WASHINGTON _ While the U.S. military prepares for possible war in Iraq, gingerly handles the escalating crisis in Korea and patrols the globe for remnants of al-Qaida, some defense analysts worry that American forces are stretched too thin.
To tackle that problem, the Defense Department, at the behest of Congress, is creating a short-term enlistment program to entice “high quality” youth, particularly those who are college educated. The program would involve 18 to 20 months of active duty _ less than half the length of the average current enlistment _ and offer up to $18,000 in education benefits.
Defense analysts and some members of Congress say the usual enlistments of three, four and five years deter many who are wary of making such a long-term commitment. And they argue that the new program, whose first recruits will begin serving Oct. 1, is a way to begin to ease the military’s burdens and its reliance on the reserves.
“They should have the opportunity to serve their country without making it a full-life commitment right after college,” said Mark Kornblau, spokesman for Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., one of the provision’s sponsors. “The military has identified certain recruitment challenges, and one of them is their need for more college graduates.”
The plan, pushed through Congress last year by Bayh and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as the military component of a larger effort to expand national service opportunities, requires recruits to attend basic and skills training and then serve 15 months after the training period on active duty.
The program still requires a traditional eight-year commitment involving a range of options. After finishing their 18- or 20-month stint, recruits may re-enlist for active duty or spend at least two years in the reserves. After that, they would remain in the reserves or participate in some other national service program, such as the Peace Corps.
Enlistees could choose from among several perks: assistance paying back student loans, a $5,000 bonus or an education allowance.
Defense Department officials say they support the program, although they deny having recruitment problems, noting that military recruiters have been meeting their monthly goals for many years. But some officials acknowledge that the disinclination of college students to serve remains a problem.
Critics offer a harsher assessment.
“Right now, the force is under-strength and over-stretched,” said Charles Moskos, a military sociologist who teaches at Northwestern University. Moskos said one in three military recruits quit, and he said the short-term program is a way to alleviate that problem without resorting to a draft.
But not everyone is enthusiastic about the new plan. Cindy Williams, a military analyst at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s security studies program, argues that since the military can fill its ranks, there is no need for a program whose positive results she considers dubious.
The enlistment period is too short to train someone, Williams said, and she questioned the program’s ability to attract the targeted audience.
The new program is not likely to affect a possible war in Iraq, because it would not take effect until well after a conflict would be launched.
But Moskos, who conceived the short-term enlistment idea in the early 1980s, is among those who have noted that college-educated citizens are significantly under-represented in the military. While 46 percent of the civilian population has some college experience, only 6.5 percent of active duty soldiers do, according to a report by the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democrat think tank.
After surveying more than 1,700 students at five universities, including Northwestern University and the University of Illinois at Chicago, he found that college students’ interest in military service rose significantly with the possibility of an 18-month enlistment.
Moskos’ report noted that two-thirds of high school graduates go on to higher education and 40 percent of college students plan to attend graduate school. And it urged recruitment strategies aimed at this “largely ignored” segment of the population.
Marc Magee, director of the Center for Civic Enterprise at the Progressive Policy Institute, said the military may have met its recruitment and retention targets, but only by using short-term tactics.
“There are a lot of signs that we’ve done this in ways that are not sustainable,” Magee said. He asserted that the military has used reserves and “stop-loss” orders, which prohibit certain branches’ members from retiring, to meet those goals.
A Defense Department spokeswoman said the Pentagon supports the short-term enlistment plan, calling it a “market expander.” Some of the program’s advocates, however, worry that the military will not push it aggressively enough.
When Bayh and McCain first proposed their “Call to Service” program in December 2001, the Defense Department opposed an 18-month enlistment program, calling it too short to be useful.
“It seems like they don’t want to make this program a significant part of their recruitment plans,” Magee said.
Magee urged the Defense Department to set 25,000 recruits as its goal for the first year, lifting that to 90,000 three or four years down the road. In contrast, the Defense Department says it expects to recruit just 1,000 or 2,000 personnel, or 1 percent of all enlistees, from the new program. At that rate, the Congressional Budget Office estimates it will cost $20 million annually after it is fully implemented.
“We’d really love for them to take this up and make it a robust policy,” Magee said. “But the truth is, that is not going to happen unless the president makes it his policy.”
In his State of the Union address last year, President Bush called on citizens to participate in programs like Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, but he did not urge military service in particular.
Magee and Moskos also said the short-term enlistment program is a way to make the military more representative of American society, particularly among the upper classes.
“We have a military service where the burden is not shared across all sections of society,” Magee said. “We see this as a way to get everyone involved.”