The demand for soldiers in Afghanistan is rising faster than the supply is falling in Iraq.
In mid-July, Defense Secretary Robert Gates traveled to Fort Drum near Watertown, N.Y., to meet with soldiers in the 10th Mountain Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, which had recently returned from a year in Iraq. Gates wanted to thank the troops for their service and to hear their concerns. It's a practice he began months earlier after reconsidering his distaste for town hall meetings, which he felt tended to be staged events with soldiers serving as props.
"I realized that it was a chance mainly to thank you personally . . . to shake hands with each and every one of you," he told the troops.
But Gates will have to make more trips to Watertown if he's going to shake every battle-tested hand: The 2nd Brigade Combat Team was in Louisiana training for its return to Iraq this fall, and the 3rd Brigade Combat Team was in Afghanistan.
"No other division or post has been asked to do more," Gates acknowledged.
Fort Drum illustrates the stresses the military faces eight years after the first U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan and six years after the invasion of Iraq. The ground-intensive conflicts have been far more taxing on the Army and Marine Corps than the other services. The stress can be measured in casualty, divorce and suicide rates-all of which are trending upward. Nearly 200 10th Mountain Division soldiers have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan; 11 others died in a helicopter crash during pre-deployment training in 2006.
The strain is evident in the questions the troops ask Gates. They want to know why some units are deployed over and over, while others are not. They want to know why units appear fully staffed on paper, when the soldiers in them know there are hundreds of unfilled positions, in part because so many of their comrades are recovering from combat wounds.
The questions are hard, and the answers are harder. "I don't think we can ever even out the deployments," Gates told the soldiers. "The truth of the matter is there's about a third of the Army that's never deployed at all. But that's just the way it is, frankly, given the different specialized capabilities of the different units."
When military planners looked at the four Army brigades scheduled to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan in late summer, they discovered the units were understaffed by 690 soldiers. Some vacancies were the result of the Army's decision to begin phasing out the stop-loss program that has forced thousands of soldiers to involuntarily remain on duty after they have completed their service obligations. Some soldiers were gone because they were attending mandatory professional training programs. But 156 vacancies were for medical reasons, including 75 soldiers with orthopedic problems and 39 with mental illnesses. The rate of medical exclusions has climbed since 2007.
Four days after his visit to Fort Drum, Gates announced that the Army would temporarily add another 22,000 soldiers. "The Army faces a period where its ability to continue to deploy combat units at acceptable fill rates is at risk," he said.
The shortage of ground troops came to a head in early 2007, just weeks after Gates took the helm at Defense. He made what he has since characterized as the toughest decision of his tenure-to extend Army combat tours in Iraq from a year to 15 months. "We realized how tough it would be on the troops" and their families, he said during his appearance at Fort Drum. But "however realistic we thought our expectations were, it was a lot worse."
Also in early 2007, Gates announced the department would expand the Army by 65,000 soldiers and the Marine Corps by 27,000-growth the Bush administration had resisted. The boost was intended to provide the active Army with six additional brigade combat teams, for a total of 48 such units. But other teams have become so depleted by operations in Iraq and Afghanistan that half the new troops have been needed to fill existing vacancies. In April, Gates announced the Army would be able to expand only to 45 brigade combat teams.
Through aggressive recruiting and generous retention bonuses, and aided by a failing economy, the Army and Marine Corps both met their personnel targets by last spring, well ahead of schedule. That brings the active Army up to 547,400 soldiers and the Marine Corps to 202,100 troops. But the success didn't come cheap. The Army alone spent more than $9 billion on recruiting and retention efforts in 2008 and 2009.
Despite the troop increases, the ground services remain stressed. "After seven years of continuous combat, our Army remains out of balance," Lt. Gen. Michael D. Rochelle, the service's deputy chief of staff for personnel, told lawmakers in May. Of particular concern is the fact the Army cannot meet its goal of giving soldiers two years at home for every year of deployment. Some units have been rotating in and out of Iraq every other year, but that still doesn't give those soldiers even a full year with their families because pre-deployment training can take them away from home for months. (The Marine Corps, with a smaller force and narrower mission, has for the most part been able to balance seven-month combat tours with an equal amount of time at home.)
In addition, the Army is ending the controversial stop-loss program, under which soldiers in critical jobs were forced to stay in service beyond their enlistment obligation. The practice was to be phased out in the Army Reserve by the end of August, and in the Army National Guard by the end of September. Stop-loss for the active-duty force is slated to end in January. The Army cannot schedule troops for deployment if they are now being held under stop-loss, which is the case for about 13,000 soldiers, the majority of whom are on active duty.
In July, Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the drawdown of troops in Iraq was occurring much more slowly than the buildup of troops in Afghanistan, creating serious problems for the Army, which will maintain a significant presence in Iraq until late 2010 under current plans.
