The Army will fall short of its recruiting goals this year but eventually wants to have a force of 500,000 active duty troops, Army Secretary Mark Esper said Friday.
The Army had sought to recruit 80,000 troops this year, a major increase over the 69,000 brought into the service last year, but has now lowered the goal to 76,500 new troops, Esper and Sergeant Major of the Army Dan Dailey said at an off-camera session with Pentagon reporters.
Esper and Dailey attributed the shortfall to a number of factors, including the improving economy and the low unemployment rate that has private employers competing for new hires.
"The strong economy does make it challenging," Esper said.
Esper said the current goal was to increase the strength of the active duty force to 483,500 but said he expected the force would have to grow to 500,000 to decrease the operational tempo that "sees our soldiers on this hamster wheel" of deployment after deployment with little time at home.
However, "we're not going to sacrifice quality for quantity" in recruiting, Esper said.
About 95 percent of recruits now are at least high school graduates, Esper said, and the number of so-called "Category 4" troops -- those with low scores on the aptitude test -- was about four percent. Esper said the goal was to reduce the number of Category 4 troops to two percent.
Although the Army will fall short of the recruitment goal of 80,000, retention rates saw major increases, going up from 81 percent to 86 percent, Dailey said.
However, the high retention rate has raised concerns for the National Guard and Reserves, Esper and Dailey said.
The Guard and Reserves tend to rely on troops transitioning from the active duty force. Esper said the Army must do better at answering the question: "As retention rates stay high, what is the impact on the Guard and Reserve?"
Late last year, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, head of the Army's recruiting command, told the Associated Press that meeting recruiting goals was going to be a "significant challenge for the command" and could mean taking in more recruits who require waivers for marijuana use, low test scores and medical problems.
The need for more troops was a matter of supply and demand, Esper said. Combatant commanders had increased their demands for Army troops in recent years, and currently about 100,000 soldiers are deployed overseas, he said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.