A Strategic Rationale for Land Force Expansion

Included within the new Pentagon budget is Secretary Gates’ decision to increase the size of the nation’s Army and Marine Corps. Between these two ground forces, an increase of 92,000 troops was authorized. Of this total, the Army grows by 65,000 soldiers and the Marines by 27,000. This decision reversed years of Office of the Secretary of Defense strategic guidance which had emphasized “leap ahead” technologies over manpower and leaned towards visions of warfare that emphasized U.S. competitive advantages in target acquisition and precision missile systems. The resulting emphasis on “stand-off warfare” by Mr. Rumsfeld precluded significant investments in land forces despite several years of evidence from Iraq. For several years a number of bipartisan appeals to increase the Army and Marines were made without success. Now belatedly, the administration has reversed course. The FY08 Presidential Budget provides for $5.6 billion to support the first year of this ramp-up in both Services, and estimates that $112.3 billion will be required to source and equip these troops between now and 2012.

The supporting rationale for troop strength increases has not been well documented, aside from the evident strain that the military is under as it attempts to meet deployment requirements for two simultaneous insurgencies and other efforts in support of the war on terror. The public has been led to believe that this increase is needed now to reduce the ongoing strain placed on our soldiers and Marines due to the protracted struggle in Iraq. Public officials have stated that the increase is required to improve the deployment/home station ratio of two months at home for every month deployed. This argument may seem compelling, but it may not be relevant to Iraq. These new formations, not all of which are the kinds of units most useful in Iraq, cannot be recruited, equipped, trained and deployed for years. Thus, the “dwell time” ratio will not be improved soon enough, unless we assume we maintain significant forces in Iraq out past 2012. So reducing the strain on the forces heading to Iraq is not the most pressing reason.

The war on terror is another potential rationale. Here again, however, exactly what kinds of capabilities are we adding to our protracted struggle against Islamic extremism? If we were adding 9,200 “foot soldiers” to the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, it might help. If we were bulking up our badly implemented strategic communications and public diplomacy programs with a new U.S. Information Agency, it might help. If we were using the military manpower to establish standing interagency task forces, an Army Training and Advisory Brigade, or new legions of active duty civil affairs and psychological operations professionals and intelligence specialists it might help.

Yet there are a number of valid strategic reasons why Congress may conclude that a significant increase in personnel levels is warranted. These include:

  • Reverse the Slow Manpower Erosion. Offset a decade of incremental reductions caused by rising personnel costs. The Services have been under significant pressure over the last few years to reduce manpower levels to pay for sharply higher recruiting, retention, and health care costs.
  • Bury Our Technological Hubris. Offset a decade of illusions about future warfare. Over the past decade a number of speculative concepts about the changing nature of warfare have worked against maintaining a sufficient ground force. These include Defense planning guidance predicated upon very short wars, a prejudice for technology over “boots on the ground” and an irrational exuberance about the productivity enhancements posed by the supposed wonders of information technology.
  • Prepare for the 21st Century, to better posture the Pentagon for the changing character of anticipated wars and contingencies, including the prospects of what the CIA calls the coming “Perfect Storm” of ethnic and religiously motivated conflicts. The historical patterns of such conflicts suggest that these will be protracted and manpower intensive, as we’ve seen in the last few years.
  • Additive Missions, to provide sufficient capacity to fulfill additive missions being placed on ground forces for preventive interventions in failed or failing states, as well as post-conflict stability operations. Our Special Operations Forces have been increased to meet their increased responsibilities but the Army and Marines have faced persistent pressures to cut end strength despite the changing and increasingly irregular character of conflict. If the U.S. State Department and other agencies have no stomach for “armed civil affairs” or what might be called “contested state building” then the land forces need to have the resources to fulfill these new governance, advisory and training tasks.
  • Take Pressure off National Guard. We must reduce the need to tap into the National Guard so heavily. The National Guard has been incredibly responsive to a range of contingencies since 9/11, including support to that domestic crisis, Katrina, enhanced border security tasks, supporting operations in Afghanistan, and major deployments to Iraq. This is a well we have tapped into far too often, as a buffer against bad strategic decisions in Washington. The families of our Guard and Reserve component have been asked to pay too high a bill. Likewise, state governors have been left short of units and assets to meet their emergency and homeland security needs. At a recent Governor’s Association meeting with the president, this was at the top of their agenda. The National Guard is close to being flat on its back and its preparedness for a major serious homeland security crisis is questionable. It too requires substantial reinvestment. As Stephen Flynn notes in his new book, The Edge of Disaster, we are inviting another crisis on the scale of Hurricane Katrina by how little we’ve prepared and how much we have overextended our Guard resources.
  • Strategic Risk Reduction. Lastly, and most importantly, increased land forces are needed to decrease precarious levels of risk. Our commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as other ongoing contingencies, have placed a heavy burden on two Services. These commitments and the attendant degradation of our warfighting capability have given rise to the perception by some states that the United States is tapped out and unable to respond to other crises. Furthermore, these perceptions undercut our diplomacy and embolden major states to take license with our interests, and encourages regional actors like North Korea and Iran to act out without fear of reprisal.

