Nearly three-quarters of young Americans are ineligible to serve in the United States military due to obesity, criminal record, or lack of education, according to a new report by the Heritage Foundation.
The contracted pool of Americans aged 17 to 24 who are fit to enlist in the armed services poses an "alarming" threat to national security and risks derailing the Trump administration's path to rebuilding a depleted military, the report found, citing Pentagon data.
The Pentagon estimates that 24 million of the 34 million Americans between 17 and 24 years old, or 71 percent, are unable to serve.
Health problems are the greatest obstacle to military service, with more than half of the young people who are ineligible for service suffering from a health issue.
"The health of young Americans is getting worse, and it's not just obesity—though that's the biggest burden—but also growing asthma, joint problems, stuff like that," retired Army Lt. Gen. Tom Spoehr, co-author of the Heritage paper told the Washington Free Beacon on Wednesday.
"You don't have to be this lean, mean, fighting machine to enlist in the military. They'll take people who are pudgy, but if you're obese or severely overweight there's just not enough time in the basic training process to get them where they need to be and there's also a risk that they'll injure themselves once you get them running and put all the equipment on them."
President Donald Trump's $686 billion defense budget unveiled last week seeks to expand the military by 25,900 troops through October 2019 and by another 56,600 by 2023—most of which would serve active duty.
Of the four services, the Army has faced particular difficulty finding suitable recruits. Only 23 percent of young people are qualified to join the service today, with 47 percent of males and 59 percent of females failing the Army's entry-level physical fitness test during basic training.
The Army is also disproportionately impacted by a low unemployment rate, historically benefitting when full-time jobs are less difficult to find, Politico reported on Wednesday. Army Undersecretary Ryan McCarthy told reporters last week the current 4 percent unemployment rate has made it "difficult to recruit."
Even with increased bonuses and incentives approved in the 2018 defense budget, the Army "anticipates problems" with reaching its goal to enlist 80,000 volunteers by the end of the year, according to the Heritage report.
"The military depends on a constant flow of volunteers every year to meet its requirements, and as the number of eligible Americans declines, it will be increasingly difficult to meet the needs," the paper says. "This is not a distant problem to address decades from now. The U.S. military is already having a hard time attracting enough qualified volunteers."
Though greater numbers of Americans would be eligible to serve if the military lowered its standards, Spoehr said any relaxing of requirements would result in a "less capable, less lethal military."
"Every one of these standards has come into place overtime for a reason," he said. "It's the quality of the soldier that's going to carry the day. If we don't have a good product, then no matter how good a jet fighter, or a tank, or a rifle we buy that person, if the quality of the soldier, the marine, or the airman is not there, we're not going to succeed."