WASHINGTON - The Army appears likely to fall short of its full-year recruiting goal for the first time since 1999, raising longer-term questions about a military embroiled in its first protracted wars since switching to a volunteer force 32 years ago.
Many young people and their parents have grown more wary of Army service because of the likelihood of being dispatched on combat tours to Iraq or Afghanistan, opinion polls show. U.S. troops are dying at a rate of two a day in Iraq, more than two years after President Bush declared that major combat operations had ended.
The Army says today's economy offers attractive alternatives to many high school and college graduates.
The recruiting statistics appear to bear that out. Officials said Wednesday that although the Army will not release its numbers until Friday, it fell about 25 percent short of its target of signing up 6,700 recruits in May. The gap would have been even wider but for the fact that the target was lowered by 1,350.
The Army said it lowered the May target to "adjust for changing market conditions," knowing that the difference will have to be made up in the months ahead.
The Army also missed its monthly targets in April, March and February - each month worse than the one before. In February it fell 27 percent short; in March the gap was 31 percent, and in April it was 42 percent.
"It's like having a persistent drought," said Daniel Goure, a military analyst at the private Lexington Institute. "At some point when you have drought conditions you have to institute water rationing, and that's what you potentially face in the military if it goes on long enough. You would get to a stage where you don't have enough people to staff your organizations."
Prior to February, the last time the Army had missed a monthly recruiting goal was May 2000.
The Army National Guard and Army Reserve are even farther behind in recruiting this year.
Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, spokesman for the Army's chief of personnel, said in an interview that despite the recent setbacks the Army remains cautiously optimistic that it will make up the lost ground this summer - traditionally the most fruitful period of the year for recruiters - and reach the full-year goal of 80,000 enlistees.
"One number matters: 80,000," Hilferty said. "The Army's fiscal 2005 goal was, is and remains 80,000 recruits."
Others, speaking privately, said the official optimism is sagging rapidly. They note that with only four months left in the budget year, the Army is at barely 50 percent of its goal. Recruiters would have to land more than 9,760 young men and women a month, on average, to reach the 80,000 target by the end of September.
In other words, they would have to far exceed their official targets, which range from 5,650 to 9,250 a month.
With the summer recruiting season in mind, the Army has added hundreds of extra recruiters, raised the enlistment bonus for four-year commitments to $20,000, and targeted more advertising at parents. Hilferty says the extra recruiters are being counted on to produce big results between now and September.
"They're better now than they were last month," he said. "Experience counts."
Goure said the prospect of reaching 80,000 is grim.
"I don't see them making it," he said.
If the slump ended next year the impact might not be great. But if it continues, as many expect, the consequences could be large.
The problem, if it lasts, would be particularly acute for the Army because it is in the midst of a major expansion of its ranks - from about 482,000 soldiers in the active force to 512,000 - in order to complete a top-to-bottom redesign of its 10 combat divisions. That redesign is central to the Army's "transformation" plan to become more agile and mobile - and to have more units available for duty in Iraq.
The Marine Corps also has missed monthly recruiting targets lately, but only by small margins. The Air Force and the Navy, in contrast, are easily meeting their goals, in part because they play much smaller and less publicized roles in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Navy is actually trying to shed thousands from its ranks.
Beyond the statistical comparisons, the military as a whole may be entering a period in which new approaches are needed to fill its ranks.
Charles Moskos, a sociology professor and expert on military personnel issues at Northwestern University, has said the Army's recruiting woes are likely to persist until the children of upper-class America begin to enlist more readily. He also sees a possibility of the services relying more on non-Americans to sign up.