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February 04, 2006

Bulk the Army or Review the Policy: The Defense Dilemma
Posted by Gordon Adams

The Quadrennial Defense Review appears today, the fourth since the Bottom Up Review of 1993. Newspaper columns are going to be filled with discussions of “irregular” conflicts and “catastrophic” threats, and the “long war” Secretary Rumsfeld announced this week at the National Press Club. The underlying debate, though, is going to focus on the Army – is it overstretched and near the breaking point, or is it a “Goldilocks” force – just right for what it is being asked to do. The answer to this question, however, is not “how much should we add to the Army,” but what is the Army for.

From the narrow point of view, there is no doubt the Army is overstretched. Maintaining 160,000 troops in Iraq, plus another roughly 30,000 at sea or in neighboring Kuwait, preparing a next wave of forces to go there, and resetting the forces that came home not only costs a lot (see that $70 b. Iraq supplemental coming this month) but goes well beyond the algorithm the Army likes to use for deploying its forces. Minimally, the Army likes three units for every rotation: one in the field, one getting ready to go, and one coming back to rest, retrain and reequip. In Iraq, it is more like one coming back and one going out, period. Can’t do that without calling up the reserves, so we have done that, with more than 600,000 men and women now on active duty in the Army.

There is a price. New troops in the field haven’t had much down time; everybody has done one tour, most have done two, and some are on their third tour in the war. Because we are using most of the combat Army, and a substantial portion of the National Guard and Reserves for Iraq, our “strategic reserve” for other contingencies has shrunk.

This high tempo also carries a price in terms of keeping the force its current size. The active duty Army fell nearly 6,700 short of its 80,000 recruitment goal in the 2005 fiscal year and only got there by exhausting the pipeline of recruits it was holding in reserve. This year, it has lowered its goals so if there is a shortfall, we won’t see it. The Army reserves fell 16% behind their recruiting goal for 2005, with the National Guard 20% behind. And the rate at which new soldiers reenlist is also falling.

The Army, think tanks and task forces, even Members of Congress from both parties, have concluded that the Army is too small, and are making proposals to increase its size by at least 30,000 and as much as 86,000, just to keep up. But the new QDR argues that the size of the force is just right; we only need to restructure the force to squeeze more effective and focused combat capabilities out of it.

It’s worth thinking about this problem. Is it the size of the Army? Or is it the ambitions of the policy? If it is just a question of more troops, getting them is going to be hard. Men and women enlist and re-enlist because of the financial incentives, benefits, the challenge of service, the excitement, or their patriotism. On the other hand, they decide not to join or re-enlist because of the casualty rate in a “hot war,” the returning wounded, the general unpopularity of the cause, or the availability of better jobs at home. The deployment in Iraq is clearly stressing the force, many are leaving because of this stress and general unhappiness about the war, and the Army is falling short.

Last year, reenlistment bonuses reportedly cost the Army $500 m. The price tag for convincing another 30,000, let along 86,000 is unknown, but probably way beyond the Army’s current budget. To be blunt, even if expanding the Army were the answer to the overstress problem, the Army couldn’t get there from here.

What if the problem is the policy? Interestingly, the QDR says very little about Iraq; it focuses on longer-term challenges. It may be avoiding Iraq, but it reflects the reality that Iraq will end. The question both for the QDR and for the critics is whether we will do another Iraq any time soon.

If the Defense Department plans not to repeat Iraq – in Syria, or Iran, or Nigeria, or somewhere else – then the Pentagon’s argument may very well be right – the current size of the Army is adequate, and it just needs to be restructured to fit new challenges. Indeed, that is what the new QDR seems to argue – for smaller, modular forces, better trained to irregular warfare, and a significantly increase in Special Operations Force that conduct the kind of “combat” terrorist organizations engage in.

The critics have an obligation. If the Army needs to grow, they need to base that argument on a hard, detailed argument about the mission: What do they want the Army to do? The implicit content of the criticism is that the Army will do more Iraq’s – fight in and occupy a significant country, taking major responsibilities for post-conflict security, stability, governance and reconstruction – and do it again and again.


