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Enlistments Falling, Navy Lowers Education Standard

Facing a shortage of sailors at sea, the Navy announced today that it would have to lower educational standards for new recruits as part of a series of initiatives to increase enlistments.

Since the end of the cold war, the Navy has required that 95 percent of new recruits have a high school diploma, but for the first time in a decade, it will require no more than 90 percent.

The Secretary of the Navy, Richard Danzig, ordered the changes in the wake of one of the Navy's worst recruiting efforts in years. Last fall, the Navy fell short of its annual recruiting goal for the first time since the draft ended in 1973, and it did so disastrously, enlisting 12 percent fewer recruits than it needed.

The difficulty in recruiting -- which has also hit the Army and, to a lesser extent, the Air Force and the Marine Corps -- has forced the Navy to send ships to sea with less than full crews. In recent weeks, the Navy disclosed today, it has had as many as 22,000 empty positions -- or bunks -- in its 327-ship fleet. Most shortages have come on ships at sea.

The services attribute the shortages in new recruits to a variety of factors, from a booming economy and low unemployment rate to the fact that 70 percent of young people go straight to college after finishing high school, compared with less than half a decade ago.

But the Navy's response is certain to provoke criticism that the service is lowering the standards of its enlisted sailors. The Army faced sharp attacks from Congress when it announced a similar change two years ago. The Marine Corps continues to require at least 95 percent of enlistees to have diplomas. The Air Force also has a minimum standard of 90 percent but for the last 15 years has never fallen below 99 percent.

Representative Stephen E. Buyer, a Republican from Indiana who is chairman the House subcommittee on military personnel, responded this evening by saying that he was ''deeply concerned'' about the recruiting problems facing the services and the impact those problems were having on the military's readiness.

''While I am pleased the Navy is working to address these issues,'' Mr. Buyer said in a statement, ''I have very deep reservations about any action which results in the lowering of recruitment standards.''

In announcing its changes late on a Friday before a holiday weekend, a time traditionally used to disclose unpleasant news, the Navy emphasized that it had decided not to lower its standards for aptitude. Instead, the Navy noted that some young people drop out of high school for a variety of reasons but nonetheless prove to be good recruits because of innate intelligence or hard work.

''A high school diploma is an important validation of ability to succeed,'' the Navy's announcement said. ''It is not, however, the 'be all' or 'end all' of a potential recruit's measure of worth.''

The Navy estimated that by not requiring a diploma, it could recruit 2,600 more new enlistees to help it reach this year's goal of 53,224.

In addition to the education standards, the Navy announced a series of initiatives to entice more young people to sign up and stay in once they join. The Navy plans to increase its enlistment bonuses and the money it gives for college tuition, as the Army did last year when it increased tuition grants to $50,000 from $40,000.

The Navy also said it would make it easier for experienced sailors to re-enlist even if they did not qualify for promotion. And it pledged not to immediately discharge sailors who failed tough new fitness tests.

The Navy's announcement has come as the Clinton Administration has faced criticism from Republicans who argue that budget constraints have robbed the Pentagon of the resources it needs.

Heeding the advice of the military chiefs and of Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, President Clinton has proposed $110 billion in new Pentagon spending during the next six years. Included are increases in pay and pensions aimed at persuading young men and women to join the military and then stay.

The Navy, with 372,000 officers and enlisted personnel, needs 160,000 sailors to fill its ships at sea. The shortages have left some ships, including aircraft carriers and submarines, at less than 90 percent strength.

Mr. Danzig, who took over as Secretary in November, said the shortages did not necessarily hurt ''readiness'' for combat. Still, he said, crews were being forced to do double duty or to work in areas outside their specialties.

While he dismissed criticism about the change in educational standards, others voiced concerns.

Eugene J. Carroll Jr., a retired two-star admiral who is now deputy director at Center for Defense Information in Washington, said the end of the draft and the reduction of forces after the cold war meant that the Navy and other services could select better qualified, less troublesome recruits. The diploma, he said, was not an absolute standard of intelligence but a sign of discipline and perseverance.

''The high school diploma isn't just an educational badge,'' he said. ''It's a character badge, in a sense. And if you have to take more people without that, you take a little more risk.''



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