Army tackling task of significantly boosting its ranks

Army tackling task of significantly boosting its ranks
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When Congress passed its annual defense policy bill calling for the Army to boost its ranks by 16,000 more soldiers than what was planned, the service was left to work out a way to get there. 

Now, the Army is in the midst of a three-pronged approach: upping recruitment, retention of soldiers and retention of officers. 

“Army developed a strategy, and the key message there is that the Army’s hiring,” Maj. Gen. Jason Evans, director of military personnel management, said in an interview with The Hill. “One of the challenges of this is time and really trying to turn an institution like this on a dime in a short period of time.”

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How the Army is dealing with the increase in its ranks this year could provide a window into how it would handle the 60,000-soldier boost that President Trump has floated. 

But Evans said the service has not had discussions yet about future increases, remaining focused on achieving its goal for this year that was set by Congress.

“We have not gotten to that conversation with senior Army leaders and there has not be any conversation about that,” he said. “Right now we’re really focused on FY17. That’s our immediate challenge right now.”

Prior to December, the Army had planned on dropping from 475,000 to 460,000 soldiers. But the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) signed into law that month called for an Army of 476,000, tasking the Army with finding and keeping 16,000 more soldiers than it had intended.

“I don’t think it will be an unreachable goal,” Evans said. “It’ll be a challenge, but I have confidence that we have a strategy in place to achieve to this goal.”

The first approach is to boost recruitment numbers. The Army increased its recruitment goal by 6,000 soldiers, for a total goal of 68,500 this year. 

To reach that mark, the Army revamped its marketing campaign and increased incentives for 50 skills considered critical, Evans said.

The Army has also offered incentive pay to recruiters, drill sergeants and advanced individual training platoon sergeants to stay on an extra year to be able to accommodate training for the new recruits.

And recruiting has focused on bringing back soldiers who were honorably discharged, which Evans said could help ease the financial burden of training, since returning soldiers only need a two-week regrading course.

Critics of plans to expand the force have said that doing so without the guarantee of additional money and resources in the future could result in a “hollow force.”

Evans shot down the criticism, saying the Army has enough resources to get the job done.

“Right now we have the available resources to set the training base to accommodate those that we’re bringing in and training,” he said. “This is really about increasing readiness and to the critics, we’re going to be able to fill some shortages and holes in our basic combat brigades, brigade combat teams." 

So far, the Army has reached more than 60 percent of its recruitment goal, though Evans cautioned that the service is coming up on the “bathtub months” of spring when recruitment rates are lower. 

The Army is working not just on bringing in new talent, but also keeping those already enlisted. It has increased its retention goal by 9,000, for a total goal of 17,500.

The Army is offering larger re-enlistment bonuses for about 95 specialties and for those who re-enlist for longer than 12 months, Evans said.

Retention has been challenging, he said, since a quarter of the retention and recruitment year had already passed by the time the NDAA was signed into law. That meant a number of soldiers the Army could have tried to entice to stay had already left. 

“We didn’t have the benefit of those soldiers who were in the retention population during the first quarter because they’ve already left the Army,” Evans said. “So somewhat of a challenge with time, but we’re confident that we can get there.”

The last part of the Army’s approach is aimed at retaining about 1,000 officers. The effort there includes canceling early retirement and separation boards, which were meant to decide who to separate as part of the previous planned drawdown; having conversations with those considering retirement; holding a selective continuation board to see if captains who were not promoted to majors are qualified and want to stay in the Army; and allowing reserve officers to go on active duty.

“Our guiding principals are that we will do this responsibly,” Evans said of the entire effort, “and with a focus on quality and of course the quality soldier we want are those who are fit, resilient and will be soldiers of character.”