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Home » Archives » September 2005 » The Army in Crisis

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09/27/2005: The Army in Crisis

David C. Unger (The NY Times - Military affairs expert) has written an excellent piece on the Crisis in the Army:

The biggest casualty of the Iraq War could be America's all volunteer army.

Click on the "more" button to read this long article.

The Army's Crisis

The volunteer Army is in what looks very much like a death spiral.

It is stretched thin over two active battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan and hobbled by policies based in ideology rather than sound military judgment or the nation's real security needs. As a result, the Army's commitments have dangerously and rapidly expanded, while recruitment has plunged. Unless the Bush administration executes a swift reversal, the United States may soon be forced to make a politically indigestible choice: shrink the combat role of U.S. ground forces abroad, and with it the broad ambitions of American foreign policy, or return to a socially divisive, militarily undesirable and ultimately unnecessary draft.

Right now, the outlook for the Army, including the reserves and National Guard, is bleak. The amount of time troops spend training and resting will keep getting shorter, which means exhausted soldiers will keep being sent back into the field, and the readiness of their units for combat will keep plummeting. As the life of the ordinary soldier grows worse, e-mail messages and phone calls back home will persuade others not to enlist, and there will not be enough soldiers entering the pipeline to meet the current demands on the Army, never mind dealing with the next crisis. And this is how the Bush administration is treating America's key ground fighting forces.

It never had to be this way, even with the war in Iraq. There is no shortage of service-age Americans, or a robust civilian job market draining away potential recruits. The causes of the problem lie in staggering Pentagon mismanagement, the refusal of the nation's leaders to acknowledge reality, and scandalously misplaced spending priorities within a military budget that runs a half-trillion dollars a year.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld came into office dreaming of a smaller, smarter more mobile Army that swiftly decapitated its enemies and didn't hang around for the actual nation-building, which the Republicans have always disdained and now prove to be inept at. Unfortunately, Mr. Rumsfeld got his chance to put these notions into effect - when he began planning the Iraq invasion - and the nation is paying the price in blood, money and international prestige. To stick to his plans, Mr. Rumsfeld had to ignore the advice of military professionals, who saw clearly that Iraq would require a larger invasion and occupation force. He missed his chance to build up the Army's overall size when it would have been easy to do so, with patriotism running high and the military's reputation and prestige still intact. Instead, Mr. Rumsfeld cut corners and failed to plan for the day after Saddam Hussein's fall.

When reality bit, in the form of a sustained Iraqi insurgency, Mr. Rumsfeld abandoned his rapid withdrawal timetable. But even then, he refused to build up the larger active duty Army needed for a prolonged occupation that was no longer a theory but now a grim fact. To fill the gap, he turned the part-time Reserve and National Guard into a virtually full-time fighting force, which succeeded only in throwing those forces into crisis as well. Mr. Rumsfeld's rigid dogmatism has left American soldiers on the ground in Iraq with an impossible mission and unworkable numbers. If President Bush ever had any private doubts about this suicidal course, in public he has been nothing but enthusiastic about everything Mr. Rumsfeld has done.

If the all-volunteer Army turns out to be the biggest casualty of the Iraq war, as it well may, it would be devastating for the country not just because going back to the draft is a bad idea, but also because this army, with its high educational standards, professionalism and good morale contributes mightily toward making the United States the world's leading military power.

To understand why, think back to the last war America fought with a conscript army. That was in Vietnam, and the results were decidedly grim. The draft brought upheaval and political alienation at home and shattered military discipline on the battlefields of Southeast Asia. Analysts started writing about a hollowed-out force, and Army leaders shaped by that period, like Colin Powell, became committed advocates of the all-volunteer military.

In an all-encompassing conflict like World War II, a draft would be necessary and bearable. The sacrifices would be broadly shared and the reasons for them well understood. But when fewer troops are needed for less clearly compelling causes - as is the case in Iraq today - the problems are overwhelming. Under these conditions, a draft should be avoided if at all possible. In theory, it should be very possible. There are more than 60 million men and women in the United States between 18 and 35, more than enough to comfortably supply the needs of all of America's military forces, even if Washington concludes that the current level of 140,000 American ground troops in Iraq must be maintained indefinitely.

So there should be no need for returning to a draft. Nor ought there to be any need for huge financial bonuses, higher age ceilings, extended reserve call-ups and rapid recycling of soldiers to the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.

