WASHINGTON • Forget about the high-tech military challenges from China and Russia, the Pentagon is facing a fast-growing national security threat that could be even trickier to tackle: America's obesity crisis.
A study released last week has found that nearly one-third of young Americans are now too overweight to join, a worrying statistic for military officials already facing recruitment challenges.
"Obesity has long threatened our nation's health. As the epidemic grows, obesity is posing a threat to our nation's security as well," the Council for a Strong America stated in its new report.
The army announced last month that it would miss its goal of attracting 76,500 new recruits this year.
The shortfall is of about 6,500 soldiers - the first time since 2005 the service has missed its hiring targets.
A strong US economy and tight jobs market played a role, but the numbers highlight the dwindling pool of applicants the Pentagon has to draw from.
According to the US Defence Department, obesity is one of the top reasons a stunning 71 per cent of Americans aged 17 to 24 do not meet the military's sign-up requirements.
"Given the high percentage of American youth who are too overweight to serve, recruiting challenges will continue unless measures are taken to encourage a healthy lifestyle beginning at a young age," stated the study, entitled Unhealthy And Unprepared.
Other factors, such as prior drug use or a lack of academic qualifications, are also taking a toll.
The report, compiled by a group of retired generals and admirals, noted that the obesity issue is a particular worry as it comes when fewer young people are interested in joining the military in the first place.
Defence Secretary James Mattis, a retired Marine general, last month said the shrinking pool of Americans eligible to serve was a "big concern".
The problem should be addressed at the local level, he said, praising efforts of retired service staff who are working in schools "to try to restore physical education where it's been taken out, to try to get school lunches to be things that fuel the body, instead of just giving them crummy food".