The Downside of End-Strength Increases

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The Bush administration's plan to add 92,000 troops to the ranks of the Army and Marine Corps is coming under increasing scrutiny from defense analysts and congressional staffers. When President George W. Bush proposed the increase -- 65,000 men and women for the Army and 27,000 for the Marine Corps -- in his State of the Union message last January, he garnered support from both sides of the aisle in Congress. While most Republicans offered support for the buildup out of party loyalty or belief in the president's goals in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Democrats applauded for fear of being labeled soft on terrorism, especially the dozen who had presidential aspirations.

The proposed increases would bring the Army to almost 550,000 troops and the Marine Corps to 202,000. Senior officers of both services have strongly supported the increases. Officials say that the additions would permit a slowdown of the hectic pace of troop rotations in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. When Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates unveiled the planned increase, he assured troops in the war zones -- some of whom have served two or more combat tours since the wars began -- that "help is on the way."

The Army would like to keep active-duty soldiers at their home base for at least two years for every one year they deploy, easing the home-front problems with families and loved ones. Today many troops are forced to undertake another tour of duty after only a year at home. This situation has also prevented many Army and Marine Corps units from maintaining their training schedules for different missions. An increase in active-duty strength could also ease the burden on reserve units, the 346,000 members of the Army National Guard (ARNG) and the 196,000 Army reservists (USAR).

But increasingly critics of the buildup point out that in the next few years, possibly before the additional troops are added by 2010-2012, the United States will have withdrawn combat troops and possible all military forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. Even today, they note, the U.S. commitment of ground troops in the two wars is just over ten percent of the total active Army-ARNG-USAR and Marine Corps strength.

Frank Hoffman, a retired Marine officer and leading defense analyst, has observed that the global war on terrorism and the Iraq conflict are being used as "lame rationales" for enlarging the military. Hoffman, a senior researcher at the Marine Corps Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities in Quantico, Virginia, continued, "Unless you think we will have more than six brigades in Iraq in 2012, I don't see how this is relevant." Other analysts and some congressional staffers have privately echoed Hoffman's views, as have a few military officers in off-the-record conversations.

The troop buildup has an estimated initial cost of nearly $100 billion with a subsequent cost of $15 billion per year to maintain the additional forces. These costs are being incurred at a time that several new aircraft and ship programs are far above predicted costs, virtually all U.S. Army and Marine Corps ground vehicles except for M1 tanks are in need of replacement, military health costs are skyrocketing, and the increased costs of fuel are playing havoc with operating budgets.

While some troop increases transcend the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, especially increases in special operations forces and, to some extent, in Marine units. After withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq -- as after the Vietnam War -- U.S. national leaders will be very reluctant to commit ground forces to sustained combat situations. Rather, special operations and forward-deployed Marine units afloat will be the more likely to be used in future crises and conflicts. Along with forward-deployed Navy ships, they will be the "forces of preference" for the foreseeable future.

The current crises in Africa that have led to the recent establishment of the U.S. Africa Command, the confrontations with the leaders of Venezuela and Iran, competition with China and India for resources in several parts of the world, and other problem areas will demand that the United States maintain flexible and rapidly deployable presence and combat forces. It is unlikely that those will be large Army or Marine Corps ground combat formations.

-- Norman Polmar

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