Army strained to near its breaking point

Short breaks between combat tours and limited resources to respond to wartime mission are taking a toll.

KILLEEN, Texas -- Occupying a 340-square-mile swath of hill country in central Texas, Fort Hood is the home front for an Army at war.

One of the largest military installations in the world, it is the only post in the United States capable of hosting an Army corps headquarters plus two entire armored divisions: the 4th Infantry, which has recently returned from Iraq, and the 1st Cavalry, which is there now. On Fort Hood, nobody talks about what President Bush calls America's "long war" against terrorism as something in the abstract.

Within the confines of this base, the signs of war are subtle but plain. "Support Our Troops" ribbons festoon most cars. Posters for blood drives ("Save a Soldier's Life Today!") are plastered everywhere. The sight of soldiers on crutches or in bandages is commonplace at the post exchange. And every month, the base chapel holds memorial services for the local "Gold Star" spouses and families who have lost loved ones in uniform.

Amid the camaraderie of Fort Hood's military community, however, the signs of war's stress are evident. Consider the acute shortage of barracks space. Because the Army is restructuring itself into smaller, 3,500-4,500 troop brigades instead of larger, 10,000-12,000 troop divisions at the same time it is pulling units back from Cold War bases in Europe and Asia, and sending units repeatedly to Iraq and Afghanistan, the shuffling of personnel is intense.

So Fort Hood has resorted to "hot-cotting." Units no longer have permanent designated barracks that they lock up and leave when they go abroad; as they deploy to the wars now, soldiers must put their personal items in storage and surrender barracks rooms and sleeping berths to new units or to those just retuning from combat.

Fort Hood is also seeing a sharp increase in demand for marriage-enrichment counseling for spouses who cannot understand why their partners are willing to leave them for a second, third, or even fourth combat tour. An Army survey revealed that soldiers are 50 percent more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress if they serve more than one tour.

Reliable figures are not available for the mental stress put on soldiers in the 11 Army brigades that have served three or more yearlong tours in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. However, according to a Pentagon health study released in January, the rate of binge drinking in the Army ballooned by 30 percent between 2002 and 2005, and the increase in illicit drug use nearly doubled between 1998 and 2005.

The number of soldiers who killed themselves in Iraq and Kuwait from 2004 to 2005 nearly doubled, rising to 22 from 12. Because of the strains of multiple yearlong deployments, whispers about affairs and divorces are also heard frequently at Fort Hood.

"We've seen indicators in our mental health care system that some families simply do not understand why their loved ones want to go back downrange and join their peers in Iraq and Afghanistan again, even though as a soldier I absolutely recognize that as part of the warrior ethos of not wanting to leave your comrades in battle," said a senior officer in the 1st Cavalry Division.

Or consider for a moment the peculiar lack of tanks and armored Humvees in the Fort Hood motor pools. An acute and worsening equipment shortage has robbed soldiers of stateside training opportunities and decimated the readiness of units that have not gone to Iraq or Afghanistan.

For the past few years, units such as the 4th Infantry Division have been forced to leave behind much of their equipment in Iraq for use by their replacements such as the 1st Cavalry. That leaves the soldiers little equipment to train on when they return to Fort Hood.

The Army and Marine Corps have also depleted their stocks of equipment pre-positioned overseas, which will hamper their ability to respond quickly to emergencies elsewhere. That same equipment shuffle has left nearly 90 percent of Army National Guard units in the United States unready to respond to domestic emergencies, according to a recent report by a congressional commission.

If anything, equipment shortages are arguably worse today than in 1980, when the Army was recovering from Vietnam. Judging by their recent actions, Iran, North Korea, and other potential adversaries have taken note. "On the equipment side of the equation, the Army is pretty much broken," said Tom McNaugher, the longtime Army expert at the Rand think tank.