The Pentagon has committed itself to a monumental task. Operationally, it is trying to simultaneously win the broader war on terror, defeat two simultaneous insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and secure America’s other security interests at home and abroad. No small order. Moreover, it must also train up rotating forces, reset today’s depleted force and worn out gear, and modernize all four Services to give them the weapons and equipment they did for the 21st century. The Navy’s shipbuilding plans are significantly under funded, even as the costs of new platforms continues to spiral up. The Navy is not alone. According to Loren Thompson, writing in Of Men and Materiel, The Crisis in Military Resources, we have taken our dominance in aerospace for granted for too long, and this indifference has created a rather aged fleet of platforms for our Air Force. The National Guard also faces equipment challenges, especially for its domestic security tasks. As the recent stories out of Walter Reed Army Medical Center show, we have a long way to go in taking care of our wounded soldiers. Now, we seek to enlarge the ground force, which will require new facilities, weapons, recruiting and retention incentives.

This will be an enormously expensive proposition and it is not clear that the White House or Pentagon have established or presented any priorities whatsoever. In fact, according to the Congressional testimony of Gordon Adams, a national security budget expert, the “Pentagon has put the force expansion horse ahead of the strategic planning cart.” The FY2008 budget, plus the supplemental funding for the war on terror, total $683 billion. Our military spending is admittedly a small percentage of our total economy, right around 4 percent, but the true measure of reality is that our military budget already exceeds the rest of the world combined. We need a debate on our national security priorities and the resources we allocate to conventional forces, homeland security, and preventative programs including foreign aid, military security assistance, and threat reduction projects to maximize our security among the many claimants.

Of particular concern is the ability of the Pentagon to sustain a larger force. The new and higher end strengths for the Army and Marines will exacerbate budget pressures on the Services. The feasibility of achieving the higher end strength is a challenge in and of itself. While both Services have attained their first term enlistment goals, the recruiting environment is difficult and asking the ground services to compete with each other for another 92,000 bodies is not going to help. The Army in particular is reversing years of improved human capital trends by accepting older, less educated enlistees, and waiving a far higher number of moral and legal requirements to maintain today’s 80,000 a year enlistment target. Force quality may appreciably slip when that total rises to 120,000 per year.

In addition to the recruiting challenge, there is the long-term Pentagon financial picture. As Bruce Berkowitz argues in the current issue of Policy Review, the American people have generally supported a robust level of defense spending. However, this level is currently being exceeded due to Iraq and Afghanistan. Historically, we have adjusted our military budget downward some 10 to 15 percent lower after each war. If we do so coming out of Iraq in the next few years, the funding to sustain a larger ground force may not be available, and thus the billions used to attract, train, equip, and build barracks for the new formations will have been completely wasted. Making this situation more likely is the demographic reality of America’s baby boomers. This cohort is about to begin retiring in large numbers. The projected retirement spike will place extraordinary pressure on federal spending and could drastically crimp Defense plans to sustain or adequately support today’s military. Today’s rather unlimited funding and large Supplemental accounts will not last much longer. The time for hard choices will come back to haunt any decisions made today that do not rigorously account for strategic priorities.

There is no doubt that the American people can afford to spend whatever is necessary to provide for their security. Likewise, there is no doubt that today’s force and spending patterns do not satisfactorily meet the threats the American taxpayer faces in the 21st century. This gap makes America more vulnerable the longer we continue our current commitments. Additional ground warriors generate numerous strategic advantages and help close this gap, but the rationale must be properly explained if the funding is to be forthcoming.

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