WASHINGTON -- An Army recruitment shortfall of more than 6,700 active-duty soldiers has set back a multiyear plan to expand the nation's land combat forces by 40,000 troops to ease the strain created by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, senior Army leaders said yesterday.
The Army brought in nearly 73,300 active-duty recruits in the fiscal year that ended Friday -- about 1,000 fewer than the average over the past 10 years and well short of the 80,000 needed to generate the planned boost in Army strength.
''We are short of where we need to be to grow the Army to 355,000" combat troops from today's figure of 315,000, Army Secretary Francis Harvey said at a news conference yesterday.
Those troops are vital to the Army's plan to add 10 combat brigades, increasing the number to 43 by the end of fiscal 2007. It has completed three, with two more in progress. Recruiting difficulties have dampened the possibility of a further expansion to 48 brigades, officials said, although no decision had been made.
Still, the Army's vice chief of staff, General Richard Cody, told reporters the Army remains ''on track" to build the 10 new brigades.
This is partly because the Army has a high retention rate with units that have served in Iraq and Afghanistan maintaining high rates of re-enlistment, he said. But the gap means the Army will not yet be able to lift ''stop-loss" orders, under which certain soldiers must remain in high-demand jobs beyond the expiration of their contracts, he said.
Low unemployment, the Iraq war, and a greater reluctance of parents to approve of their children's enlisting are the main factors behind the Army's failure to meet its recruiting target for the first time since 1999, Harvey said.
The Army is pressing Congress to approve several incentives. These include doubling the maximum enlistment bonus, from $20,000 to $40,000, and an Army home mortgage program that would make a $25,000 down payment for soldiers who stay in the service four years.