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Air Force Turns to Ads After Drop in Recruiting

Faced with an unusual drop-off in new recruits, the Air Force plans for the first time to join the other armed services and pay for national television advertisements to try to persuade young men and women to sign up.

Until now, the Air Force has not had to rely on paid advertisements as part of its recruiting campaigns, since it was able to attract a steady stream of recruits simply with the promise of technical training and experience in aviation.

But the Air Force has now been hit by the same crisis in recruiting that has hampered the other services in recent months. From October to January, the service fell 6.5 percent, or 696 enlistees, short of its goal of 10,901. If the trend is not reversed, officials said today, the Air Force could miss its annual recruiting goal for the first time since 1979.

That the Air Force would fall short of new recruits underscores the depth of the problems facing the military as a whole at a time when a booming economy has created plenty of jobs and young people are less willing to join the armed services.

Brig. Gen. Peter U. Sutton, the commander of the Air Force's recruiting division at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas, said in a telephone interview today that the service needed to increase its recognition among young people. General Sutton attributed a waning interest in service to the growing number of young people who go straight into college after high school and the dwindling number of veterans, the fathers and other role models who often inspire young people to choose a stint in the military.

''We're just less visible to young people today than we were in the past,'' the general said.

The Air Force plans to spend $17 million immediately to buy national advertising time, beginning on Feb. 27 and continuing through CBS's coverage of the National Collegiate Athletic Association's basketball tournament. It then plans to spend $37 million to begin a new network advertising campaign in the fall.

The television advertisements will sharply increase the service's overall advertising budget this year, to $76 million, from $22 million.

The Air Force has produced television advertisements that stations around the country broadcast as public-service announcements, as well as local and national print advertisements. But officials said the public-service television advertisements ran haphazardly and were not necessarily intended for young men and women.

The advertising campaign is mostly intended to increase the enlisted ranks, but a secondary effect, the officials said, was to enhance the Air Force's image. General Sutton noted that in recent years the public recognition of the Air Force's slogan -- ''Aim High'' -- had fallen off.

All of the services have faced difficulties with recruiting and retention. The Army's recruiting problem appears even more dire. From October to January, the Army fell 2,479 enlistees, or 13 percent, short of its recruiting goal of 19,020, despite a flurry of advertisements and bonuses.

The Navy, on the other hand, exceeded its recruiting goal during the same period after falling short last year for the first time since the draft ended. The Marine Corps also met its recruiting goals.

The Pentagon hopes that an across-the-board raise, as well as specific, or targeted, increases for mid-career officers and noncommissioned officers and improvements in pension benefits, will convince more people to join the military and reverse the flood of those getting out.

President Clinton has proposed a 4.4 percent increase, with targeted raises of up to 9.9 percent. Republicans in Congress have proposed even more, with raises of 4.8 percent across the board and 10.3 percent in the targeted ranks.

In addition to the advertisements, the Air Force intends to hire 270 more recruiters, increasing the total to about 1,200. Last fall, the service, following the Army and the Navy, began offering new enlistment bonuses of $1,000 to $9,000, depending on the specialty and length of commitment.

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