How low can Army recruiters go?
Three months ago, I wrote that the war in Iraq was wrecking the U.S. Army, and since then the evidence has only mounted, steeply. Faced with repeated failures to meet its recruitment targets, the Army has had to lower its standards dramatically. First it relaxed restrictions against high-school drop-outs. Then it started letting in more applicants who score in the lowest third on the armed forces aptitude test—a group, known as Category IV recruits, who have been kept to exceedingly small numbers, as a matter of firm policy, for the past 20 years. (There is also a Category V—those who score in the lowest 10th percentile. They have always been ineligible for service in the armed forces and, presumably, always will be.)
The bad news is twofold. First, the number of Category IV recruits is starting to skyrocket. Second, a new study compellingly demonstrates that, in all realms of military activity, intelligence does matter. Smarter soldiers and units perform their tasks better; dumber ones do theirs worse.
Until just last year, the Army had no trouble attracting recruits and therefore no need to dip into the dregs. As late as 2004, fully 92 percent of new Army recruits had graduated high school and just 0.6 percent scored Category IV on the military aptitude test.
Then came the spiraling casualties in Iraq, the diminishing popularity of the war itself, and the subsequent crisis in recruitment.
In response to the tightening trends, on Sept. 20, 2005, the Defense Department released DoD Instruction 1145.01, which allows 4 percent of each year's recruits to be Category IV applicants—up from the 2 percent limit that had been in place since the mid-1980s. Even so, in October, the Army had such a hard time filling its slots that the floodgates had to be opened; 12 percent of that month's active-duty recruits were Category IV. November was another disastrous month; Army officials won't even say how many Cat IV applicants they took in, except to acknowledge that the percentage was in "double digits."
(These officials insist that they will stay within the 4 percent limit for the entire fiscal year, which runs from October 2005 through September 2006. But given the extremely high percentage of Cat IVs recruited in the fiscal year's first two months, this pledge may be impossible to keep. For the math on this point, click
Some may wonder: So what? Can't someone who scores low on an aptitude test, even very low, go on to become a fine, competent soldier, especially after going through boot camp and training? No question. Some college drop-outs also end up doing very well in business and other professions. But in general, in the military no less than in the civilian world, the norm turns out to be otherwise.
In a RAND Corp. report commissioned by the office of the secretary of defense and published in 2005, military analyst Jennifer Kavanagh * reviewed a spate of recent statistical studies on the various factors that determine military performance—experience, training, aptitude, and so forth—and concluded that aptitude is key. A force "made up of personnel with high AFQT [armed forces aptitude test] scores," Kavanagh writes, "contributes to a more effective and accurate team performance."
The evidence is overwhelming. Take tank gunners. You wouldn't think intelligence would have much effect on the ability to shoot straight, but apparently it does. Replacing a gunner who'd scored Category IV on the aptitude test (ranking in the 10-30 percentile) with one who'd scored Category IIIA (50-64 percentile) improved the chances of hitting targets by 34 percent. (For more on the meaning of the test scores, click here.)
In another study cited by the RAND report, 84 three-man teams from the Army's active-duty signal battalions were given the task of making a communications system operational. Teams consisting of Category IIIA personnel had a 67 percent chance of succeeding. Those consisting of Category IIIB (who'd ranked in the 31-49 percentile on the aptitude test) had a 47 percent chance. Those with Category IV personnel had only a 29 percent chance.
The same study of signal battalions took soldiers who had just taken advanced individual training courses and asked them to troubleshoot a faulty piece of communications gear. They passed if they were able to identify at least two technical problems. Smarts trumped training. Among those who had scored Category I on the aptitude test (in the 93-99 percentile), 97 percent passed. Among those who'd scored Category II (in the 65-92 percentile), 78 percent passed. Category IIIA: 60 percent passed. Category IIIB: 43 percent passed. Category IV: a mere 25 percent passed.
The pattern is clear: The higher the score on the aptitude test, the better the performance in the field. This is true for individual soldiers and for units. Moreover, the study showed that adding one high-scoring soldier to a three-man signals team boosted its chance of success by 8 percent (meaning that adding one low-scoring soldier boosts its chance of failure by a similar margin).
Smarter also turns out to be cheaper. One study examined how many Patriot missiles various Army air-defense units had to fire in order to destroy 10 targets. Units with Category I personnel had to fire 20 missiles. Those with Category II had to fire 21 missiles. Category IIIA: 22. Category IIIB: 23. Category IV: 24 missiles. In other words, to perform the same task, Category IV units chewed up 20 percent more hardware than Category I units. For this particular task, since each Patriot missile costs about $2 million, they also chewed up $8 million more of the Army's procurement budget.
Some perspective here: Each year the Army recruits 80,000 new troops—which amount to 16 percent of its 500,000 active-duty soldiers. Even if 12 percent of recruits were Category IV, not just for October but for the entire coming year, they would swell the ranks of Cat IV soldiers overall by just 1.9 percent (0.12 x 0.16 = .0192).
Then again, viewed from another angle, this would double the Army's least desirable soldiers. These are the soldiers that the Army has long shut out of its ranks; that it is now recruiting avidly, out of sheer desperation; and that—according to the military's own studies—seriously degrade the competence of every unit they end up joining. No, things haven't gone to hell in a handbasket, but they're headed in that direction. Every Army officer knows this. And that's why many of them want the United States to get out of Iraq.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.