Meanwhile, deploying units such as the 1st Cavalry Division routinely receive their full allotment of equipment and personnel only just before they go to Iraq or Afghanistan, and sometimes only after they arrive in the war theater. In drafting plans to restock the 1st Cavalry Division after its scheduled return from Iraq later this year, officers acknowledge that they already see numerous situations in which the requisite equipment may not be on hand to complete training for the division before it gets sent back into battle.

"In a perfect world, would I want more time for our units to train with their full equipment load?" asked Col. Larry Phelps, the commander of the 1st Cavalry's rear detachment at Fort Hood. "Yes, but this is not a perfect world; it's a very dangerous world. And as long as we have the short intervals of just over a year between combat deployments, there will be no 100 percent solution to that problem."

Family Strains

The most serious indicators of stress are the short and inadequate intervals for units to collectively take a breather between deployments and to conduct the numerous tasks necessary to get an exhausted unit ready again for combat. The 1st Cavalry Division, for instance, had only about a 15-month break between its two most recent combat deployments to Iraq, far less time than the Army's recommended standard of 24 months.

According to a recent study by former Pentagon manpower expert Lawrence Korb for the liberal Center for American Progress, in the last two rotation cycles to Iraq the vast majority of Army brigades and cavalry regiments (25) had less than two years between deployments, and nine brigades had less than one year. The Pentagon announced on April 2 that the 4th Infantry Division headquarters unit from Fort Hood will return to Iraq after just seven months at home.

The short breaks between combat tours and the resultant rush to prepare brigades for redeployment have rippled through the Army. Some units have been forced to forgo final rehearsal training at the Army's premier combat training centers and to greatly compress the time that they have to refurbish damaged and worn equipment.

Perhaps most important, the quick turnaround wreaks havoc with families. During Vietnam, experts blamed a similar cycle of back-to-back combat deployments for breaking the professional noncommissioned officer corps -- the upper-level sergeants who are the backbone of the Army. At some indeterminate point, the families of senior and staff sergeants just decided that they had had enough.

With an estimated two-thirds of the all-volunteer force now married, the Army knows that it recruits soldiers but retains families -- and high retention rates that exceeded Army goals last year remain one of the few bright spots of manpower in today's wartime Army.

For that reason, Col. Phelps of the 1st Cavalry spends his days and nights consumed primarily with the care and support of the 11,000-plus spouses and family members that the division left at home when it deployed to Iraq.

"The main concern of every deploying soldier is his family, so we're determined to take care of the them so the soldiers can focus on a difficult mission in Iraq," said Phelps.

Even given that support, however, Phelps acknowledges that he constantly asks himself at what point such a breakneck pace will begin to seriously damage the Army. "Is it the third tour? The fourth? I don't know," he said. "But the one metric I follow most closely is retention, because you're talking about troops who have already endured the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune during combat deployments. And yet our retention levels are the highest I've ever seen."

On this day, Phelps is rushing to make a monthly flight to Washington to visit the division's wounded soldiers who are convalescing at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. As recent stories in The Washington Post revealed, the return of thousands of wounded soldiers from overseas has overwhelmed the Army and Veterans Health Administration's medical bureaucracies, one more warning sign that the Army is dangerously overburdened.

The 1st Cavalry Division lives by an ethos of taking care of its own, and Phelps makes frequent trips to check on wounded soldiers who might otherwise fall through the cracks of an overstressed system. As Phelps leaves for the airport, his car passes the division's memorial to the 168 soldiers killed during its 2004-05 deployment to Iraq.

Several of the memorial's black granite slabs -- culled from the same quarry as the stone for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington -- remain smooth and untouched, ready to receive the names of the 80 1st Cavalry soldiers already killed in action since the division redeployed to Iraq last November. The number is certain to climb.

Hollow Again?

Shortly after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, when the U.S. Army was desperately trying to recover from the Vietnam years and get used to a new all-volunteer force, then-Army Chief of Staff Edward (Shy) Meyer shocked President Carter and many of his own peers by publicly declaring in 1980 that America had a "hollow Army."

Meyer cited a lack of midcareer leaders, poor recruitment, unready units, outmoded equipment, and outdated doctrine. So, is today's war-weary Army hollow?

