February 1, 2007  

Buying boots

The challenge of expanding U.S. land forces

At last, more than five years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration has come to realize that the land forces of the U.S. are too small.

"I’m inclined to believe," the president said at his Dec. 20 press conference, "that we need to increase the permanent size of both the United States Army and the United States Marines. I’ve asked [Defense] Secretary [Robert] Gates to determine how such an increase could take place and report back to me as quickly as possible."

Bush reiterated his commitment in the Jan. 10 speech announcing his new Iraq strategy, and the next day Gates did indeed report that Army active end strength should be bumped up to 547,000 and the Marine Corps to 202,000.

Many Democrats had already made the argument, so they were ready to walk through the door the president opened. Leading the way was Sen. Hillary Clinton, a woman who would be commander in chief.

"It is good news that the president is finally acknowledging what has long been clear: Our military is operating under tremendous strain and it is past time to increase the end strength of the Army and Marines," her press release read that day. Even The New York Times concurred in a Christmas Eve editorial titled "A real-world Army," which argued that "larger ground forces are an absolute necessity for the sort of battles America is likely to fight during the coming decades." Too warm for snow, Washington in the holidays seemed blanketed in a thick — if rare — blanket of bipartisanship.

What the political groundhogs will see this month when they come out of their holes may be quite another thing. The broad agreement on the need to expand the Army and Marine Corps still faces huge hurdles. Four questions need to be addressed: What’s the cost and where will the money come from? How large should the increase be? What is the mission for this larger force? What kind of force do we need?

The cost question is arguably the most important. Although this is shameful for a nation as wealthy as the U.S., it is simply a fact that our political class does not think or act as though we are at war; yes, they are at war with one another, but not so much with our foreign enemies. The Democrats, for all their boasting about the results of last fall’s elections, understand that both their credentials and capacity to direct wartime policy are weak. They fear, rightly, being portrayed as weak on defense — here, too, they avoid any suggestion that we’re engaged in a war — and well know that the powers of Congress pale before those of the commander in chief. With a view toward the 2008 presidential election, the Democratic leadership will want to be cautious and keep a tight rein on those most anxious and energetic to force a withdrawal from Iraq. Having been in the political wilderness since 1994, they care less about policy than power.

So do congressional Republicans, although they are newly obsessed by the loss of power and the fear that they are just entering their wilderness years. They enter 2007 in complete disarray: Their natural leader, the president, is politically toxic; the congressional leadership is uninspiring and facing the limited opportunities of a party in the minority; House Republicans, especially, once noted for their goose-stepping discipline, are now unchained; the party’s natural leaders and presidential candidates are either mavericks (Sen. John McCain), Washington outsiders (former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney), both (former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani) or a separate species of politician (Newt Gingrich). In sum, there is no policy consensus among Republicans.

Further complicating the picture is the fact that both parties will be struggling to position themselves as the party of fiscal and budgetary discipline. Six years of Bush’s "big government conservatism" has upset the traditional split between free-spending, tax-hiking Democrats and parsimonious, tax-cutting Republicans. All the while, growing entitlement spending, accelerated by the Bush drug-benefit program, reduces budgetary freedom of action. The net result is that Washington sits like a deer transfixed by the onrushing fiscal headlights, unable to raise revenues or limit expenditures in any meaningful way.

The one big pot of money over which the government has any discretion is defense spending. Here, too, the picture has been clouded by years of emergency supplemental appropriations to pay the costs of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are now supposed to be included in the regular defense requests, a move where logic has triumphed over politics. But whether forcing the system to openly account for war costs will be a good thing remains to be seen. This is a matter on which Democrats are promising to concentrate their oversight activities, which probably means the process will become more, rather than less, complicated. Imposing "normal" budgetary procedures in a wartime environment may not be so wise.

At the very least, the cost of expanding the land forces will add a new ingredient to an already spicy political and fiscal stew. Although Bush finally has changed his mind about the need for more ground power, it’s not clear that the Pentagon collectively agrees. Congress, too, will have a hard time getting to yes. Expect Democrats to try to take the money out of missile defense or other programs; they may feel that the Army and Marine Corps are too small, but they equally feel the U.S. military is too big. They will be tempted to follow The New York Times’ line of reasoning: "Every year since 2001 has brought increased demands on America’s slimmed-down and dollar-starved ground forces, while billions continued to flow into sustaining the oversized and underused Air Force and Navy, and modernizing their state-of-the-art equipment." The paper thinks the money for a larger force could "easily be found by slashing military pork and spending on unneeded stealth fighters, stealth destroyers and attack submarines" and cutting the size of the other services. On the Republican side, some will be stalwart — McCain and longtime Pentagon supporters such as Rep. Duncan Hunter — but most will be uncertain and more than a few will be opposed.

How big?

Thus, the second question, the question of the size of the expansion, is almost as politically important as the question of cost. And, of course, the two are related. Adding 10,000 troops costs somewhere between $1.2 billion and $1.5 billion per year, not counting the costs of recruitment or equipment.

In recent years, the size of the active-duty Army — that is, regulars plus reservists and guardsmen called to active service — has consistently hovered between 600,000 and 625,000; the total number of Marines is less than 200,000. That’s a pretty good measure of what it takes to sustain the level of effort demanded by the current strategy for Iraq, Afghanistan and other fronts in the Long War; by that measure, Gates’ goal of 547,000 for the active Army is far too few. But if one thinks that the current strategy reflects an on-the-cheap approach to irregular warfare, these numbers would be too small. A better-educated guess at an Army able to sustain multiple Long War engagements — a 21st-century reckoning of the "two-and-a-half war" calculus that formed the basis of Cold War defense planning — would call for an active end strength of about 750,000. It would also begin to restore the Army National Guard to its traditional role as a strategic reserve; the current experiment in employing the National Guard as an "operational reserve" — that is, in sustaining Iraq rotations — has been an additional complicating factor in Long War strategy-making. The nature of the mission, a long-duration, constabulary-style, cavalry-on-the-frontier effort, calls first for a long-service, regular force.