In fact, the only reason any of these things are on the table right now is because of the Pentagon's gross mismanagement of ground forces in Iraq.

Today's active duty Army has an officially authorized strength of 510,000 soldiers, although about 25,000 of those slots are currently unfilled. Historically, the Pentagon has considered it practical to send only about two-thirds of the Army's force to lengthy overseas tours. Others like most army doctors, lawyers, trainers, trainees, auditors and engineers are based at home. The Pentagon is now trying to increase that percentage, but the most recent estimates by independent analysts put the readily deployable number somewhere between 320,000 and 350,000.

But in reality, it is neither possible nor desirable to have all of these soldiers on the frontlines all the time. They need training exercises. They need rest and recuperation. They need to have their wounds healed in hospitals. They need to see their families. Ideally, the Pentagon believes that soldiers in the active duty army should spend no more than one year out of every three in forward positions like Iraq, Afghanistan, South Korea or the Balkans. (For the part-time soldiers of the Reserves and National Guard, the goal is one year mobilized out of every six.)

Applying the one-in-three standard to the current force would mean that the active duty army could comfortably supply no more than 110,000 of the roughly 225,000 troops the United States plans to deploy this fall in forward positions overseas. About 35,000 of these come from the Marine Corps. The rest will have to come from the Army Reserves and the National Guard or by the painful arithmetic of extending soldiers' tours in battle, or accelerating their rotation back to the front after abbreviated rest periods.

Those numbers explain the grueling stresses the Army and its Reserve and Guard components have been under for most of the past three years. They could have been avoided if the Pentagon had not stubbornly resisted expanding the active duty force. In an unexpected, short-term emergency, it can be appropriate to keep soldiers in battle longer, speed up their rotations and send large numbers of the Guard and Reserve to the front. But that is no basis for conducting extended operations like Afghanistan or a war like Iraq, which was started at the time and place and for the reasons of the President's choosing.

So Americans shouldn't be surprised that new recruits have been getting harder and harder to find. For the first 11 months of the 2005 fiscal year, through August 31, 2005, the regular Army enlisted 64,663 — 90 percent of its goal for that period. The Army National Guard recruited 44,171, or 78 percent of its goal. The Army Reserve met 81 percent of its goal, recruiting 20,865.

It's become a vicious cycle: The lack of sufficient recruits makes conditions of service worse. Bad conditions of service are driving down the personnel numbers.

Recommended Reading:

"Increasing the Size of the Army to Meet the Missions of the 21st Century," May 2005.

"The Need to Increase the Size of the Deployable Army" Parameters US Army War College Quarterly, Autumn 2004.

"Saving the All-Volunteer Army," Center for American Progress, 2004.

"Stretched Thin: Army Forces for Sustained Operations" Rand Corporation, 2005.

For more on military incentives and requirement changes to boost recruitment:
"Fact Sheet: Pentagon Attempts to Resolve Recruitment Woes" Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, June 27, 2005.

The Bush administration's solution to the mismatch between troop strength and military commitments has been to turn to the Army Reserve and National Guard. But those groups were not intended to be used for long-term combat, and they are not holding up well.

More than 450,000 reservists have been mobilized since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Roughly 145,800 are currently on active duty, the great majority from the Army Reserve and Army National Guard. Some of these men and women have been called up more than once and have now reached the legal limit of 24 months of active duty. This heavy reliance on the reserves, it must be said, was not invented by the Bush administration. In the period right after Vietnam, the Pentagon deliberately assigned a number of critically needed combat and post-combat specialties to the reserves. The idea was to make it impossible for any future administration to fight a Vietnam-scale war without calling up the reserves. And that, the generals of that time hoped, would make future presidents more cautious about military interventions and thus protect the armed forces from getting caught in the middle of another unpopular war. They did not anticipate, of course, Mr. Bush's intemperate rush to war with Iraq or Mr. Rumsfeld's heedless devotion to testing his theories of warfare.

So the largest part of the problem besetting the reserves and the guard is not those long-ago generals' misplaced faith, but the Bush administration's refusal to recognize the scope of what it was getting into in Iraq, even after the outbreak of the insurgency in the summer of 2003. Had Washington acknowledged reality then and moved to ramp up the size of the active duty Army, it would have faced a far less daunting set of challenges than it does today.