"I absolutely see similar challenges confronting the Army today as we faced then in terms of stresses being placed on the force," retired Gen. Meyer told National Journal in a recent interview. "And in terms of the National Guard and Reserves, the force is even more stressed today, because in the past they were always sort of the backup we had available in case the active force got overly engaged. Today the Guard and Reserve are almost as busy as the active force. So I think the Army is stressed at this point more than in all the time I've watched it since at least the end of the Cold War."

Indeed, it is plain to see that the pathologies afflicting today's force resemble those that led to the "hollow Army," although they are not yet as extreme. Today as before, the Army is working harder to recruit a somewhat less qualified force, and paying much more in bonuses to retain a force that is still hemorrhaging midcareer captains and staff sergeants.

At present, the Army is short about 3,000 midcareer officers, a number that is expected to increase as the service adds an additional 65,000 troops in coming years. As a result, the Army is promoting captains and majors at rates well above its own guidelines and, in the process, is probably retaining more underachieving officers.

For example, in 2006 the Army promoted 90 percent of eligible majors to the rank of lieutenant colonel, some 20 percentage points higher than its goal of 70 percent. The service likewise promoted nearly all of its eligible captains to major, when its goal was closer to 80 percent.

Paying the Price of a Long War

Some retired officers who keep in touch with their active-duty counterparts say that the Army is flirting with disaster if it continues down its present path.

"The truth is, the U.S. Army is in serious trouble and any recovery will be years in the making and, as a result, the country is in a position of strategic peril," said retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the former four-star commander of Southern Command and a highly decorated veteran of the Vietnam and 1991 Persian Gulf wars.

If anything, he argues, the Pentagon has masked the extent of the Army's manpower troubles through the use of several questionable methods: involuntary "stop-loss" authority, which allows the Army to compel soldiers who reach the end of their enlistment to stay in uniform; waivers that allow in recruits who in former years would have been rejected because of poor academic performance or low scores on Army standardized tests, criminal records, or high age; keeping 10 Army brigades in combat beyond their anticipated one-year tours; the call-up of 13,000 "individual ready reservists"; an overreliance on the National Guard as a regular-force augmenter rather than as a strategic reserve; and the use of as many as 100,000 private contractors in Iraq.

"Despite all of those gimmicks, young battalion commanders tell me that recruiting standards have slipped terribly due to waivers; drug and alcohol abuse have increased dramatically; the word has come down not to flunk anyone out of basic training; and we've increased the age limit to allow 42-year-old grandmothers to enlist in the Army," McCaffrey said. "And still there is a sense of denial of the problem in the Pentagon that I find utterly beyond belief. My bottom line is that the Army is unraveling, and if we don't expend significant national energy to reverse that trend, sometime in the next two years we will break the Army just like we did during Vietnam. Only this time we won't have 10 years to fix it again. There will be no time-out from the global war on terror, or from threats like North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, you name it."

One memory that haunts many of the leaders who lived through the "hollow Army" period is that by the time the depth of the problems became clear, the Army's downslide was difficult to reverse. In fact, many of the standards the Army is now relaxing or suspending -- time between deployments, unit readiness, recruiting criteria -- were firewalls erected specifically to avoid a return to a hollow force.

Retired Gen. Dennis Reimer was Army chief of staff during the 1990s, when the Army went through a difficult post-Cold War downsizing, from 18 divisions to 10, even as deployments increased to places such as Somalia, Haiti, and the Balkans.

"Because I was concerned about the downsizing and operational tempo at that time, one of the first things I did as Army chief was to invite Shy Meyer in for a conversation about the 'hollow Army,' " Reimer told National Journal. "I'll never forget that conversation, because General Meyer told me to be very careful. By the time you recognize all the signs of trouble, he said, it can almost be too late. You reach a tipping point. Now, I don't know where that breaking point is, but once you get beyond these Army standards and norms, at some point down the road you will pay a price."


