Don’t Grow the Army

By Gordon Adams and John Diamond, a fellow and a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, respectively (THE WASHINGTON POST, 31/12/06):

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Pete Schoomaker, The Post, the New York Times, and many Democrats and Republicans have converged over the past month in support of a serious expansion of the U.S. Army — a permanent addition of 40,000 to 90,000 over the current ceiling of 507,000 troops.

This proposal is a bad idea. It is irrelevant to the stresses the Army is experiencing in Iraq. It would build enormous long-term costs into the defense budget, and it presumes a role in the world for the U.S. military that the voters emphatically opposed in November.

To be sure, the concept has a certain easy appeal, especially to Democrats. Calling for more forces and more defense spending puts forth a “strong-on-defense” posture as a buffer against the perpetual charge that Democrats are weak on national security.

And the call for more troops highlights the all-too-real damage done to the Army by the Bush administration’s stubborn refusal to adjust course when it was clear the U.S. strategy in Iraq wasn’t working. Expanding the Army, some would argue, would relieve the stress of repeated rotations to Iraq.

Moreover, urging an expanded Army has the political advantage of reiterating a key criticism about the Iraq mission: that President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld belittled the prewar advice of Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki and didn’t send enough troops to get the job done.

Finally, for some, enlarging the Army represents a vote for the troops over defense contractors, who convinced the administration that it could wage war without having to cancel Cold War-era weapons programs.

What the advocates fail to recognize is that enlarging the Army wouldn’t solve the problems they claim it would solve, and it would create serious new problems. Plainly put, it is bad national security policy.

First, deciding to add to the Army today would do nothing to deal with the stress of Iraq. The hype about our Army is true: Our troops are the world’s best. And it takes time to make them so. The lag time for recruitment, training and deployment means that new forces would be available far too late to ease the stresses now facing the Army in Iraq. Even on a fast track, it might be as long as five years before an additional combat-ready brigade would be ready to deploy there.

Second, from a budgetary perspective, the costs involved in any significant increase in the size of the Army are simply eye-popping. Recruiting, training, housing, paying, equipping and supporting two additional divisions would add nearly $80 billion to defense spending between now and 2015. Add to that the rapidly growing costs of providing health care and retirement pay — perhaps $3 billion to $5 billion. Ultimately it is the size of the force that drives the entire defense budget. Adding to that size would increase budgets by tens of billions of dollars for years to come.

At a more fundamental level, proponents of enlarging the Army, particularly the Democrats, avoid the basic question of what the mission of this larger Army would be. Are the supporters of Army expansion, many of whom opposed the invasion of Iraq in the first place, now arguing that we need an Army to better carry out more Iraqs somewhere else in the world?

One of the few things all sides in the Iraq debate seem to agree on is that we want the Iraqis to take over security so we can bring our troops home as early as possible. Yet, supporters of expanding the Army appear to be creating an American force sized to better perform a global occupation and peacekeeping mission — one deployed around the world to impose or restore order well into the future.

If this is about invading Iran, or carrying out a land war in China, as The Post has suggested, then maybe we need to have a national debate about that strategy, not slip it in sideways by expanding the Army without agreeing on the mission. The experience of Iraq has clearly dulled America’s appetite for continuing in the role of designated global occupier and nation-builder.

Historically, our military’s mission is to fight and win America’s wars — decisively, with overwhelming force — not to invade and occupy distant territories to create empires or settle local conflicts that we can barely understand, let alone referee.

Iraq represents the latest sobering reminder of a lesson for Democrats and Republicans alike in the post-Cold War world: Even the world’s only remaining superpower, with forces unmatched by any other military on the planet, is limited in what it can do with its troops.

Donald Rumsfeld used to say that only four of Iraq’s 18 provinces were troubled, but he neglected to consider the implications of his own statement: That even 140,000 U.S. soldiers — just about the largest force that the United States could sustain in Iraq over several years — could not pacify part of one country. The world’s lone superpower, spending more on defense than the next dozen nations combined, has all that it can handle — indeed, more than it can handle — trying to deal with unrest in part of a single country the size of California. At nearly half a trillion dollars and counting, our power, skill and money buy us a losing outcome in one small corner of the world.

The point is not to belittle the extreme difficulty of the mission facing our troops but to highlight it and come to grips with the limits even of formidable military power set amid hostile populations. Our enemies, well aware of the dominance of conventional American forces, cordially decline our invitation to fight on our terms, under the traditional rules of military force-on-force, with defined battlefields largely separated from populations.

Terrorism is not a political movement so much as a logical weapon of choice for political extremists facing a superpower. There will always be a military component to meeting this threat. But as administration spokesmen have testified, the primary role in this “long war” may well belong not to the military but to the State Department, foreign assistance agencies, and the Treasury and Justice departments, supported by the appropriate application of force (usually in small numbers and with Special Forces troops, not Army brigades). The Army does not need to grow to perform this mission; it needs to refocus.

The question the new Congress must deal with is one not of enlarging the Army but of redefining the armed forces’ mission in today’s world. Do we want an Army big enough to invade and occupy Iran or Syria? Or do we want a tailored, restructured force designed to play its role in the pursuit of terrorist organizations (along with other tools of statecraft) and with enough heft to play a part in peacekeeping operations, deter potential adversaries and decisively win intense but brief conventional conflicts? This strategic alternative is hardly an endorsement of the “Rumsfeld doctrine.” The U.S. military as currently sized can still “go heavy” when needed. What it can’t do is remain indefinitely bogged down in a static mission with inadequate body armor and no strategy.

A program of troop reductions and phased redeployment from Iraq would in effect increase the size of the Army by relieving the force of a burdensome, costly and unproductive mission. There will be opportunities to retrain and reequip to redress the shortcomings in armor and tactics so neglected by the Rumsfeld Pentagon. These are the issues the new Congress and the White House must deal with, not an elusive search for an irrelevant and costly capability for a mission that the nation does not want to pursue.