The overuse of America's citizen's soldiers too often throws inadequately prepared American men and women into highly sensitive and sometimes very dangerous positions. In August, 27 soldiers from the Guard and Reserve were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Twenty Marine reservists from Ohio-based units were killed in a single week. And some of the most notorious participants in the prison abuse scandals at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Bagram in Afghanistan were reservists who were drawn together from a variety of units and given almost no training and equally little leadership.

The costs are being borne by more than just the military. Smaller communities across the nation have been deprived of critically needed police, firefighters, paramedics and other emergency service workers as local Guard and Reserve units that ought to be the first line of defense at home have been sent overseas.

Victims of Hurricane Katrina paid the price. At least one high ranking officer, Lt. Gen. Steven Blum of the National Guard Bureau acknowledged that had the Louisiana National Guard's 256th Infantry Brigade and the Mississippi Guard's 155th Infantry Brigade not been stationed in Iraq when the storm struck, "their expertise and their capabilities could have been brought to bear.'' By his estimate, those costly delays in disaster response could have been shortened, perhaps by a full day, if those brigades had been available at home. On a deeply personal level, t he reservists' professional, financial, and family lives have been upended by extended absences from their homes and regular jobs. Overuse of the reserves brings acute financial hardship to families who are already giving more than their share. Some employers, to their credit, keep mobilized reservists on the payroll, or at least make up the difference between military pay and civilian pay. But many, including most small businesses, and, shamefully, the federal government itself, do neither. That leaves thousands of families to cope not only with the emotional toll of having a loved one in danger far from home, but also with mortgage, rent, car payment, tuition and grocery bills that keep coming in long after the civilian paychecks that used to cover them stop arriving.

Currently, almost one in three soldiers fighting in Iraq comes from the ranks of these normally part-time and auxiliary forces. That percentage is scheduled to drop over the next few months. But that does nothing about the underlying problem. The regular Army is simply too small to meet the needs for fighting troops on the ground in Iraq on a sustainable basis. And if the years since 9/11 have taught us anything, it is that American fighting forces can face new threats that stretch their capacities even further at a moment's notice. They can be called on to fight in places their commanders never anticipated against enemies they never envisioned.

Recommended Reading:

"Military Personnel: A Strategic Approach is Needed to Address Long-Term Guard and Reserve Force Availability" United States Government Accountability Office, February 2, 2005.

"How to Update the Army's Reserves," Lawrence Korb, Center for American Progress, Feb 24 2004.

For more on challenges facing and recommendations for supporting the families and civilian employers of reservists:

"Army National Guard Personnel Mobilized to Active Duty Experienced Significant Pay Problems" United States Government Accountability Office, January 2004.

Patriot Penalty Elimination Act March 15 2005, Introduced to Senate and House.

"The Effects of Reserve Call-Ups on Civilian Employers" Congressional Budget Office, May 2005.

For surveys on the impact of duties on reservists' level of satisfaction: "Status of Forces Survey of Reserve Component Members" Defense Manpower Data Center, 2004.

"Voices on the Ground" Stars and Stripes, October 15, 2003.

Conference on "Transforming the Reserve Component for the 21st Century," Sept 11, 2004, conference report, Nov 18, 2004.

Conference transcript 7563

"Reserve Forces: An Integrated Plan is Needed to Address Army Reserve Personnel and Equipment Shortages" Government Accountability office, July 2005.

"Military Personnel: A Strategic Approach is Needed to Address Long-Term Guard and Reserve Force Availability" United States Government Accountability Office, February 2, 2005.

It is painfully clear that the active duty Army is currently too small for the missions the Bush administration has called on it to perform. But how much bigger should it be? The answer involves some guesswork, since no one knows for sure what future threats loom over the horizon, how many of these will be resolved diplomatically and whether the United States will fight its future wars alone or with militarily significant help from militarily significant allies.

At the very least, the Army needs to grow to a size that would allow its current missions to be carried out without resorting to unsustainable expedients, like accelerated combat rotations, lengthy and repeated call-ups of the reserves and misuse of the Marine Corps as a long-term occupation force. The National Guard is needed at home as the first line of defense. The reserves need to be just what the name implies, a force available for rapidly expanding army ranks in unforeseen emergencies. And the Marine Corps needs to go back to being America's premier assault force, used for ashort-term offensive punch, not long term securing of terrain.