The Army is also struggling to define itself doctrinally. Is it to be the lean, high-tech force that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein in little more than three weeks in a campaign of high-intensity, heavy-armored, maneuver warfare? Or will it be the manpower-intensive counterinsurgency force that is slugging it out with guerrillas and trying to secure Baghdad today? Some experts doubt that it can be both effectively.

For answers to these questions, the modern Army has traditionally looked to Virginia's historic Fort Monroe. Although it is scheduled to close as part of the base realignment and closure process, Fort Monroe is still home to the U.S. Training and Doctrine Command, the epicenter of the institutional Army.

TRADOC was created after Vietnam specifically to fix the fundamentals that had gotten away from the service -- enticing good recruits, training them to be top-quality soldiers, educating troops in the warrior arts, developing a war-fighting doctrine to help them triumph.

At Fort Monroe during the 1970s, under the tutelage of the legendary taskmaster Gen. William DePuy, a band of generals and their staffs helped to reverse the fortunes of what was becoming the hollow Army. Collectively, they orchestrated the "Be All You Can Be" advertising campaign and the return of the GI Bill, which signaled the turnaround of Army recruiting.

They advocated the hyperrealistic training regime that gave birth to the national training centers at Fort Irwin, Calif., and Fort Polk, La., where Army units take their final exams before going overseas by waging realistic warfare against fellow troops acting as the enemy. TRADOC schools crafted the combined air-and-ground-attack doctrine that proved so devastating in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the 2003 invasion phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Created to focus on the Army's future, TRADOC today has had to shorten its horizon and narrow its priorities to the immediate mission of helping the all-volunteer Army through its first extended war -- Iraq -- which has now lasted longer than World War II.

The Army's recent struggles -- the recruiting waivers, the shortening of basic training, the dilution of advanced training, the trade-offs between counterinsurgency and high-intensity war-fighting doctrine -- all are viewed at TRADOC through the prism of that one overriding and urgent imperative.

"If you believe, as I do, that this period of conflict that we're in is not episodic but is likely to last a good long time, then that has some dramatic implications for the Army as an institution," TRADOC's commander, Gen. William (Scott) Wallace, said in an interview.

To begin with, he says, it means that the Army has to find innovative ways to increase the pool of eligible recruits who are willing to fight "the long war." But this task has to be accomplished without overly compromising standards during a time when high school graduates nationwide are reluctant to join the service.

"You do that not by granting waivers willy-nilly, but by giving older Americans an opportunity to join the Army, and by recognizing that for young people today tattoos or an arrest don't necessarily mean you are a gang member or career criminal," he argued.

Wallace said that TRADOC's primary focus today, in light of Iraq and Afghanistan, is to mold a force that is easier to deploy on short notice, is decentralized in its operations, is versed in foreign cultures, and is able to adapt quickly to changing circumstances on the ground.

Because the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are unpredictable and involve everything from roadside bombs and convoy ambushes to heavy interaction with civilians, Wallace said, "we have also had to extend the warrior ethos of the infantryman, for instance, across the entire force to everyone who wears a uniform and carries a weapon. We've had to develop the equivalent of 'pentathletes' who can hit a target when necessary but also understand when not to pull the trigger."

Wallace was the Army commander for the initial invasion of Iraq and managed the difficult transition from high-intensity combat to stability operations after the fall of the Iraqi regime.

Less Spit Shine, More Live Fire

That tension between having to adapt rapidly to the lessons of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars while coping with wartime shortages of equipment, personnel, and money, is evident in virtually everything the training command now does. Young recruits entering basic training are instructed by hardened combat veterans and immersed in wartime field craft to a degree unheard of in the past.

Combat drills and overnights in the field have substituted for parade ground marches and garrison spit-shines. Every trainee is instructed not only in the use of his or her own personal weapon but in the rudiments of operating a machine gun. They all go through an eye-popping convoy "live-fire" exercise, the result of bitter lessons learned from convoy ambushes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Soon, all recruits leaving basic training will also take a "combat lifesaver course" to treat wounded comrades.

