WASHINGTON -- The percentage of high-quality recruits entering the Army is the lowest in 10 years, an indication that the force is struggling to attract top-grade enlistees -- and a troubling sign for the Pentagon, which is waging wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and plans to add 90,000 ground troops to its ranks within the next five years.
Over the past decade, the percentage of top-level recruits who enlisted in the Army was mostly consistent, dipping slightly at the end of the 1990s before spiking in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But since 2003 -- the same year the US invaded Iraq -- the Army has steadily taken in more recruits that the force itself considers "non-high quality."
Last year, nearly 40 percent of those who joined the Army had below-average verbal and math scores on the Armed Forces Qualification Test, a mandatory exam that helps the military determine a recruit's aptitude and mental proficiency. In 2003, the Army accepted only 28.9 percent of the low-scoring recruits, but that percentage gradually began to rise in subsequent years, according to Army statistics.
The data, compiled by the Army Recruiting Command in Fort Knox, Ky., also shows a steady decline in the number of recruits who have graduated from high school. In 2006, nearly one in five incoming soldiers did not have high school diplomas, which the service asserts "is the best single predictor of 'stick-to-it-iveness,' " a highly valued trait.
Before the Iraq war began, the percentage of Army recruits who graduated high school surpassed 90 percent.
Despite repeated requests, senior officials in the Army and the Pentagon declined interviews for this story. Military officials have asserted that it still enlists quality volunteers; for example, the Pentagon asserts that, as a whole, at least 90 percent of all new recruits are high school graduates.
Testifying before the Senate earlier this month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that -- despite a shrinking pool of applicants in general and four years of grim headlines from Iraq -- the Army is still attracting thousands of capable young men and women to its enlisted ranks.
"These are people who are enlisting knowing exactly what they're getting into and knowing exactly where they're going to end up, having to fight," Gates said when asked about Army recruiting. "It's an extraordinary tribute to the quality of these young people in America today that they are willing to do this."
In a four-page paper subtitled, "Myths Versus Facts," the Defense Department argues that "nearly two-thirds" of all military recruits "are drawn from the top half of America in math and verbal aptitudes -- strong determinants of training success and job performance."
Those figures, compiled by the conservative Heritage Foundation, refer to the armed forces at large, including the Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force, whose recruits are more likely to have finished high school, according to Defense Department data. The statistics obscure the fact that in 2006, the Army came closer than any time in the past decade to missing its minimum requirement: that 60 percent of each recruiting class scores above average on the test.
The Globe review of Defense Department personnel statistics from 1996 to 2006, including recruits' education levels and their scores on the armed forces entry test, show that the Army is experiencing a downward trend in recruit quality that military analysts suggest will continue for some time.
The number of applicants seeking to enlist in the Army is plummeting, thereby shrinking the pool of qualified applicants. And with the unpopularity of the war, a strong job market, and more high school graduates entering four-year colleges than ever before, the Army is increasingly willing to take anyone who wants to volunteer.
"I think the war is the biggie," said Charles Moskos, a sociologist at Northwestern University and a leading scholar of military culture. "Obviously, people don't want to volunteer for service where people are killed or injured" fighting a widely unpopular war, he said.
As the nation's largest ground force, the Army has spearheaded the US mission in Iraq, which tests its soldiers' intelligence and mental agility.
The combat zone in Iraq has no clear front line. Ruthless insurgents use civilians and their homes as cover, and sophisticated roadside bombs are a constant threat. Armed with powerful weapons, US soldiers can unleash deadly force in an instant, but must also follow strict rules of engagement.
At the same time, the White House and Congress have agreed to add 65,000 troops to the Army as part of the 90,000 ground-troop expansion over the next five years. As the Army recruit quality diminishes, however, congressional oversight committees have grown more concerned.
"The ultimate goal is to get the job done," said US Representative Vic Snyder, Democrat of Arkansas and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee's personnel panel. "You have to have enough numbers [of troops], but you also have to have people who can do incredibly difficult, technical things. We need a broad range of people with a broad range of skills."
The military screens each recruit for physical fitness and moral character, but it places great weight on test scores and education levels.
All military applicants must take the Armed Service Vocational Aptitude Battery, testing proficiency in technical fields such as mechanics or motor-vehicle repair, with scores used to assign job training. The test also includes sections measuring verbal and math skills.
The results are compared to scores on other, similar tests of the general population of 18- to 23-year-olds, as determined by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Recruits scoring below the 50th percentile -- the "non-high quality" range -- are considered to have below-average cognitive ability.
According to the Army, in fiscal year 2003 -- which ended that October, six months after the US invasion of Iraq -- 28.9 percent of recruits it took in scored in the "non-high quality" category, defined as those who score below the 50th percentile. That percentage remained relatively steady through fiscal year 2004, those statistics show, but it began to increase precipitously in conjunction with rising US casualties overseas and growing public disapproval of US involvement.
Undersecretary of Defense David Chu, the Pentagon's top personnel official, told reporters last year that the military depends on getting the best recruits it can.
"Quality pays off in ability to deal with difficult situations," Chu said. "Quality pays off in ingenuity in solving problems. Quality pays off in figuring out, 'What did the lieutenant mean by those orders anyway?' "
But Northwestern's Moskos said that "the more dropouts [who enlist], the more discipline problems" the Army is likely to have. These days, he said, most new recruits are likely to be "whites from small-town America," generally less educated and with fewer job options.
"They're not the suburban kids [in uniform]. They're from the exurbs," Moskos said. "We're not recruiting people from the better-educated segments of society."
Beth J. Asch, a senior economist at the government-funded Rand Corporation and a leading researcher on military personnel issues, said that incoming recruiting classes are a window to the future quality of the Army.
"What you brought in is what you kept," said Asch. She led a 15-year study which found that the average quality of members of a recruiting class did not change over the lifetime of their military careers. "There's no lateral entry. If you want a high-quality staff sergeant, you'd better recruit him."
Representative Snyder, who served two years in the Marines during the Vietnam War, said he worries that by accepting recruits with comparatively low test scores or education levels, "we're setting up that young person for potential failure."