Editor's note: About this essay, on March 4, 2004, the New York Times editorialized:

"Financing and equipping two new divisions could cost upward of $5 billion a year and could easily be paid for by cutting back spending on unnecessary weapons systems. Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, writes in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs that scrapping the costly F-22 fighter and not rushing into a premature deployment of the technologically unripe missile defense program would save enough to pay for the two divisions."

Look here for the full New York Times editorial (free registration required.)

The swift victories won on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq vindicated the recent transformation of the U.S. military into a leaner, more high-tech operation. Subsequent problems in winning the peace in these two countries, however, have highlighted the failure to transform another, critical aspect of the U.S. armed services: namely, their personnel systems. Since the effectiveness of the U.S. military depends not just on "smart" bombs but on smart, well-trained, highly motivated people, this shortcoming must be corrected quickly. If it is not, the quality of the United States' all-volunteer force, especially that of the Army, will suffer. As David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland, noted, "Our volunteer army is closer to being broken today than ever before in its 30-year history."

The personnel system currently in use by the U.S. armed forces was created 30 years ago, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. During that unpopular conflict, despite the fact that the United States maintained a draft, most of the country's elites managed to avoid service. Moreover, in order to minimize the public impact of the war and hence a damaging public debate, President Lyndon Johnson refrained from mobilizing or activating the National Guard or the reserves -- even though this meant that he had to expand the active-duty services by nearly a million people solely by increasing draft calls.

Relying on draftees to fight the war had disastrous consequences, however. It forced the military to send individuals, rather than cohesive units, to Vietnam on a constantly rotating basis. Moreover, since most of the nation's elite managed to avoid the war entirely, the quality of new recruits was much lower than in past conflicts. Thus it came as little surprise when General Maxwell Taylor, former Army chief of staff and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who served as U.S. ambassador to Saigon in the 1960s, quipped that although the Army had been sent to Vietnam to save that nation, it had to be withdrawn in order to save the Army. Vietnam, quite simply, was destroying the U.S. military.

Richard Nixon, in his successful 1968 presidential campaign, promised to change all that by getting the United States out of Vietnam and by ending conscription. He accomplished both goals by the end of his first term. But the creation of an all-volunteer force (AVF) in July 1973 came at a very difficult time for the Pentagon. Because of the unpopularity of the Vietnam War, defense spending had been declining precipitously; not only had it slipped 40 percent in real terms from its Vietnam War high, but it had also dropped 20 percent below its prewar level.

The creation of the AVF required a dramatic increase in military salaries. During the draft years, enlisted men and officers earned subsistence wages. Now, if the military hoped to be able to attract and maintain new troops, it had to start paying them better. Thus, by fiscal year 1974, the U.S. government had begun spending twice as much per active-duty soldier as it had in fiscal year 1968. The military also urgently needed to be updated, since, to hold down the overall size of the defense budget during the war and thus mask its real cost, the Pentagon had postponed the modernization of its forces. Finally, the Soviet threat began increasing during these years, and the United States needed to spend more in order to catch up.

To meet these demands while keeping costs under control, Washington decided it had no choice but to substantially reduce the size of its active-duty military to somewhere between 2 and 2.2 million people, or about 25 percent below its pre-Vietnam level of 2.7 million. Because the Nixon Doctrine stated that the United States would not fight any more land wars in Asia, and because finding volunteers was always harder for the Army than for the other services, it bore the brunt of these reductions, dropping from more than one million people before the war to 780,000 in 1974, its lowest level since before the Korean War.

To compensate, the Pentagon developed the concept of the "Total Force." Under this plan, the military's reserve component would receive enough resources to make it a full-fledged part of the nation's military. The National Guard and reserves were given separate accounts, and their share of the budget was doubled. In deciding which forces to place in the reserves, the Pentagon resolved to prevent a repetition of Vietnam -- where successive presidents managed to fight a major war by relying entirely on the active-duty force -- by putting fully half of the Army's combat units in the reserves. In addition, certain noncombat components that were deemed to be essentially civilian functions, such as military police, engineers, and civil affairs, were allocated almost entirely to the reserves. These skills would be needed only for postwar stabilization, or what is now called "peacekeeping." But 30 years ago, few imagined that the U.S. military would be used extensively for such operations, and thus the risks of placing these functions in the reserves were considered minimal. Nor did anyone ever consider that the civilian police officers, firefighters, or medical personnel who joined these units would ever be needed to protect the homeland.

SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM

After getting off to a predictably rocky start, the new system began working reasonably well. By the mid-1980s, the AVF became the most professional, highly qualified military the United States had ever fielded. When reservists were called up for the Persian Gulf War or for peacekeeping duties in the Balkans or the Sinai, they were never kept on duty for more than six months. In fact, many reservists actually volunteered to go. Moreover, active-duty forces sent on peacekeeping missions were also rotated home after six months and were not deployed overseas again before spending at least a year at home.

This system began to break down, however, after September 11, 2001. When Donald Rumsfeld had taken charge of the Pentagon nine months earlier, he had done so with a mandate to transform the military by ensuring that its weapons systems and tactics took advantage of advances in technology. He had not, however, focused on the question of the balance between active-duty and reserve soldiers, which became a critical issue once the country went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Quadrennial Defense Review, released one month after the September 11 attacks, did not alter the mix of active-duty and reserve troops. Nor did the plans for the invasion of Iraq. According to Thomas Hall, the assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, the Pentagon's civilian and military leadership has been aggressively studying this issue for almost two years. But as yet, no action has been taken. In his first press conference of 2004, Rumsfeld admitted that rebalancing the way reserve forces are used would be his first priority for the coming year. But he also said that he has seen no evidence to support calls to increase the size of the active Army from its current level of 480,000.

Thanks to such inaction, the percentage of military functions currently allocated to the reserves is substantially the same as it was in 1973 -- and better represents that era than the present one. Reserves currently account for 97 percent of the military's civil affairs units, 70 percent of its engineering units, 66 percent of its military police, and 50 percent of its combat forces. Moreover, the size of the active-duty Army has shrunk: at 480,000, or 34 percent of the total U.S. military, it is currently proportionally smaller than at any time in U.S. history.

Since September 11, this split has led to several problems, which have been exacerbated by poor planning for the postwar transition in Iraq and the inability of the United States to get substantial troop contributions from other nations. These problems fall into four categories. First, the Army is now severely overstretched. It currently has nearly 370,000 soldiers deployed in 120 countries around the globe. Of its 33 combat brigades, 24, or 73 percent, are engaged overseas. Not only does this leave the United States potentially vulnerable in places such as the Korean Peninsula, but it also means that many combat units are sent on back-to-back deployments or have had their overseas tours extended unexpectedly.

This means that about 45,000 soldiers now serving abroad may be deployed again immediately after their current missions. The First Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division was sent to Iraq in January of this year, even though it had returned from Afghanistan only five months before. Meanwhile, the Third Infantry Division, which liberated Baghdad in early April 2003, has had its tour in Iraq extended at least five times. One soldier of this unit was so frustrated that he told a New York Times reporter in mid-June, "You call Donald Rumsfeld and tell him our sorry asses are ready to go home." A month later, however, in mid-July 2003, Lieutenant General John Abizaid, the head of U.S. Central Command, announced that all Army units would have to spend a full year in Iraq, double the normal tour for peacekeeping duties.

The second consequence of the failure to reorganize the military's personnel structure in the face of its new missions is that several National Guard and reserve units have been mobilized without reasonable notice, kept on active duty for longer than anticipated, and sent overseas to Iraq and Afghanistan without effective training. Members of the Michigan National Guard, for example, were sent to Iraq with only 48 hours notice. The Maryland National Guard's 115th Military Police Battalion, meanwhile, has been mobilized three times in the past two years, and by the end of their last tour will have remained on active duty for 18 months. This is all despite the fact that, according to Lieutenant General James Helmly, the commander of the Army Reserve, a reserve soldier should be given at least 30 days' notice before being mobilized and should not be kept on duty for more than 9 to 12 months in a 5- to 6-year time frame.

The third problem created by these mobilizations is that many of the reservists who have been called up without proper notice and kept on duty too long happen to be police officers, firefighters, and paramedics in their civilian lives -- that is, first responders who are vital to the safety of their local communities. For example, almost 25 percent of the troopers in one West Virginia Police unit have been mobilized for reserve duty. When these personnel are called up for military service and kept active for long periods, it can reduce the ability of their communities to deal with terrorism.

The fourth problem with the current system is that it has led to a decline in the overall readiness of the Army. In fiscal year 2003, the Army had to cancel 49 of its 182 scheduled training exercises. The four divisions returning from Iraq in the first five months of this year will not be combat-ready again for at least six months, since their equipment has worn down and their war-fighting skills have atrophied while they were doing police work. Only two of the Army's ten active divisions are ready for conflict outside Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of course, in wartime, every citizen can expect some privations, and this is more so for soldiers than for civilians. But the Bush administration has exacerbated personnel problems by cutting back benefits that the military and their families receive. Some of the cuts may have been necessary, but their timing fueled the perception of disregard for the well-being of the same troops the administration relies on to defend the country.