The high demand for fresh troops has led the Army to reduce basic training from 14 weeks to nine, and drill instructors have lessened the physical demands so that injuries won't disqualify valuable recruits. As a result, the attrition rate in basic training has dropped from 18 percent to just 6 percent, according to TRADOC officials.

Critics say this means that the Army is lowering standards; the Army says it is just leaving out a lot of the less-important drills.

"The average drill sergeant would tell you that basic training was tougher in their day, but it's better and far more relevant to the combat environment today than at any time in our past," said Col. Kevin Shwedo, who oversees recruit training for TRADOC's Accessions Command.

TRADOC is also responsible for the Army's new counterinsurgency doctrine. This doctrine was developed at TRADOC's Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., under the guidance of Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who is now implementing it in Baghdad as the commander of multinational forces in Iraq.

The key principle underlying the new doctrine, say TRADOC experts, is that the "center of gravity" in counterinsurgency warfare is securing the local populace, rather than attacking the insurgents in such a way that may actually alienate residents.

As TRADOC officials focus on preparing troops for counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, they concede that skills associated with conventional warfare will atrophy. Because units have so little time between deployments, they are often skipping what the Army calls its "graduate-level" training at its senior training centers, including the National Training Center in California and the Joint Readiness Training Center in Louisiana. And if units do get the time to go to the centers before deploying overseas, the curriculum is less challenging.

Maj. Gen. Richard Rowe, deputy director of TRADOC's Capabilities Integration Center, said: "Now, because of the very rapid turnaround of units for combat deployments, units don't arrive [at the centers] as ready ... so our focus has shifted to practicing mission-essential tasks and mission rehearsals. We're still working out how to get back to that graduate-level type of training."

When asked if he shared widespread concerns about the Army's long-term health, Gen. Wallace replied that his greater worry was that a disenchanted American public would abandon the Army.

"I have no concern about the type of young people we're bringing into the Army, or about the ability of our formations to find innovative ways to train up to our standard," Wallace said. "What bothers me about the future is an uncertainty in terms of the kind of all-volunteer military the nation is willing to underwrite and resource. That's the biggest issue facing this country. Believe me, our problems will be much greater than the Army can handle if the nation turns its back on us."


How did the Army come to this? In many ways, the mismatch between wartime missions and resources that afflicts the Army today is the direct result of a conscious gamble by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his team of civilian analysts. They decided not to permanently increase the Army's size after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, nor to raise the share of the Pentagon budget devoted to ground forces even after it became clear that they were fighting two ground wars.

Convinced that the Army was recalcitrant in embracing its vision of "transforming" into a more modular, lighter, and more deployable force, the Rumsfeld team came to see the stresses of wartime as useful in forcing the Army to be more pliant and "innovative."

Army leaders who didn't see it that way were unceremoniously shunted aside. As former Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki presciently warned at his 2003 retirement ceremony, after clashing with the Rumsfeld team over troop levels in Iraq and other matters and being made a lame duck by Rumsfeld a year before his term was up: "Beware a 12-division strategy for a 10-division Army."

Yet Army leaders share part of the blame for a predicament that finds their forces dangerously overstretched and the nation with a lapsed insurance policy against unforeseen crises.

When he came out of retirement to succeed Shinseki as Army chief of staff, for instance, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, who spent his career in Special Forces, shared the view that the Army needed to focus not only on fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan but also on transforming into a more agile force based on smaller brigade combat teams.

Schoomaker pocketed the temporary increase of 30,000 troops offered by Rumsfeld, but he essentially seconded the idea for the first three years of his tenure that the Army was sufficiently large and resourced to bear all of its foreseeable burdens, with an acceptable margin of error. That is, until recently. "In several conversations with General Schoomaker, I got the strong sense he believed that Congress would not adequately fund an increase in the size of the Army and, by the way, he was already having a hell of a time recruiting to its present size," said Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and the director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. "He also bet that the Iraqi security forces would be able to shoulder a much larger share of the burden by now, yet it's clear that they are still not ready for prime time. Meanwhile, the canaries in the mine shaft of Army readiness are dropping right and left. It's the classic dilemma for military leaders: How much calculated risk can you take with the force in order to achieve the mission and succeed in Iraq and Afghanistan, without breaking it in the effort?"

