‘Unattainable’: Senate Looks To Cut Troop Numbers, Fearing Lower Recruiting Standards

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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A key Senate committee wants to cut the number of troops in the Air Force and Navy in 2024 to prevent the services from lowering standards to meet goals lawmakers find unachievable, legislation shows.

The Senate Armed Services Committee slashed nearly 10,000 active duty troops from the Department of Defense (DOD) end strength goals for fiscal year 2024 in draft policy legislation released Tuesday. Lawmakers chastised the services for putting forth unattainable goals while reporting constantly about recruiting struggles for 2023, saying it makes more sense to pursue realistic goals rather than risk lowering standards to fill quotas.

“It will be a multi-year effort to reverse the downward trend in military recruiting” and the committee “does not want to encourage the military services to lower recruiting standards in order to attain short-term goals. Legislating unreachable end strength numbers would set the military services up for failure,” lawmakers wrote in an unusual explanatory footnote.(RELATED: Air Force Says It Ran Out Of Money For Promised Assistance To Airmen)

Setting higher targets for fiscal year 2024 would virtually guarantee the Navy and Air Force fail to meet the targets and further strain each services’ cadre of recruiters. It would also pressure the services to compromise readiness “by encouraging quantity over quality in recruiting,” the committee wrote.

The Navy in February allowed commanders to give prospective sailors a second chance at passing the mandatory fitness test. The Air Force also raised permissible body fat percentages for new recruits in April. However, leaders from both services recently told Congress they do not expect to meet their 2023 goals for active duty recruits, Military Times reported.

“The Department’s end strength requests for the Air Force and the Navy are unattainable for fiscal year 2024 based on current trends,” the committee wrote.

Senators did not seek to authorize cuts to Army end strength, although leaders likewise say the Army will not meet its 2023 objectives. DOD requested a cap on active duty personnel at 452,000 for fiscal year 2024, the same as the year prior, budget documents show.

The committee also made no changes to the Pentagon’s request to cut the size of the Marine Corps from 177,000 active duty members to 172,300.

Under the committee’s tentative policy, the Air Force would be authorized to maintain a total of 320,000 personnel instead of the 324,700 requested. The Navy would set targets at 342,000 instead of 347,000.

Every service but the Space Force would see a reduction compared to 2022 levels, the document shows.

Troop numbers are inscribed into federal law and must be both attainable and able to support the National Defense Strategy, the president’s vision for U.S. defense, the committee said, and its recommendations would satisfy both conditions. However, the Pentagon does have the power to make small adjustments to end strength and could exercise that power if future recruiting proves more favorable than expected.

On top of the reductions to end strength, the committee also recommended giving the Secretary of Defense expanded authorities to raise troop caps at his discretion.

Congress will “look favorably” on any additional funding requests to increase the number of troops “to support a better than projected recruiting environment,” lawmakers wrote.

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