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Time Magazine September 1, 2003

Is The Army Stretched Too Thin?

U.S. forces proved quite sufficient to conquer Afghanistan and Iraq, but may be too small to keep the peace once the tyrants are gone

By Mark Thompson and Michael Duffy

Deep inside the Pentagon, where young colonels arrive before dawn to revise once more the short list of available combat units ready to deploy overseas, a nightmare scenario hangs in the air, unmentioned but unmistakable. With 140,000 U.S. troops tied down stabilizing Iraq, 34,000 in Kuwait, 10,000 in Afghanistan and 5,000 in the Balkans, what good options would George W. Bush have if, say sometime next spring, North Korea's Kim Jong Il decided to test the resilience of the relatively small "trip-wire" force of 37,000 American troops in South Korea? Where would the Pentagon turn if it had to rush additional combat troops to the 38th parallel? Might a lack of ready reinforcements force Washington to consider using nuclear weapons to save South Korea from defeat?

This is what strategic planning looks like in the world after 9/11. The military is extended to its limits as the U.S. invades lands that are--or might be--bases for terrorists or suppliers of unconventional arms, and then sticks around until certain they aren't. Even without new missions, the armed services are straining to handle the ones they have. The U.S. military proved in its 21-day march to Baghdad that its infantrymen, tankers and artillerymen can be brilliantly efficient when called upon to conquer a country. But America lacks the cleanup crews--the military police, the civil-affairs experts, the engineering units and all the other street-by-street peacekeepers--needed to occupy whole countries for months if not years, particularly if gratitude is not always the local custom.

And so, rather suddenly and for the first time in 35 years, U.S. military leaders are talking about increasing troop strength, not so much to fight wars as to do mop-up. To some politicians and commentators, the bombing of the lightly guarded U.N. headquarters in Baghdad last week was an argument for increasing not only the U.S. presence in Iraq but the overall size of the military too. Officially, the Pentagon insisted that neither was necessary. But the Bush Administration tacitly conceded that the U.S. needed help when, after the bombing, it renewed efforts to win support for a U.N. resolution that could pave the way for India, Pakistan and Turkey to send troops to Iraq.

As for the idea of expanding the Army generally, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is opposed. "The Joint Chiefs do tabletop exercises--they have done two or three recently," Rumsfeld said in an interview with TIME last week. "The analysis thus far says that we have sufficient forces to do the assigned missions." At the same time, Rumsfeld is considering a series of reforms that would effectively enlarge the fighting forces. One key change would turn many soldiers who are doing administrative and technical jobs in the Army into real fighters and replace them with civilians. That would keep the Army's head count flat but beef up the U.S. war machine.

Even if the assault on the U.N. mission in Baghdad, apparently by a suicide truck bomber, would not have been prevented by a greater military presence in Iraq (troops can never guard every potential target), there are other signs that the U.S. Army is stretched too thin. More than a few heads snapped when Peter Schoomaker, the yanked-from-retirement general who is now the Army Chief of Staff, said in his confirmation hearing in late July that he "intuitively" thought "we need more people." His gut feeling apparently changed after Rumsfeld howled that Schoomaker's remarks had been distorted. "There's no daylight between the Secretary of Defense and me on this issue," Schoomaker told TIME. "We need to have more time to formally assess this issue." But the General Accounting Office, in its assessment released two weeks ago, warned that the Pentagon's "current mission approach is significantly stressing U.S. forces." If changes are not made, the report said, U.S. troops may be operating at an "unsustainable pace that could significantly erode their readiness to perform combat missions and impact future personnel retention."

Though the Pentagon does not acknowledge the crunch, it is acting on it. Defense officials announced in early August that they were canceling their longstanding biennial, multilateral "Bright Star" exercise in Egypt because of a lack of available troops. The September game was to feature more than 70,000 troops from about a dozen countries practicing war in the Egyptian desert. In Iraq, the Army's 101st Airborne Division, exhausted and only halfway through its yearlong tour, already has the Pentagon fretting over a replacement. The Department of Defense is pondering what some officials think is a radical step: dispatching U.S. Marines--the nation's pre-eminent quick-and-dirty warriors--to Iraq early next year to replace the 101st. "We're short infantry, we're short chem-bio [specialists], we're short military police," says General John Keane, the Army's No. 2 officer. "Clearly, we're stretched."