Not many Americans, civilian or military, are signing up for the next Iraq, not even the Pentagon. And current plans will bring down the US military presence in Iraq over the next two years. The QDR implicitly accepts this reality and makes a vigorous argument (generally missed in the press coverage) that the US should not seek to do it – war, occupation, security and reconstruction – again, anywhere, without substantial involvement of other government agencies (like State and AID), non-governmental organizations, international organizations, and, for an administration that has been notoriously reluctant to join up with other countries, properly trained friends and allies.

Not that the QDR has all the answers. The future missions it describes – combat, deterrence, homeland defense, fighting insurgencies and terrorists, and “support for” (note the important qualifier) stability, security, transition and reconstruction – make sense, but there is not much clarity on the security, transition and reconstruction end. This leaves open how much responsibility the US plans to take for future “occupations”, but the framing of the issue does not support expanding the Army. Once out of Iraq, there is not much of a case for doing so.

Fundamentally, we need to be asking ourselves whether it is the business of the US military to occupy, stabilize and rebuild other countries; Iraq is likely to end up as the ghost of campaigns past. Afghanistan may carry more lessons of what is to come: unstable countries that can harbor terrorist forces, whose instability fosters crises next door. What the Pentagon seems to be proposing is a “rebalancing” of the forces, creating more Army forces readily available and trained to such expeditionary missions, and a major increase in the Special Operations Forces, for which such operations are “bread and butter.” Both the Army and the Special Forces are intended to work more closely with civilian authorities, do more training missions with foreign militaries, lash up with allies, and leave a lot of the other work to non-military capabilities.

Even at this level, we may be talking “mission impossible,” or at least “mission undesirable.” There is still a touch of the instinct for the US to become the “global government” or “global cop.” (Michael Mandelbaum’s “Goliath,” or Richard Haas’ “reluctant sheriff", or Tom Barnett’s “system administrator.”)

There is an argument to be had here, one I will write about in forthcoming blogs. We need to expand the terms of the debate so we are not stuck between the ambitions of the Administration’s global rule setters, and the false comfort of just expanding the Army to solve the Iraq problem. But the critics have an obligation to explain the range of missions they propose to justify expanding the Army. If these involve chasing terrorists and training security forces, they will not demand “occupation sized” forces, but different training, flexibility and agility in the current force, and better “burden-sharing” with civilian agencies, non-governmental organizations, international agencies and, above all, allies who buy into the mission. Bulking up the force, which is physically impossible in any case, begs this question.

It’s the mission, stupid, not the shortage of troops. This broader perspective will be badly needed in the coming debate about the Army, the QDR and the Pentagon budget.


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The notion that the US Army could not find people if the force was to be expanded is irrational. The US Army was far larger 20 years ago and had a significantly smaller population base to recruit from. If the military is to be expanded it will be expensive because personel costs are over 50% of the budget hence every service the past decade doing everything they can to reduce end strength.

Obviously in the case of the US Army ten divisions was too small a force. However, the new "modular" army is a huge mistake. The new force actually gives you more paper pushers and less trigger pullers; moreover, a binary force structure is inherently lacking in operational and tactical flexability, lacks an ablility to engage in sustained heavy combat, and is simply wastefull.

At the height of the Cold War the US, West Germany, and USSR (OMG) all realized the most efficient formation was a brigade of 4 battalions. If the Army wanted more trigger pullers they would have added 1-3 battalions to the existing divisions to get back to "normal". Instead we've added another brigade HQ and all the HQ's for a 4th set of support units and actually cut the number of battalions from 9 to 8. The only result will one day be dead US soldiers.

The point about deciding what force structure is needed for what tasks and then paying for that structure is an important point; however, to some degree that's never going to happen. We planned for 50 years for the Cold War to go hot and never fought it- other than in proxy wars.

What the Pentagon has decided in all it's planning is to focus on rotation. So the Army gets binary brigades not more battalions and the Navy gets less ships and "sea swaps" them. The Air Force uses more UAV's and keeps the virtual pilots in the US at the end of the SATCOM. All of these policies come at the expense of the ability to engage in sustained combat.

