Buildup Bluster

If an Iraq drawdown is nigh, why are we adding 92,000 combat troops to the Army and Marines?

It says a lot about former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's skill at bureaucratic politics that it took his leaving the Pentagon before the Bush administration could reverse itself and come out in favor of a substantial increase in the size of the Army and Marine Corps. During five years of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq that sorely stretched America's ground forces, Rumsfeld vigorously opposed a significant increase in troops, arguing that the long-term costs, including rising medical expenditures and retirement benefits, would crowd out planned new weapons systems that were part of his plan to transform the military into a high-tech force.

The recalcitrant Defense secretary barely was out the door when, in December, President Bush announced that America needed more ground troops to fight what he termed the war on terror, including the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In January, a day after Bush outlined his plan to surge additional combat troops to Iraq, newly installed Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced a plan to increase Army and Marine Corps end strength by 92,000 troops over the next five years. When he made the announcement, Gates said current force levels could sustain the surge strategy, but that additional troops were needed to add combat capability for the long war, adding that no one could predict how long troops would stay in Iraq.

The new troops will be added gradually over the next five years, with the Army increasing its numbers by 7,000 a year until it reaches 547,000 soldiers in 2012. The Marines will grow by 5,000 a year, bringing the total to 202,000. Gates said both services will increase recruitment and retention and will shift noncombat functions to contractors. An April 2007 estimate by the Congressional Budget Office pegged the cost for the projected increase at about $108 billion over those five years, an addition to the defense budget of roughly $14 billion per year. Those costs include troop pay, additional equipment, health care, family housing and new construction.

The added troops can be seen as an acknowledgement by the military leadership that America's ground forces are too small to sustain the continued deployment of 150,000 service members in Iraq. Military leaders want more brigades to rotate into Iraq, or to use for other contingencies. But the new troops will not become available in significant numbers for another three years; it takes time to recruit, train and equip new units. The number of U.S. troops deployed to Iraq is approaching the intended peak of the surge, 170,000 troops; the previous high point was 161,000 troops at the end of 2005.

Americans are tiring of the Iraq war. The political mood favors some kind of drawdown in Iraq beginning no later than 2008. If the United States is on track to reduce the size of its force in Iraq, is increasing the size of the Army and Marines still necessary? While there is little question that the Army and Marines both are stretched by repeated combat deployments to Iraq, the administration's plan to increase troop numbers directly contradicts the findings of the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon's official strategic plan. The QDR called for a reduction in both Army and Marine Corps forces. It mandated instead an increase in the number of special operations troops. Many of the assumptions that went into the QDR were based on a gradual reduction in troop commitment in Iraq, says Kathleen Hicks, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The mismatch in desired end strengths between the QDR, which specifically is intended to align resources with defense strategy, and Gates' announcement suggests that the current plan to increase forces lacks a strategic rationale. Hicks was the director of policy planning in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and worked on roles and missions issues for the QDR. She says nobody is willing to talk about reductions in the defense budget while the nation is at war, so there is little discussion of matching strategy to resources. For 2008, the Bush administration defense budget request totals $650 billion, a huge figure that has attracted little attention because politicians are loath to advocate trimming the budget, she says. "Nobody is trying to make DoD make any real choices; they are free to do almost any risk calculus," Hicks adds.

Arguing for a smaller military in today's political atmosphere is a sure way to lose an election. In fact, the presidential candidates appear to be trying to outbid each other with their calls to increase the size of American ground forces. Democratic contenders Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both support adding between 80,000 to 100,000 troops. On the Republican side, Rudy Giuliani thinks the Army needs 70,000 more soldiers; Mitt Romney argues for 100,000 more; John McCain has yet to make public his recommended total. Even traditionally left-of-center policy institutions such as the Center for American Progress argue that the best way to fix the overstretched Army and Marines is to add more troops.

While calling for more troops bolsters candidates' defense bona fides, it's not clear whether the services can attract sufficient numbers of new recruits. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Army has had to increase retention bonuses from a cumulative $85 million to $735 million a year just to maintain current force levels. The cost of pay and other benefits has increased 50 percent since 2001, up from $75,000 per soldier to $120,000 per soldier, according to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington- based think tank.