America's military has been shrinking for the past 35 years. Since the height of the Vietnam War in 1968, the number of American men and women in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps has fallen, from 3.5 million to 1.4 million today. The active-duty Army, the service most needed for labor-intensive peacekeeping missions, has fallen from 1.6 million troops in 1968 to 480,000 today. All four services have been cut in strength, and leaders of both parties have overseen this decline. President Bush's father reduced the number of Army divisions from 18 to 14; Bill Clinton cut it further, to 10.

Making the military bigger was not what the second Bush Administration had in mind when it took control of the government 32 months ago. Bush dismissed "nation building" during the 2000 campaign and was not thrilled with the idea of performing peacekeeping missions. The Bush team's vision for the U.S. Army involved making it leaner, faster, more efficient and more open to change. This made a lot of sense at the time. For the previous half-century, the Army, more than the other armed services, practiced, procured and prepared for a large European ground war with the former Soviet Union and put less emphasis on more contemporary threats.

HOW 9/11 CHANGED THE MILITARY

Sept. 11 forced military minds to take another look at their assumptions. No longer were the chief threats to the U.S. other states with giant armies. Now the enemy was stateless organizations with secret, unseen soldiers living in lawless lands overseas or possibly even living right at home among us. Tanks and submarines weren't much use in either theater. It was a new kind of war, Bush said. Within a few months, the Bush team developed a novel strategy that held that the U.S. could no longer wait to be attacked but would have to root out terrorists wherever they were hiding. And the U.S. would have to deny its new enemies access to unconventional weapons by taking down rogue regimes that consorted with terrorists.

The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have taught the Pentagon two very different and seemingly contradictory lessons. First, as Rumsfeld likes to argue now, the U.S. does not need huge forces to invade and win. For almost two decades, U.S. war planners were guided by Colin Powell's doctrine of using overwhelming force. But the wars so far in the second Bush era have been fought and won with notably smaller invading armies, U.S. air power and special forces having been married to terrifyingly precise effect. Pentagon officials boast that they toppled Saddam Hussein with only 60% of the troops their war plans said they would need. "Overmatching power kind of is replacing overwhelming force," Rumsfeld told TIME.

But if the U.S. needs smaller armies to invade targeted countries, it needs bigger armies to occupy them when the shooting stops. The challenges in post-Saddam Iraq have caught the Pentagon literally off guard. Bush officials predicted that G.I.s would be welcomed as heroes in the streets of Baghdad. "Like the people of France in the 1940s, they view us as their hoped-for liberator," said Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz a week before the war began. As late as May, the Pentagon predicted that U.S. troop levels would fall to 30,000 by September. Today there are 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq (plus more than 20,000 allied forces).

Peacekeeping is not what the U.S. troops were trained to do. Soldiers whose combat edge has been honed inside an M-1 tank are not well equipped to provide a war's victims with food and water. And the longer soldiers spend as occupiers, the less ready they feel for pure combat and the more unhappy they become. "The worst thing you can do, in terms of retention, is to have square pegs stuck in round holes," says David Chu, the Pentagon's personnel chief. "The guy or gal who doesn't get to do what he or she signed up to do is the most dissatisfied soldier."

MORE TROOPS OR MORE REFORM?

An obvious solution to the problem is simply to add more troops. Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat and West Point graduate who served with the 82nd Airborne, argues that the Pentagon needs to convert seven National Guard brigades--some 20,000 troops--into active-duty forces. Reed, an increasingly influential player in Congress on defense matters, thinks that would give the military the margin it now lacks in case North Korea or some other nation acts up. Another approach would be to create a new division from the ground up--not the kind that seizes ground and flanks the enemy but one specially designed for peacekeeping, a role the Army has traditionally been reluctant to perform, in large part because very few people in the service have spent time studying how to do it. In fact, the Army War College announced just before the Iraq war that it would close its decade-old Army Peacekeeping Institute in Carlisle, Pa. (officials tell TIME the decision is likely to be reversed).

But with the price of the Iraqi occupation running $ 1 billion a week, the Administration is reluctant to do anything that would boost that bill. And adding soldiers of any kind is not cheap. While young G.I.s earn about $ 16,000 annually in base pay, fringe benefits and bonuses can drive the actual cost as high as about $ 60,000. Two new active-duty divisions of any kind would add another $ 10 billion a year to the Pentagon's $ 400 billion annual budget. Funds for any increase in the head count would probably come directly from the sacred hardware accounts that senior officers are always quick to defend.