How to judge the size of the Marine Corps depends on the size of the Army. The Marines must resign themselves to playing some major role in occupationlike duties; simply, they are needed. But, for all the Corps’ small-war prowess and traditions, their current posture and structure is still tied to their amphibious, from-the-sea mode of operations. A seven-month rotation to Iraq is nearly counterproductive, even when units enjoy great cohesion and are returned to familiar territory. Over the long term, it might be better to detail Marines primarily to missions such as the Horn of Africa, supplementing the foreign internal defense capabilities of special operations forces, and limiting their role in sustained campaigning.

Not only are these big numbers, but they also are numbers that require nearly a decade to achieve. What was taken apart so quickly and easily in the 1990s will not easily be put back together. The Army argues that it cannot accommodate more than an additional 30,000 soldiers per year given the small size of its training base. Although an expansion program should be designed to increase this capacity — a force of 750,000 would probably require recruiting 90,000 to 100,000 soldiers per year — a sufficient Army growth program will demand a sustained effort and a long recruiting war. And its cost far exceeds what might be harvested from Navy, Air Force or waste-fraud-and-abuse accounts at the Pentagon. Robbing Peter to pay Paul is not only unwise, it’s also probably impossible.

It will be even harder to gauge the correct size of U.S. land force components, however, unless there is an open discussion — a recognition, really — of what their main mission is and will be. There has been a collective failure in government, encompassing both parties and both the executive and legislative branches, to confront the realities of the Long War and the core, constabulary-style tasks that make up the conduct of the war. There’s little value in making a larger force until you understand what you want it to do.

Five years after 9/11, a number of elements in the struggle for the future of the Islamic world are clear beyond argument. The first, and the mission that today’s force is best suited to execute, might be called the "regime removal" phase of operations. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq captured the American military at its zenith: rapid maneuvers over strategic distances culminating in blitzkrieg-pace joint combined-arms campaigns to sweep away the enemy’s organized forces. This is a precious capability that must be maintained. Yet, it ought not be taken for granted. The Iraqi army had been pummeled into paste over the course of a dozen years, beginning with Operation Desert Storm, continuing through the no-fly-zone years and culminating in the march to Baghdad. The defeat of the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan was accomplished with great creativity, but the raw outcome was not much in doubt. Future campaigns might not be such relative cakewalks. The struggles of the Israel Defense Forces to root out Hezbollah from southern Lebanon provide a hint of what may be to come; perhaps most notable is the cohesion with which Hezbollah fought. Motivated Islamists are more formidable than the hapless Arab armies of the past generation. Further, projecting land power from the sea under these evolving conditions is an increasingly risky proposition. Finally, the proliferation of nuclear weapons is about to change the battlefield equation entirely.

But if invasions and strike missions are the price of entry, it is now undeniable that stability and state-building operations are the decisive phase. Preferably, U.S. land forces will attempt to do these jobs before there is need for direct intervention — better to "build partner capacity" in the weak military establishments of state before they fail — but it is an imperative where we do intervene. Completing the Iraq and Afghanistan missions will be the work of a generation. Even if the internal conflicts are resolved well, both will remain fragile political experiments and our most crucial allies in the decades to come. To say that the need to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps is a separate issue from Iraq and Afghanistan is disingenuous; even if it takes a decade to grow a larger force, it will take much longer to grow a democracy.

The force we need

A final but crucial question is the question of the nature of the force needed to win the Long War. The Marines remain at heart the middleweight amphibious outfit they imagined themselves to be in the 1920s and 1930s; this legacy still has value, to be sure, but the Corps has been reluctant to embrace its small-wars tradition, particularly if it interrupts a ship-driven deployment schedule. The Army has an even tougher task: The reforms of the post-Vietnam years were inseparable from an image of war derived from European battlefields of World War II, updated by lessons learned from the Arab-Israeli war of 1973. Both services need to rethink their most basic natures, beginning with the relation of the military to the nation and including military training and, possibly most important, leader education.

Similarly, the materiel needs of the land forces in the field must be revalidated. The eagerness with which the U.S. military embraced the information revolution, certain that it could produce "dominant battle space awareness," is a tragedy of Greek proportions. Soldiers and Marines now operate in an environment that is deeply opaque; the problem is not sharing what we do know but simply knowing much at all. Clearly, the hoped-for trade-off between armor protection and information needs to be recalculated — the Humvee is not a fighting vehicle. Similarly, past concerns about strategic deployability merit less consideration going forward; although the Army has always retained rapid response forces, its modernization focus needs to be more regional and less global.

The remaining years of the Bush administration and the term of the president to follow will mark a deflection point for the decades to come and for the position of the U.S. as a dominant military power. We must come to grips with the requirements of waging and winning this Long War. The increases suggested by the administration over the past month are a good starting point but far too little. And the way the administration inflated their numbers — Gates counted, in the 65,000 soldiers, 30,000 already "temporarily" on the books because of brigade modularization and reorganization — it’s still the case that you can’t take a Bush administration press statement at face value. Further, these long-term decisions must be faced within the context of a war in Iraq that is going very badly — and perhaps a war in Afghanistan headed in a similar direction. There will be a strong temptation to simply say, "Americans don’t fight wars like this." But that’s not really an option. We cannot perfectly control the terms of engagement. We need to find good answers to these questions, and find them fast. AFJ

Tom Donnelly is an AFJ contributing editor and resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.