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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

The Army, Faced With Its Limits

New York Times
Published: January 1, 2006

ONE million men and women serve in the United States Army, so why is it proving nearly impossible to keep a mere 150,000 of them in Iraq?

The Pentagon expects to face many Iraq-type conflicts in the coming years, wars that involve battling insurgents and restoring stability. As a result, a debate is beginning to churn in defense policy circles: Should the government enlarge the military so it can more easily fight these wars? Or should the government alter its policies, so as not to fight such wars as often, at least not alone?

Senior Pentagon officials argue that neither shift is necessary, that reorganizing the Army's existing combat units into stronger, faster and more flexible brigades will have the same effect as adding more soldiers. But some analysts doubt these adjustments alone will go far enough.

Lawrence Korb, who was assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs in the Reagan administration, states the issue baldly: "We cannot fight a long, sustained war without a larger ground force." He defines a "long war" as lasting two years or more. The Iraq war has gone on now for nearly three.

The claim may seem strange, until you peel apart the numbers. Of the Army's one million soldiers, fewer than 400,000 are combat troops (the rest are support personnel). Only about 150,000 of those combat troops are on active duty; the rest are in the National Guard and Reserves.

Then there is the matter of rotation. Combat units, at least in an all-volunteer force, cannot be deployed for much longer than a year. (To do otherwise would risk exhaustion and demoralization.) Replacements come while the battle-weary go out for rest, retraining and resupply. Therefore, to sustain one active brigade (about 3,500 troops) in a war zone, one or two additional brigades must be ready to replace it.

Finally, Iraq isn't the only foreign country where American combat troops are stationed.

In a study published in October, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office calculated that given all these factors the military could not sustain more than 123,000 troops in Iraq for much longer.

Additional forces, the budget office concluded, would require the United States to "increase the size of the land forces, terminate some other commitment or rotate forces to Iraq at more demanding rates." In the past year, the Pentagon has already stretched the rotation cycle in Iraq, for both active and reserve forces; and it has redeployed one brigade from Bosnia and another from South Korea. "There isn't much more leeway for simply moving people around," Mr. Korb said.

That leaves the other option: adding more land forces overall. How many? James Dobbins and James Quinlivan, military analysts at the RAND Corporation, have analyzed historical data on the numbers of foreign troops in various occupations after a war. They found that all the successful missions involved troop levels totaling at least 2 percent of the occupied country's population.

Taking that figure as a rough rule of thumb, securing Iraq, which has 25 million people, would require 500,000 foreign troops. American and coalition forces now total about 180,000.

Gen. Eric Shinseki, the former Army chief of staff, drew on similar historical studies when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2003, a month before the war started, that "several hundred thousand troops" would be needed to restore order after the fighting (a claim that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, at the time, vigorously disputed).

A force that large probably could have been mobilized to Iraq for some period, maybe for a year. In 2003-2004, before the insurgency got seriously under way, that may have been enough to impose order. But now, it is generally recognized that it's not possible to send any more troops from the Army as it stands.

When Representative John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat, advocated withdrawing troops from Iraq in November, he said he did so in part because senior military officers had told him the Army could not sustain even the existing troop levels.

As a way to do more with less, the Army has begun to reorganize its forces, so that each brigade has more combat troops and fewer support personnel. John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, an independent clearinghouse for military information, estimates that this shift, if it's fully carried out, will let the military "sustain its current level of effort in Iraq indefinitely."

Top Pentagon officials are also seriously thinking about ways to improve the strategies for waging counterinsurgency wars. In December, Gordon England, the No. 2 official at the Defense Department, issued a directive declaring that "stability operations are a core U.S. military mission" and "should be given priority comparable to combat operations."

BUT the 11-page directive notes that carrying out the policy would require not just reshuffling but expanding the armed forces. And the Army's plan for more combat-heavy brigades requires at least keeping the same numbers of troops. Yet in the face of budgetary pressures, Mr. Rumsfeld is reportedly preparing to order cuts in military manpower.

The Army's recruitment and retention rates are declining, in any case. This has led many experts to wonder if the United States, which has relied entirely on volunteer troops since 1973, should bring back the draft.

The presidential commission that proposed ending the draft back in 1970 wrote in its report that an all-volunteer force, which it otherwise strongly endorsed, would be good only for short wars. For longer wars, the National Guard and Reserves would be called on for "the first stage in the expansion of effective forces." If war went on still longer and required more manpower, civilians would have to be brought in, if necessary, "by conscription." For this reason, the report recommended, and presidents have retained, mandatory draft registration.

Few believe Congress will reactivate the draft, short of a threat to national survival or a conflict on the order of World War II. Nor do many senior military officers want to revive conscription. They regard the all-volunteer forces as smarter, more disciplined and more skillful than the draftees of the Vietnam era.

If the Bush administration lacks the resources to meet its expansive military goals, some experts say, maybe the goals should be contracted to meet the resources.

"After the occupations of Bosnia and Kosovo, people said, 'Look how good we are at this,' " recalls Barry Posen, professor of security studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "They forget those places are small. Bosnia has four million people, Kosovo two million. It's just hard to impose your will on a larger country, unless you want to be savage about it. It's always been hard."

Professor Posen adds, "If you do need to go in and occupy some place, you should want everybody and his cousin to go in with you." This would mean a renewed emphasis on multilateralism, alliances and diplomacy - stemming not from moral qualms about the use of force, but from simple arithmetic. "Given the limits on our resources," he says, "it just seems impossible to do it any other way."