In any case, the Army believes, as it almost always does, that no drastic reform is needed. To prove that it has the postwar period mapped out, it has released a plan identifying the specific units that are to move in and out of Iraq into 2004. But to fill the slots, the Army is doing two things it has rarely done since the grim days of the Vietnam War. It has begun rotating officers and senior NCOs out of Iraq, which means replacing seasoned commanders with freshly arrived officers who don't know the country or the troops they are leading. And it is telling enlisted soldiers that they will be spending a year in Iraq, not the six months they expected. This is likely to hurt recruitment and make it tougher to hang on to troops when they consider re-enlisting. Those moves hurt morale in Vietnam and will probably do the same in Iraq.

Some critics say the argument over enlarging the military misses the point: the country needs not a bigger Army but a different foreign policy. "This nation cannot deal effectively with the combination of terrorism, rogue states and weapons of mass destruction in all places and every time through the unilateral use of U.S. military force," says Lawrence Korb, a senior Reagan-era Pentagon official who is now with the Council on Foreign Relations. Working more cooperatively with other nations, he says, would ease the strain on the U.S. military while marshaling international support for the actions ultimately taken.

Rumsfeld, no great believer in multi-lateralism, thinks his military can keep pace with the Administration's ambitious foreign policy without boosting the number of Americans in uniform. His idea of how to take the strain off the forces looks good on paper. According to Pentagon estimates that predate the Bush Administration and that Rumsfeld is now having updated, as many as 320,000 people in all four services are doing jobs that might be done by civilians or contractors--jobs like mail and laundry detail. "If only 20,000 turn out to be things that would be better done by civilians, that would free 20,000 people in end strength," Rumsfeld told TIME. Turning over noncombat work to outsiders would theoretically free service members to pick up a rifle or climb into a tank. It might be faster and cheaper to turn a noncombat soldier into what the military calls a trigger puller than to add personnel outright, says Rumsfeld. Reason: noncombat soldiers have already been recruited and inducted into the military and have received at least basic training, all of which takes time and money.

Rumsfeld's idea isn't cost-free, however; someone is going to have to pay the civilian replacements. The Pentagon has "no plan, no budget for that approach," says a Senate Armed Services Committee overseer. "Our experience is that when things are shifted to civilians, they don't get funded and thus don't get done."

The Defense Secretary wants the armed services to take a hard look at how they divide missions between active-duty and part-time forces. At a time when the Army is concerned with occupation, it makes more sense to have military policemen--traditionally reservists--on active duty and tank drivers--traditionally active-duty soldiers--in the reserves. That would ease the complaints coming from reservists who signed up to be weekend warriors but have found themselves serving steadily since 9/11. "It's not fair to their families, or them, or their employers," says Rumsfeld. "If they wanted to be on active duty, they'd be on active duty."

THE FAMILY FACTOR

The Defense Chief is in a three-way race. Pacing him on one side is Congress, which may take steps to increase U.S. troop levels on its own if the Administration takes no action. Lawmakers are worried that the hazardous and longer tours of U.S. troops are going to drive them out of uniform and make today's troop shortages even worse. "They need a lot of help," Representative Ike Skelton of Missouri, ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, says of today's beleaguered soldiers. "We must recognize the new realities of our global missions and plan our forces to match them."

What really worries Rumsfeld is not Congress but the spouses, members of Army families who have had about all they can take of Dad (or, increasingly, Mom) being away six, nine and 12 months a year. Unlike the Army of 1973, which largely comprised single draftees, the Army today is married with children and all-volunteer. The long deployments are stressing marriages and families to the breaking point, and most active-duty personnel have skills valued in the civilian world, as the recruiting posters promise. Holly Petraeus, wife of Major General David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne, told Senate lawmakers that her husband had been away from home for 16 of the past 24 months. "In recent years the Army has downsized while adding on more and more overseas missions," she said. "Families will not be willing to go it alone forever, with little relief in sight." After two months of complaining, the Germany-based wives of Black Hawk pilots got the Army to agree to limit their husbands' stays in Iraq to a year after being told they might have to stay for 16 months. Says Andrew Krepinevich, who heads the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent Washington think tank: "The Army is either going to have to change the deployment environment or run the risk of having people vote with their feet."