The force over the last half century that had to do most of the fighting and the vast majority of the small conflicts, the USMC, even organizes it's infantry squads for sustained combat. Every US Army study ever done concludes the 13 man USMC squad is far superior and yet year after year the Army can't even be bothered to keep it's 9 man squads up to strength- much less increased.

Lane Brody

I take issue with several of the points:
"Maintaining 160,000 troops in Iraq, plus another roughly 30,000 at sea or in neighboring Kuwait"--the Army is not maintaining 160K; the max number for combined forces (including the USMC and allies) has approximated that during elections only. THe Army number is significantly smaller--and none of them are "at sea".

"our “strategic reserve” for other contingencies has shrunk." That depends on your definition. Current manning figures for the Army are 512K (Active), 333K (NG) and 188K (USAR); a total Army force of a little over 1M. Your overly generous deployment figures are only one-fifth of that. A more accurate portrayal would be to say the force mix in 2001 was not designed to sustain the current OPTEMPO comfortably. The Army has been working on this for years, which is what it takes to redesign, restructure, and reconfigure the force.
"The active duty Army fell nearly 6,700 short of its 80,000 recruitment goal in the 2005 fiscal year and only got there by exhausting the pipeline of recruits it was holding in reserve. This year, it has lowered its goals so if there is a shortfall, we won’t see it. The Army reserves fell 16% behind their recruiting goal for 2005, with the National Guard 20% behind. And the rate at which new soldiers reenlist is also falling." The recruitment goal was 8K larger than the year before based on the authority to temporarily add 30K to the force to enable the Army to simultaneously conduct operations and restructure. It will go down. And at the macro level, the Army will be the size Congress is willing to fund, and designs its structure (the constrained force in the TAA) based on what it thinks it will get, taking into account Congress's unwillingness to cut procurement programs that provide jobs in their districts yet establish overall funding levels that don't pay for everything, leaving the Army (and DoD and OMB) out on a limb. And as far as reenlistment goes, the Army vastly exceeded its goal for FY05; the 3ID (on its 3rd tour in Iraq) had a reup rate of 136% of target.

You didn't mention the term 'asymmetrical,' which is often abused, especially by liberals.

The QDR essentially advocates the Marine Corps model of expeditionary warfare, including componency. In that sense, there is nothing new --- the Marine Corps figured it out 25 years ago.

Arguments about the "mission" are political by nature. I'm eager to read about your ideas.

Lane, here's a minor quibble -- you suggest that using UAVs with virtual pilots in a save location reduces sustainable combat. But if the UAVs actually work, it seems to me that would improve sustainable combat. If there are *enough* UAVs you aren't going to run low on pilots. The only problem comes if the UAVs can't actually perform the needed missions. I don't know whether they'll be able to or not, it isn't obvious to me one way or another. Even if it turns out to go against your claim, though, it's a very minor part of what you're saying.

Libertarian, statistics like "136% of recruiting goal" are meaningless at present -- since enlistment goals have become a political football the military adjusts its public enlistment goals to try to look good.

The reduced standards and advanced age limits makes it look like there's a problem, but hard to tell just how bad the problem is. Since enlistment is a moving target and lots of the statistics are fudged, it's very hard to figure out.

Can we tell anything from the direction things are going? Does the QDR reflect military concerns that it would be hard to increase the numbers without a draft, so they prefer to go with what they can get? Or does that position come from other concerns?

Then there's the iraq issue. Realisticly, if we're going to win in iraq we can expect it to take another 10 years. Is there any reason to think we can get by with a reduced force there this year? Would we be hunkering down in our bases and adopting a strictly defensive posture? Would we abandon bases to whoever can occupy them? If we draw down our forces, the insurgents will have *more* chances to attack *fewer* troops.

It seems to me more likely we'll have a force reduction before the elections, and then we'll come up with some sort of good-sounding justifiction to increase them again. And then probably arrange a way to declare victory and pull out completely just before the 2008 election. But it could be a rough two years between November 2006 and November 2008.