Last summer, Schoomaker did something nearly unprecedented: He dug in his heels and refused to submit a budget to Rumsfeld, because the secretary's planned budget number for the Army did not contain sufficient funds to refit and re-equip Schoomaker's new brigades. He came away from subsequent negotiations with roughly $18 billion extra in the emergency supplemental appropriations for repairing equipment.

After Rumsfeld resigned in November, Schoomaker also won from Congress a permanent 65,000-troop increase in the Army's manpower, as well as the ability to more easily remobilize the National Guard and Reserves to relieve pressure on the active force. In recent congressional testimony, Schoomaker has given increasingly sober assessments about the Army's lack of ready units not already committed to the fight, and its difficulty in meeting President Bush's request for a "surge" of more than 21,000 troops in Iraq.

Lack of Sacrifice

Dan Goure is a longtime Army expert at the Lexington Institute, a defense consulting firm in Virginia. He said that the Army simply was given way too much to do with limited resources. "The Army is living with [Schoomaker] and Rumsfeld's mistaken belief that the Army could undertake four or five major projects at once."

In addition to fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Army was tasked with transforming itself into modular brigades, pulling back from older Cold War bases in Europe and Asia to stateside bases, increasing its size, modernizing for the future, and developing a new counterinsurgency doctrine.

"In all fairness, that was too much stress to heap on the organization all at once; and if the Pentagon maintains the current operations tempo beyond more than the next nine months or so, they may well break the Army as a result," Goure said.

Another point made by Goure, and recently by Schoomaker, is that the nation is not spending enough money overall on defense, given the demands on the Pentagon from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to the Defense Department, the nation today is spending 3.9 percent of gross domestic product on the military and the war on terrorism, far below the level of national sacrifice during World War II (38 percent), the Korean War (14 percent), Vietnam (9.5 percent), the Reagan-era buildup (6.2 percent), or even the Clinton-era post-Cold War drawdown (4.8 percent). Little wonder that leaders in uniform worry that a nation increasingly divided over Iraq may become ambivalent about fully funding the military.

These kinds of frustrations boiled over recently when Brig. Gen. Stephen Mundt, the Army's aviation director, complained to a group of reporters that it was taking two full years to get a replacement for each of the 130 helicopters lost so far in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"While the military may be on a wartime footing, our nation's industry is not on a war footing," Mundt said. "The U.S. is not at war. The military is at war."

Senior Army officers, active and recently retired, accept part of the blame for this predicament. But some also speak of their resentment of President Bush for not putting the full force of the Oval Office behind an all-out effort to get the public to understand that it has to sacrifice to keep the wars going.

"There's been a failure at the senior, four-star level by generals who all toed Secretary Rumsfeld's line that we didn't need to grow the Army, despite overwhelming evidence and numerous warnings years ago that that was the right thing to do for the Army and the nation," said retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who served in Iraq and last year called for Rumsfeld's resignation shortly after retiring from the Army.

The willingness of members of the Joint Chiefs to finally speak out forcefully now that Rumsfeld is gone, he said, comes a little late. "They failed the test of senior leadership."

But Eaton added: "More importantly, President Bush failed to truly mobilize the nation behind the war effort." Just compare the World War II "arsenal of democracy" with the anemic industrial output today, he said, that has failed to rapidly produce enough medium machine guns, body armor, armored troop transports, and night-vision goggles.

"That's a direct result of not adequately applying our nation's resources to supporting our troops," Eaton said. "The wartime rhetoric from the Bush administration has been great, but rhetoric is all we've gotten. And no senior military leaders were willing to stick their heads out the window and say, 'I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!' "