U.S. Army: Stretched Too Thin
By Kevin Ryan
The Washington Post
December 18, 2006
When America's top general in charge of Iraq, John Abizaid, told Congress last month that our Army was unable to increase the number of troops deployed in Iraq, it was a first-of-its-kind admission from a senior defense official: that our ground forces had reached their capacity for military action. "This is not an Army that was built to sustain a 'long war,' " Abizaid told students at a Harvard lecture two days later. This is an Army built to achieve victory with speed and precision. This is a short-war Army fighting a long war.
On Dec. 6, the day after Robert Gates told Congress that he is "open to the possibility of an increase" in the size of our ground forces, the Iraq Study Group released its report, which declared that "America's military capacity is stretched thin." And last week the Army's chief of staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, told Congress that the Army is prepared to add up to 7,000 soldiers per year to its ranks if authorized.
The stage has been set for a serious discussion about the appropriate size for our Army: a discussion that should balance resources with demands. Today the 37 combat brigades of the active Army are almost totally consumed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With all units either deployed, returning from deployment or preparing to deploy, there are none left to prepare for other contingencies. Active brigades have only 14 months at home before they are recalled for their next 12-month deployment. The National Guard can muster only two or three of its 15 enhanced brigades at any given time, largely because of crippling equipment shortages.
The lack of ground forces has an impact beyond the ability to commit more troops to Iraq. Our published defense strategy requires a military that can defend our homeland, sustain two major wars, be present in key regions abroad and fight a global war on terrorism. With Marine and Army ground forces barely large enough to fight the two major wars, the other security tasks are left to flyovers and ship visits from our Air Force and Navy.
According to Schoomaker, America is "on a dangerous path that dictates we must increase our strategic depth, increase readiness and reduce our operational risk." If Afghanistan and Iraq are typical of the two-war capability called for in our defense strategy, our Army must be able to sustain a deployment of 14 brigades. To do this and achieve the Defense Department goal of two years at home for every year in combat, the Army would need 56 brigades in its structure.
To meet the demands of homeland defense, foreign presence and a global war on terrorism, one could make a good case that America must be able to sustain an additional five to seven brigades in deployment, which would require 20 to 28 more brigades in the structure.
A rough estimate therefore of active and Guard brigades needed for our defense strategy would be between 76 and 84. And these numbers assume that America's other ground force, the Marine Corps, continues to provide the forces it already does in the Middle East and around the globe. Currently the Army has 52 brigades (37 active and 15 enhanced Guard) and has authority to build to 70 brigades (42 active and 28 Guard), but Congress has not authorized enough troops to man these units.
The 2007 defense budget pays for only 512,000 active-duty soldiers. The Army needs a minimum of 575,000 to man the brigades our defense strategy requires. America must bring its military capabilities back in balance with its strategic demands.
Support is building to correct this mismatch. Colin Powell, the former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said yesterday that both the Army and Marine Corps need to grow in size. Former Army chief of staff Gordon Sullivan has called for the active Army to have between 560,000 and 600,000 soldiers. Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona has called for the active Army and Marine Corps to increase by 100,000 troops. The United States Army Relief Act, sponsored by Democratic senators Jack Reed, Hillary Clinton, Joe Lieberman and Bill Nelson, calls for an increase in end strength of 20,000 per year over the next four years. These recommendations all bring us closer to the mark.
Throughout the 1980s we recruited an Army of more than 750,000 entirely from volunteers: the same Army that won the Persian Gulf War. It will take several years to recruit additional troops and build the organizations and facilities to house them, but these numbers are well within our reach.
The writer, a retired Army brigadier general, is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. His last assignment was as deputy director for Army strategy, plans and policy.