Skelton vows closer oversight of war, forces

By Tom Philpott: Military Update

Greater congressional oversight of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and more open discussions of rising recruiting and retention challenges are two likely outcomes of Democrats taking control in January.

Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., who will chair the House Armed Services Committee, said wartime declines in recruit quality will be examined as well as worrisome trends in retention. Skelton is particularly concerned about an exodus of Army senior captains and junior majors with 10 or more years.

“They’re bailing out,” he said in a conference call with reporters a day after elections established Democrats as majority party for 110th Congress. The loss of mid-grade officers “affects the future leadership of the Army and hopefully we can take a good look at that.”

The armed services committee will bolster its supervisory role by re-establishing the subcommittee on oversight and investigations. Republicans dismantled the panel on gaining control of the House in 1995.

“In the past the Congress has not asked the tough questions or held the administration to account,” said Skelton. “That’s my primary effort as chairman.”

He noted that the late Bill Nichols, while chairman of the oversight subcommittee in the 1980s, initiated investigations that led to passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Act, which forced the services to train and operate jointly.

In the area of personnel, if quality is allowed to slip, he said, “you can have a major problem. You can have all the fancy weapons systems in the world but if you don’t have the first-rate people to work with them, you haven’t gained a great deal.

A new Congressional Budget Office report on recruiting and retention, which Skelton had requested, discusses manning challenges for all of the services particularly ground forces rotating through Iraq and Afghanistan.

The report also details a drop in Army recruit quality as measured by two traditional yardsticks: the percentage of high school graduates among recruits and their scores on the Armed Forces Qualifications Test.
Non-high school graduates are almost twice as likely to leave service before completing service obligations, according to performance data.
Test scores show a recruit’s aptitude, trainability and performance potential.

The Army’s most recent recruit quality data, measured against historical information that Defense officials provided separately, confirm that the largest service alone is facing quality slippage not felt in a few decades.

Each branch of service aims to recruit at least 90 percent high school graduates. Also, at least 60 percent of recruits should have entrance test scores in Categories I through IIIA, which is average and above.

Since the war in Iraq, the Army has found those goals difficult to meet. In fiscal 2006, which ended Sept. 30, only 81 percent of Army recruits were high school graduates. That is the smallest proportion of graduates that the Army has brought in since 1981, the first year of the Reagan administration.

Even that 81 percent figure is softer than it seems. The Army for several years has excluded from its formula for determining proportion of high school grads up to 4,000 recruits brought in under its Tier Two Attrition Study (TTAS) program. The intent of TTAS is to see whether non-graduates, if screened using other criteria, will stay in service for as long, and perform as well, as high school graduates. The study results have been mixed.

That aside, if TTAS recruits were counted like all others, the Army would see its proportion of recruits listed as high school graduates fall below 80 percent, which was last reported by the Army in 1980, the final year of the Carter administration.