On that basis, the United States should expand the active duty Army by about 100,000 men and women, to a total strength of just over 600,000. That is more than Congressional Democrats have dared to call for. But it would still leave the Army far smaller than it was 16 years ago, at the end of the cold war, when nearly 800,000 men and women served on active duty. Adding 100,000 full-time troops would cost about $10 billion to $15 billion a year, plus a one-time expenditure of about $25 billion for equipment and other start-up expenses. One obvious question is how will it be possible to sign up 100,000 more troops in the current environment, when the Army can't even meet smaller recruiting targets. The first step is a frank admission by the Pentagon that its past efforts to overstretch a too-small force are unsustainable and have inflicted a heavy toll on members of the military. Recruiting will only recover when prospective enlistees are convinced that they will be treated better than the troops have been recently. It is extremely hard to imagine Donald Rumsfeld and the present Defense Department leadership taking that step. But short of an early withdrawal from Iraq, the Bush administration has run out of palatable alternatives.

By moving to larger overall ground forces, the Pentagon can credibly promise shorter combat tours, more sustainable rotations and better force protection in the field. Undoing two-and-a-half years of damage will take time. Until then, the Pentagon will have to offer prospective enlistees better financial incentives - bigger signing bonuses, higher mortgage and tuition assistance, and a guaranteed fast-track to United States citizenship for eligible non-citizens.

Besides improving the lives of men and women fighting for their country, these changes would maximize the chances for actually achieving some of Washington's long terms goals in Iraq. A less frayed and embattled American military contingent would have less need to resort to blind and overwhelming firepower to protect itself. There would likely be fewer situations where soldiers and marines on patrol feel outnumbered and overwhelmed and tempted to respond with excessive force against civilians.

The Pentagon (backed gleefully by the powerful military industry lobbyists) prefers spending its billions on costly weapons, not unglamorous foot soldiers, and argues that no large increase in troop numbers is necessary. It optimistically projects that if all goes well in Iraq, it might be possible to begin significant withdrawals early next year. But since when have things ever gone smoothly in Iraq? No one should count on it happening now. For the immediate future, Washington actually plans to increase American force levels in Iraq, once again by extending tours of duty.

The Pentagon also points to new personnel policies designed to squeeze more combat soldiers out of the present force by shifting the squares around on the Army's organizational chart. Even if they succeed, these changes will not produce anything close to the numbers needed to put the Army back on a sustainable course.

Recommended Reading:

"Letter to Congress on Increasing U.S. Ground Forces" Project for the New American Century, January 28, 2005.

"Options for Restructuring the Army" Congressional Budget Office, May 2005.

"Military Forces: What is the Appropriate Size for the United States?" CRS Report for Congress, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, January 3, 2005.

"The Future of the United States Army with General Peter J. Schoomaker. Panel II: Force Size, Force Structure, and Force Posture" American Enterprise Institute, April 11, 2005.

It seems surreal even to talk about reinstituting the draft over Iraq. The volunteer Army has been a huge success in terms of morale and quality. Recruiting shortfalls, though serious, are tiny in terms of America's total military age population. But the Pentagon's stubborn refusal to adjust the size of the Army to the long-term needs of the Iraq war has set off a recruiting crisis that now threatens to feed off itself. If this continues, it may become impossible to recruit enough volunteers to relieve the mounting strains on active duty and reserve units.

So people are beginning to talk about the draft.

Some Americans, looking back to the experience of World War II, argue that conscription is the democratic way of waging war - a mechanism for assuring that the military is socially representative of the nation as a whole and that a broad swath of society is called upon to share a common sacrifice. Others, looking back at Vietnam, see any return to the draft as a prescription for injustice and national division.

Both groups are at least partly right.

The World War II draft worked reasonably well because it produced something close to universal service in a conflict widely accepted as necessary and right. The Vietnam draft brought turmoil because it produced an unfairly selective pattern of service in a conflict whose necessity and justice many young people, and their parents, rightly questioned.

There is no problem figuring out which of those two models more closely fits Iraq. Reinstituting conscription under today's circumstances would be a catastrophic mistake.

As unpopular as the draft was during the Vietnam era, society has changed a lot in three decades, and there are a new set of social issues that would make the draft even more controversial.