Constables vs. Advisers

Even with the new incentives, the Army fell short of its recruitment goal in May; although the Marine Corps exceeded its monthly goal. According to military sources, both the Army and Marine Corps will fail to meet their 2007 recruitment goals. The Army has been forced to significantly lower its recruitment standards to even come close to its recruitment targets. Waivers for recruits who had committed felonies were up 30 percent in 2006 over 2005; more high school dropouts are being accepted; and only 61 percent of the new recruits scored above average on the Army aptitude test, the poorest showing since 1985. The physical fitness level of new recruits also is lower.

Also notable is the relative lack of strategic thinking about increasing ground forces. If a drawdown begins in Iraq, it's not clear what the services are expected to do with additional troops. Some argue that larger ground forces are needed to imitate what America has done in Iraq in other unstable countries, or to do it better.

Adherents of this "constabulary model" foresee a need for enough ground forces to perform the internal security role that foreign governments are unable to handle themselves. The constabulary model is popular among neoconservative and conservative policy advocates.

One such proponent is Frederick Kagan, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington. He had a hand in pushing the surge strategy in Iraq, and argues for a massive expansion of American ground forces "to allow the United States to contemplate major operations in Iran." Kagan envisions an invasion of Iran, regime change and then an occupation to ensure stability and a government friendly to American interests. This view, which is shared by others, omits the fact that if American troops invaded Iran, they likely would face an insurgency on the Iraqi model that has stymied them for four years. Kagan's AEI colleague, Thomas Donnelly, writes that the Army and Marine Corps should be restored to near Cold War levels and that the Army should grow to 750,000 soldiers, an increase five times the size of the current plan.

To argue that Iraq shows that we must build up American ground forces for military interventions designed to alter other countries' political landscapes ignores the lessons of the past four years. The fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown America's conventional ground forces are ill-suited for wars against shadowy guerrilla fighters who mix with civilian populations. Inside the Pentagon, there is a growing strategic backlash against such military adventures. CSIS' Hicks says the prevailing sentiment is "let's never do that again."

But it appears that irregular warfare is here to stay, despite the desire of many military strategists to shift focus to countries with large traditional armed forces such as China. America's enemies have learned to avoid exposing themselves to our high-tech, high-firepower arsenal. Instead, they conduct unconventional attacks against U.S. conventional forces on the ground of their choosing.

Simply augmenting the size of the combat brigade rotation pool does little to increase the likelihood of success in irregular warfare. As Frank Hoffman, the irregular warfare expert at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory in Quantico, Va., says, fighting a globally dispersed enemy of small, networked cells is a job more suited for small special operations units, intelligence and law enforcement. "There is no mass for our new formations to attack," he says. But the Army's plan for the new troops is to create more brigade combat teams.

Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, offers an alternative approach-the El Salvador model. It grows from the 1980s experience in that Central American country where small teams of U.S. advisers worked alongside the El Salvadoran military. Krepinevich argues that the new troops should be used to create a highly trained adviser corps, a cadre of commissioned and noncommissioned officers whose mission is to train and equip indigenous military forces threatened by guerrillas. That model figured prominently in the 2006 QDR. The review advocated building partner capacity, in other words, helping other nations' armies fight their own internal wars.

That section of the QDR was authored by retired Army Special Forces officer and former CIA operations officer Michael Vickers, who has been nominated as the new assistant secretary of Defense for low intensity conflict and whose portfolio includes irregular warfare. Vickers says the armed services must somehow make working with any foreign military as an adviser a career-enhancing move. "If you want to get promoted, then you have to go to Iraq" as a trainer, he suggests. Army Brig. Gen. Edward Cardon, currently commanding troops in Iraq, said in a recent interview that the Army must stop the practice of raiding across units to create ad hoc advisory teams, a practice he termed devastating to unit cohesion.

In a new paper, "Institutionalizing Adaptation: It's Time for an Army Advisory Corps," published by the Center for a New American Security, Lt. Col. John Nagl, part of the team that drafted the Army's revised counterinsurgency manual, writes that instead of creating more conventional combat brigades, new troops should be used to create several 20,000-member adviser corps. He envisions a growing requirement for such units in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, even as the need for conventional combat units declines. It is well past time, he writes, "for the Army to institutionalize and professionalize the manning and training of combat advisers in permanent Army force structure."

Increasingly, those who have borne the brunt of the fighting over the past five years are questioning the wisdom of building up America's ground forces to have more combat brigades available to occupy foreign lands. Consensus is growing instead around the view that a buildup would better serve to create units specifically trained to work with foreign militaries, so U.S. combat troops don't have to be deployed at all.

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