear overnight," he told UPI. "Once stop-loss is over, the Army is going to be short 30,000 junior enlisted men they had in September 2001."
The Army does not believe this is a crisis. The deficit of personnel is primarily on paper, a result of setting a larger end strength goal.
Hilferty told UPI the problem is near-term, if anything: The Army plans to return to a smaller force size after 2009, once the division redesign is complete. Presumably there will be far fewer American troops in Iraq then as well. There are currently around 140,000 in Iraq, and about 20,000 in Afghanistan.
In the meantime, sergeants can and do serve in any job a private has, so there is no decrement in capabilities. In fact, it's better to have a more experienced sergeant in the job, Hilferty said
"We built a structure that is bigger than the number of people we have. We have enough spaces for an army of 512,000 and we are trying to grow into that," said Hilferty.
The Army is covering those spaces not just by recruiting, Hilferty said. It is also trying to transition about 10,000 jobs now filled by soldiers to civilians. That would allow a smaller Army to shoulder the same military duties of a larger Army because fewer soldiers would be tied up with non-essential jobs.
Hilferty said he does not think the shrinking junior enlisted corps will be a problem, but acknowledged the challenge the Army could face.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Wednesday that in 2004 the Army realized it had a personnel problem but has since fixed it.
"It was almost two years ago when the Army said, my goodness, we'd better increase our efforts to attract and retain. So they increased various incentives, they beefed up the number of recruiters, they announced all of this to you folks, and went about their business. And they've had good effect," he said.
He also said he was not personally unaware of the deficit of junior enlisted soldiers.
"It's a question that people think about who are in charge of these things. They worry about the mix within the various services," he said.
"Clearly its harder to grow an organization than to shrink it. You can't grow senior NCOs and mid-grade officers quickly. Majors and first sergeants take 15 years to train," Hilferty said.
Complicating the issue is the fact that the Army is considerably larger now -- 491,000 total, as of November 2005 -- than it was in November 2001, when there were 480,000 soldiers.
Army leadership has vigorously fought congressional efforts to make the end strength increases permanent. The argument is largely budgetary: every additional 10,000 soldiers costs the Army $1.2 billion a year, between salaries, health care and other benefits.
The Army launched a major financial incentive program last year to retain soldiers, with bonuses ranging from $15,000 to $22,500 for deployed soldiers. Most of those re-enlisting got bonuses of $6,000 to $12,000, but some experienced soldiers with critical skills were offered up to $50,000 to remain the service beyond their standard 20 years when full retirement benefits kick in.