"The Marines, for the most part, they disengaged from Iraq and have moved to Afghanistan, so the stress is not as significant," Cartwright said. During 2010, when the Army is expected to commit thousands more troops to Afghanistan, and 2011, when the service will be moving troops out of Iraq and refilling and equipping those units, "you are going to have stress on the Army in a significant way," he said. "The case for additional forces is clearly there."
While Congress has not yet passed a Defense authorization bill for 2010, the Senate's version includes a provision allowing the Army to temporarily grow by as many as 30,000 troops-enough to cover the 22,000-soldier surge that Gates announced in July. Because the law authorizing the increase has not yet passed, service leaders declined to discuss details of their hiring plans. But Army spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver says the service won't be creating any new units, just filling out existing ones. This, he says, "will allow us to make sure those [units] deploying to Afghanistan or Iraq are full," without borrowing soldiers from other units-a practice that hurts morale and further limits the readiness of nondeployed units. While the majority of new troops will be enlisted, some growth is expected in the officer ranks.
"We have about 30,000 soldiers that are not available for deployment," Garver says. About one-third of those are recovering from wounds received in combat. The rest are either in mandatory professional development and education programs, or are serving in assignments outside the Army's direct control, such as joint-service positions.
How the Defense Department will pay for the troop increase isn't clear. "This is a zero-sum budget," Gates said of the department's 2010 funding request at a Pentagon briefing in July. "I've told the president and the Hill that we need their support obviously for reprogramming, but we will absorb those costs within our current top line, and then work with them in terms of 2011 and 2012."
In mid-August, the White House submitted an amended 2010 Defense budget request that would move more than $1 billion away from lower-priority programs, mainly within the Army, to cover the cost of bringing on 15,000 new soldiers next year.
How Much Is Enough?
"I can't think of any higher defense priority," than more troops, says Thomas Donnelly, resident fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and a former staffer on the House Armed Services Committee. The problem, he says, is "22,000 troops [are] not going to be enough."
For the past five years, the United States has employed an active ground force of about 850,000 troops, including the Army and Marine Corps and their mobilized reserve troops, Donnelly says. That force is too small to continue to sustain deployments at the current pace because time between rotations is too brief to maintain and train units. It's also too small to mitigate other strategic risks, let alone respond to contingencies elsewhere in the world, he says.
"We must accept the fact that the posture of U.S. forces in this part of the world has reached a new plateau, and that plateau stretches a long way into the future-certainly far beyond the planning horizons of the Department of Defense," Donnelly says. He advocates returning to an active-duty force about the size it was at the end of the Cold War-about 800,000 soldiers and 200,000 Marines.
Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a defense policy think tank, also believes the Army is too small. "Given the advent of an era of persistent irregular conflict, with its emphasis on manpower-intensive operations on land, the Army is destined to play a central role in U.S. defense strategy," he told Senators in late March. The service must be able to continue the kind of counter-insurgency operations it is conducting in Iraq and Afghanistan, but "must also hedge against a resurrection of rivals who look to challenge its dominance in more traditional, or conventional, forms of warfare," he said.
Trying to be ready for both kinds of fighting, Krepinevich believes, "seems destined to produce an Army that is barely a jack-of-all-trades, and clearly a master of none. . . . The Army remains too small for larger irregular warfare contingencies, let alone those that occur simultaneously." In essence, he believes the Army needs to field two forces: one for conventional operations and another for counterinsurgencies and other forms of irregular warfare.
"Consider that the Army is fully engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, countries whose combined populations are under 60 million. Yet countries of significant concern to the United States, like Iran (70 million), Nigeria (150 million) and Pakistan (165 million) have far greater populations," Krepinevich said. To better promote stability in friendly nations, the Army needs a robust capacity to train and advise indigenous security forces. That argues for building a significant training and advisory capacity.
Krepinevich is especially worried about the Army's ability to maintain the quality of its troops when soldiers are under such stress. High rates of promotion, worsening attrition among junior officers and growing cases of post- traumatic stress disorder among soldiers who have served on multiple deployments all spell trouble, he said: "These trends are worrisome, especially for an army that intends to place greater demands on its soldiers and their leaders to be highly proficient at irregular warfare while also mastering the complex battle networks and advanced equipment that comprises its Future Combat Systems" modernization program.
Krepinevich is not alone in his concerns. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, told reporters in July, "I've grown increasingly concerned over the last year and a half about stress on the force and our ability to meet the demands out there. . . . The soldiers we are looking to add to our force will no doubt give us some breathing room, but they will also give us room to run in what I believe is an even faster-paced war against an even more adaptive enemy."