That, of course, would only make the problem worse. In February, General Eric Shinseki, who was then Army Chief of Staff, set off fireworks when he said the U.S. might have to dedicate "several hundred thousand soldiers" to postwar duty in Iraq, a remark that looks prescient today. Before he left the service in June, Shinseki issued a warning to his colleagues who stayed behind. It was aimed as much at the security of the nation as the security of the troops and their families. "Beware," he warned, "the 12-division strategy for a 10-division Army." No one listened to Shinseki when he wore four stars. Now that he is retired, he is finally being heard.

BOX STORY:

MORE BOOTS ON MORE GROUND

Expanding troop commitments around the world are forcing the Pentagon to reassess the size of its fighting forces

The Army has more than 368,000 soldiers overseas in 120 countries, many of them combat troops engaged in peacekeeping

Iraq and nearby states 	167,650 soldiers
Afghanistan 		9,600 soldiers
The Philippines 	1,150 soldiers
Europe 			36,000 soldiers
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba 	1,550 soldiers
Kosovo, Bosnia 		5,150 soldiers
Sinai Peninsula 	750 soldiers
South Korea 		31,460 soldiers

Troop numbers are Army only. They do not include other branches of the military

About 62,000 soldiers are usually assigned to Europe, 90% of them to Germany. About 26,000 have been deployed to the Middle East and Afghanistan

Sources: Defense Department; Globalsecurity.org; U.S. Army

MORE MISSIONS

The Army strives for a "rule of threes": for every combat unit on a mission, a second is recovering and a third is preparing. But today more than half the Army's fighting units are deployed abroad

Active U.S. combat battalions

INFANTRY 23 Deployed in Iraq 10 Deployed elsewhere abroad 22 Available 55 total

ARTILLERY 16 Deployed in Iraq 6 Deployed elsewhere abroad 24 Available 46 total

AVIATION 15 Deployed in Iraq 3 Deployed elsewhere abroad 10 Available 28 total

ARMOR 12 Deployed in Iraq 2 Deployed elsewhere abroad 12 Available 26 total

GRAPHIC: COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO-ILLUSTRATION FOR TIME BY MATT, MAHURIN, [COVER], ARE WE STRETCHED TOO THIN?, COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH FOR TIME BY BENJAMIN LOWY--CORBIS, U.S. soldiers stand guard as casualties are evacuated after the attack on U.N. headquarters; COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT NICKELSBERG FOR TIME, FEWER COOKS..., One idea under review is to turn over to civilians some jobs in the military, like that of this waffle server in Bagram, Afghanistan; COLOR PHOTO: BENJAMIN LOWY--CORBIS FOR TIME, ...MORE FIGHTERS?, Soldiers freed from noncombat jobs could be made into trigger pullers, like these G.I.s, in Tikrit, Iraq, hunting for insurgents; COLOR DIAGRAM: TIME GRAPHIC, COLOR PHOTO: STEPHANIE SINCLAIR--CORBIS FOR TIME, COLOR PHOTO: EUGENE HOSHIKO--AP, COLOR PHOTO: BULLET MARQUEZ--AP, COLOR PHOTO: ED WRAY--AP, COLOR CHART, OVERSEAS BEFORE SEPT. 11, 2001, Only 20% of active-duty Army personnel were abroad --ACTIVE DUTY, --ARMY RESERVES, NATIONAL GUARD, Each soldier represents approximately 10,000 troops; COLOR CHART, OVERSEAS TODAY, Nearly half the active-duty Army is abroad, most in the Middle East. A quarter of the reserves are also on foreign soil --ACTIVE DUTY, --ARMY RESERVES, NATIONAL GUARD, [Each soldier represents approximately 10,000 troops]; COLOR CHART, FEWER SOLDIERS, Both the Defense budget and the number of Army personnel shrank after the cold war. The budget is growing again. Will the Army? --Planned Defense budget, in billions Adjusted for inflation; COLOR CHART, [See caption above] Number of troops, in millions --ARMY, --Navy --Air Force --Marines


Copyright 2003, Time Inc.