Army won't meet recruiting mission, lowers 2017 goal

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army will not meet its mission to recruit 80,000 active duty soldiers this year and has officially lowered the goal. But officials say the service has been able to encourage more experienced service members to stay on the job in order to satisfy the military's growing demand for troops.

Army officials say the updated goal will be 76,500. Six months into the recruiting year the service has brought in just 28,000 new soldiers. Army officials are expected to provide more details on the issue later Friday.

Army spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said the main effort is to grow the Army to 483,500, as approved by Congress. And she said it's up to the Army to determine whether to use more recruiting or to get more soldiers to re-enlist and stay in the Army longer.

The struggle to meet this year's higher recruiting numbers -- which were a significant hike over last year's recruiting mission of 69,000 -- was expected, mainly due to the favorable American economy and increased competition from private sector employers who are able to pay graduates more money.

Maj. Gen. Jeff Snow, head of the Army's recruiting command, predicted late last year that the higher enlistment goal would be difficult to meet this year, considering the combination of economic factors and the military's need for recruits to pass strict physical testing that many young people can't complete.

"This mission is going to be a significant challenge for the command," he told The Associated Press in December. Meeting the increased mission this year, Snow said, could force the Army to take in more recruits who require waivers for marijuana use, low test scores or other more basic health issues.

Data on waivers issued this year was not available Friday morning. But, in December Snow said his goal for 2017 was to have fewer than 2 percent of the new recruits be considered "category four," meaning they scored 31 or less, out of 99, on the aptitude test. Army leaders have also endorsed that 2 percent limit, even though the Defense Department allows up to 4 percent.

Smith said the competitive recruiting environment made it a challenge to meet the original goal. Military leaders have increasingly warned that lower unemployment, a strong economy and the declining quality of the youth market have steadily shrunk the number of young people considered eligible to be recruits.

Defense officials have also complained that despite the last 16 years of war in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, the American public is increasingly disconnected from the military, and they say many people have misperceptions about serving and often don't personally know any service members.

This time of year is usually the toughest for military recruiters, since this is the period when high school seniors start getting their acceptance letters from colleges.

According to Smith, the 28,000 recruits as of March 31 is the highest total for the six-month period since 2014.