MORALE HAZARD

According to a recent survey of U.S. troops in Iraq by the military's own Stars and Stripes newspaper, the Bush administration's approach to Iraq risks doing to the AVF what Vietnam did to the conscript service. After polling almost 2,000 troops, Stars and Stripes found that approximately one-third of them thought the war against Saddam Hussein had been of little or no value and that their mission lacked clear definition. A full 40 percent said that their missions had little or nothing to do with what they had trained for. And most ominously, about half of the soldiers surveyed indicated they will not reenlist when their tours end and the Pentagon lifts the "stop-loss order" now in place, which prevents troops from retiring or leaving the service when their enlistment contract expires.

Were it not for this stop-loss policy, which even high-ranking officials admit is inconsistent with the principles of voluntary service, the AVF and the Total Force would already be in severe jeopardy, lacking the personnel to complete their missions. For example, as one infantry battalion commander deployed in Kuwait and headed for Iraq recently told The Army Times, he would have lost a quarter of his unit in the coming year had it not been for the order. Through a series of such stop-loss measures, the army has prevented 24,000 active-duty troops and 16,000 reservists from leaving its ranks. Yet even with these rules in place, the Army Reserve missed its reenlistment goals for fiscal year 2003.

BIGGER AND BETTER

Such declining numbers were not always a problem. As long as the United States waged conventional war with precision-guided weapons and let other nations bear most of the peacekeeping responsibilities, it did not need a large active-duty army, and it could afford to keep many peacekeeping functions in its reserves. The war in Iraq changed all of that, however, and if the United States hopes to be able to occupy countries that large, essentially by itself, while also continuing to meet its other commitments and protect the homeland, it will have to take three steps.

First, it must rebalance its mix of personnel. More of the forces needed for an occupation, such as military police and civil affairs units, must be placed on active duty. For example, at the present time, the total Army has 5,500 men and women in its 25 civil affairs battalions, but only about 200 of them are part of the active component. And yet the Army currently needs 1,500 people with civil affairs skills in Iraq and another 500 in Afghanistan. To maintain 2,000 civil affairs personnel in those countries will require keeping about half of the reserve component on active duty continuously. Moving at least two-thirds, or 3,500, of the civil affairs personnel from the reserve to the active component would help alleviate the problem.

The situation for military police is similar. The active army has only 1,500 military police officers, whereas there are another 2,500 in the reserves (about half of whom are currently on duty). The Army is so short of military police, in fact, that it is now in the process of calling up 2,200 National Guard soldiers, mostly from artillery units, and retraining them for temporary duty as military police. To prevent this from recurring, at least 5,000 military police need to be added to the active force. Similar steps should be taken for engineers and medical personnel. All told, this would require adding about 10,000 people to the active Army.

Second, the Pentagon should increase the size of its total Army by quickly implementing the recommendations of a study sponsored by retired Vice Admiral Arthur Cebrowski, its transformation czar. The study recommends creating two division-size stabilization units of 13,000 people (one active and one reserve) trained in helping turn a battlefield victory into a political one. These units should be added to the existing Army structure, since the combat units are already overstretched.

Third, given the ongoing threat to the American homeland, the Pentagon cannot continue to allow individuals with civilian jobs that are important to homeland security to join the National Guard and reserves. Homeland defense is as integral to national security as is attacking terrorists and tyrants abroad, and it requires dedicated personnel.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration has resisted making these changes because of the expense they would incur. And indeed, making the necessary changes now will not be cheap. Keeping a person on active duty costs the government about $120,000 a year, about six times the price of a reservist. But given the size of the overall defense budget -- $420 billion -- the money could be found if Washington reordered its priorities. It could, for example, keep national missile defense at the research stage until the threat and technology mature sufficiently to make it necessary and prudent to deploy; doing so would save enough cash to fund about 20,000 more soldiers, the equivalent of one Army division. Similarly, scrapping the planned F-22 fighter, a Cold War-era program that is behind schedule, over budget, and plagued by technical problems, in favor of existing programs would fund another division.

It is possible, therefore, for the Bush administration to avoid repeating history -- in this case, Johnson's and Nixon's mistakes. But to do so, Washington must rebalance the mix of active-duty and reserve soldiers in the Army. All Americans, and not just those in the military, would be better off from such a change.

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  • Lawrence J. Korb is Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Senior Adviser to the Center for Defense Information. From 1981 to 1985, he was Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower, Reserve Affairs, Installations, and Logistics.
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