What about women? The old draft was for men only. But today, women play a much larger role in the workplace - and on the battlefield. How could it be fair for only men to be drafted? Is America ready to accept involuntary conscription for women? And, even though the lack of really definable fronts in today's wars thrusts anyone into combat at a moment's notice, the Pentagon has still not fully resolved its own internal debates over the jobs women can do at war.

And what about gays? Many more people of both sexes live openly gay lives than in the 1960's and early 1970's. Yet men and women who talk about their homosexuality are legally barred from serving in the military. Is America ready to grant automatic draft exemptions to its openly gay sons and daughters while denying them to the straight or closeted?

And what about students? College student deferments during the Vietnam war meant that working class and poor men fought and died while many of the rich and privileged could sit it out. Would the American public permit that to happen again?

It's not just that the draft is fraught with peril, though. It is also unnecessary. The pool of possible recruits is enormous, given that there are 60 million men and women in the United States between 18 and 35. Even if the Army were expanded to 600,000 the military's overall recruiting shortfall would be substantially less than 200,000. The military should not need to rely on coercion to fill the gap.

Recommended Reading:

"Time to Bring Back the Draft?" Charles Moskos, Lawrence Korb, The American Enterprise, December 2001.

"Conscription Threatens Hard-Won Achievements and Military Readiness" Office of the Under Secretary of Defense Personnel & Readiness, January 2003.

"Poll Finds Most Oppose Return to Draft, Wouldn't Encourage Children to Enlist" Associated Press, June 24, 2005.

"The Military Obligation of Citizens Since Vietnam," James Burk, Parameters, U.S. Army War College Quarterly, Summer 2001.

Since 9/11, President Bush has proclaimed an audacious new strategic doctrine for the United States. His radical foreign policy vision embraces unilateral military interventions, preventive wars and bold reconfigurations of Middle East politics to promote democracy. The catch is that Mr. Bush has assigned these ambitious new missions to a military force that was designed to carry out a very different set of doctrines, based on multilateral military alliances and United Nations-sponsored peacekeeping.

The resulting mismatch, which the Pentagon has done scandalously little to address, explains much of the strain the Army is now experiencing in Iraq. America is dominant, and largely unopposed, on and under the seas, in the air and in space. Where it is now coming up short is on the ground - the terrain where regimes are toppled, insurgents fought and nations rebuilt.

If Mr. Bush's new doctrines remain in force, the demands for ground troops can only increase. Even neoconservatives who once fantasized about American troops being welcomed joyously in Iraq and then marching swiftly on to the next battle now recognize that regime change involves not just a few triumphant weeks of shock and awe but a long, hard, slow and uncertain slog of nation-building.

Creating ground forces large enough to successfully carry out such operations in today's Iran, North Korea and Syria -- and perhaps tomorrow's Pakistan and Saudi Arabia -- would bankrupt America's treasury, militarize its society and leave it even more estranged from the rest of the world than it is today.

A better alternative would combine a modest upsizing of the force with a significant downsizing of the mission. It would also involve at least a partial return to some of the traditional American approaches to war that this administration once so dismissively cast aside. Washington would again learn to discriminate between objectionable behavior and actual security threats. Diplomacy and compromise would be taken seriously as a cost-effective path for defusing conflicts without running the enormous military, political and human risks of war. More effort would be put into building real military coalitions and working closely with the United Nations on peacekeeping and nation-building.

Going back to the more predictable and orderly world of the recent past is not an option. But any intelligent planning for the Army's future must start by digesting some of the painful and sobering lessons of the last few years.

Recommended Reading:

"The Preemptive-War Doctrine Has Met an Early Death in Iraq" Brookings Institutions, May 30 2004.

"Leaders for Nation-Building" Lt. Col. Patrick Donahoe, U.S. Army, Military Review, May/June 2004.

"The Perils of Nation-Building" Doug Bandow, The Future of Freedom Foundation, Freedom Daily, Jan 2004.

"Four Wars and Counting…The Need for a New Approach to Strategy and Force Planning" Center for Strategic and International Studies, August 2003.

"The New Occupation: How Preventive War is Wrecking the Military" Project on Defense Alternatives, Jan 4 2004.

"Bounding the Global War on Terrorism," Jeffrey Record, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, December 2003.

Panel on "The Future of the United States Marine Corps" American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, August 2005.

Karen on 09.27.05 @ 03:29 PM CST

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