Great post. Very thought-provoking. Here's my question: Even if I don't think future Iraqs are a good idea, it worries me to to plan on the basis that the US will not be capable of a future Iraq, should the need arise. What if an important state - Nigeria to use one of your examples - collapses and, for whatever reason, few are around to help. To pick up on my post for tonight, the Europeans are preoccupied with their own problems, the Africans lack the capability and the Latin Ams and Asian countries are unwilling. Do we want to be in a position where saying no to single-handed, large scale operations is a matter of necessity, not choice? Maybe you're right and there's simply no practical alternative - we cannot maintain capabilities at this level without severely compromising other national imperatives, but its not self-evident that we want to position ourselves to be unable to pull off another Iraq should the need arise.

Suzanne, just thinking it out ... if we pull out of iraq, and if the economy gets worse, we'll be able to recruit a large very-competent army cheap.

We still might not be able to pay for it, but it wouldn't cost nearly what it looks like now. What makes it hard to recruit now is that we're in a dreary war where people get stop-lossed. And while there may not be as many good jobs available as there used to be, still there are some jobs.

All it takes to make the army look real good is fo the war to be over and nothing else available. With just those two changes then all our recruiting problems are over.

The example of UAV's, sea swap, and modular brigades were all used as examples of the Pentagon undercutting combat sustainment. UAV's, in particular USAF versions, are extremely expensive and crash orders of magnitude more often than conventional aircraft.

Relying on UAV's during peacetime or even during a low level insurgency gives an illusion based in part on low to medium sorite rates exactly how many UAV's are needed. High tempo ops will see UAV units very quickly run completely out. It has happened. Moreover, a while a UAV might be an excellent platform for many missions (esp. recon and comm relay) it is again an illusion that a Predator with 2 or 4 Hellfire's is any replacement for a heavy bomer loaded with JDAM's.

Finally while it's possible one day that virtual eyes and teleconferences can be as effective as a pilot based in theater it's not coming soon. The synergy of the combat pilot seeing with his eyes, post mission being able to sit down and talk with the guy's doing forward air control (air and land), and thus gaining a real appreciation of the situation can not compare to some guy 10,000 miles away. Moreover, some units rotate combat pilots out to do forward air control while others also do airborne forward air control. For many tasks the mk 1 eyeball gives much greater situational awareness than even combinations of advanced sensors.

In any case the service that has been trying to get rid of the A-10 for almost 20 years when that aircraft was the most usefull in Desert Storm as well as today in both Afganistan and Iraq simply can not be trusted with the future of airpower. The USAF is part of the problem not part of the solution and has outlived it's usefullness and should be disbanded.

Lane Brody

Anyone who has lived in Nigeria knows that talking about a large scale foreign military intervention there is comical. 130+M people, 250 ethnic groups, each with its own dialect or language (although most can speak one or more of Hausa, Yoruba, or Igbo, as well as English) and culture, borders as porous as Iraq's along with a much longer coastline, and all the guns you could possibly want. I suggest chosing a different strawman for intervention.
And Lane is on target about the utility of the USAF.

I don't have a dog in the fight about the USAF. I can imagine that they want to concentrate on having air superiority to the point they aren't as useful as they could be after they have it. But then if they can keep the enemy from having air superiority that's at least something.

Lane, it sounds like if we could get the cost down on the UAVs and get a lot more of them, that would handle some of your complaints. And cranking out more of them would bring down the unit cost, only the designs ought to still be evolving pretty fast so weshouldn't make too many obsolescent types.

But some of your complaints just can't be handled with this generation of UAVs at all.

So on the one hand we aren't ready for sustained high-intensity combat, and on the other hand we aren't ready for sustained low-intensity combat. We're the best in the world at force projection, and we aren't very good at it these days.

The Army has substantially adopted the Marine Corps model of an integrated air-ground task force, training and fighting under a single chain of command. This new Army approach makes the USAF not only inessential but an outright obstacle.

A flyboy acquaintance of mine ran the air-control over Baghdad for a year. The Marine Corps and Army had long argued for dynamic, three dimensional battle areas for combat operations in the city. But my acquaintance couldn’t understand why the Air Force should have dynamically altered approach lanes, "just because the Marines want it." Apparently, the need of ground troops for sustained, accurate air support didn’t warrant a change in Air Force procedure.

Return the Air Force where it belongs --- the Army. Maintain a separate strategic weapons force for...well strategic weapons.

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