Courtesy Reuters

The Army You Have

In December 2004, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was asked by a soldier why U.S. troops in Iraq were not properly equipped for their mission. Rumsfeld responded that "you have to go to war with the army you have, not the army you want." Rather than resolve anything, however, the secretary's explanation only begged two further and fundamental questions about the U.S. armed forces: What kind of military does the country really want? And if it does not have it, how can it get it?

In "The U.S. Military's Manpower Crisis" (July/August 2006), Frederick Kagan provides a persuasive answer to the first question but not to the second. He advocates that the U.S. military change its priorities, elevating the importance of manpower -- but he does not push for any corresponding reprioritization of the budget.

The strategic shift that Kagan advocates -- from more technology to more troops -- is too important to be left on the drawing board. Turning strategy into reality requires making tough decisions about what the military most needs and what it can do without. The Bush administration has made such a decision: faced with a choice between adding additional troops and buying the new F-22 Raptor fighter plane, it has consistently selected the F-22.

Kagan, in contrast, does not set priorities. Although he insists that "the soldiers are a better investment" than the fighter, in the end he chooses both. Given today's budgetary constraints, however, this refusal to prioritize is a recipe for making a bad status quo even worse. By choosing both, Kagan, in fact, chooses the plane.

UNMANNED

The U.S. military suffers from a glaring manpower deficiency. The ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated that in operations such as counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, stabilization, and peacekeeping, even the United States' impressive technology cannot substitute for soldiers. As Kagan observes, only soldiers possess the requisite combination of brainpower and weaponry to "mix with an enemy's population, identify the combatants intermingled with that population, and accomplish the critical tasks of governance and reorganization that are so essential in persuading an enemy government to surrender."

The Bush administration, however, does not share this assessment, as evidenced by its handling of the invasion of Iraq. Before the war, Rumsfeld was dismissive, even contemptuous, of warnings from senior U.S. military officials, such as former Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki, that securing Iraq would require a vast number of boots on the ground. The secretary and his allies contended that the war and the occupation could be managed with a relatively light and short troop deployment. This belief reflected the strategic theory underpinning Rumsfeld's military-transformation agenda, which prioritizes long-range airpower and the development of ever more technologically sophisticated equipment and weaponry over expanded ground forces.

Of course, events have not been cooperative, and the administration has been compelled to keep more than 130,000 U.S. troops deployed in Iraq for three years while refusing to offer any timetable for their redeployment. This massive troop commitment has put a serious and unsustainable strain on the U.S. military. Every available combat brigade in the active-duty army has already served in Iraq or Afghanistan at least once, and many are now in their second and third tours. The Pentagon continues to struggle to provide these troops with the weapons and equipment they require. Meanwhile, the costs of their recruitment and retention have skyrocketed. The army spent almost $500 million on selective reenlistment bonuses for active-duty service members last year, which is more than twice what it spent in 2004 and more than four times what it spent in 2003.

The overstretched state of the U.S. military is creating broader strategic problems. For the first time since Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird orchestrated the transformation of the U.S. military into an all-volunteer force under President Richard Nixon, the army's ability to credibly threaten to send large numbers of troops to fight the nation's enemies is diminishing. The United States could probably not embark on another major troop deployment today without reinstating the draft. Even sending the number of troops needed to stabilize Afghanistan would be extremely taxing and would threaten to break the all-volunteer force.

Despite this obvious manpower shortage, the Bush administration remains committed to Rumsfeld's military-transformation agenda. Neither the president's budget for 2007 nor the Pentagon's 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review calls for expanding the number of U.S. troops. Instead, the Bush administration continues to emphasize the development and acquisition of new weapons, some of which were initially conceived of in the context of the Cold War.

ANTE UP

Kagan is well aware of these problems. But he is unwilling to make the expansion of manpower a budgetary priority. Instead, he concludes that the United States should simply add hundreds of billions of dollars -- the equivalent of one or two percent of the country's GDP -- to the defense budget in order to pay for troop increases without adjusting, streamlining, or trimming a single existing program.

Kagan's approach to budgeting absolves him of having to tackle a number of difficult issues, including how to curb the military's personnel costs, which have risen precipitously over the past six years. The average annual cost of maintaining a single service member currently exceeds $100,000. These costs will continue to skyrocket if, as Kagan proposes, 100,000 to 200,000 additional ground forces are added. Kagan implies that the Bush administration has not reined in personnel spending because it has no interest in adding more troops and therefore increases in per unit cost do not concern it. But this is not quite true, as demonstrated by the fight in 2003 over what is known as "concurrent receipt."

Before that year, the Pentagon had for decades maintained a policy of "nonconcurrent receipt," by which it reduced the retirement pay of disabled veterans who were already receiving benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. In the 2003 defense authorization bill, however, Congress stipulated that the Pentagon would have to change its policy and continue to provide full retirement payments to service members who also received such benefits. It was estimated that this shift would increase personnel costs by between $1.8 billion and $5 billion annually, and the Bush administration actively opposed the change. The president even threatened to veto the bill. The administration clearly had the political will to fight the increase -- but it lost the battle nonetheless.

Kagan anticipates that his call for greater defense spending will "inspire howls of protest in certain quarters," and he is right: there will be howls from members of the Bush administration, the Pentagon, and Congress, all of whom realize that the 41 percent increase in baseline defense spending of the past four years cannot and will not be duplicated in the next four. This is why the Department of Defense and others are busily prioritizing for leaner times. The five-year plan submitted to Congress last year called for a $30 billion reduction in defense spending between fiscal years 2006 and 2011, and the Pentagon has been instructed to reduce its 2007-12 plan by another $30 billion. Ryan Henry, the Pentagon's principal deputy undersecretary for policy, has acknowledged that the defense spending levels of the past few years are unsustainable, and he is planning accordingly. And as the chief executive of Boeing's military division lamented, "[It] has been a great ride for the last five years, but it's over. There will be a flattening of the defense budget."

As such statements suggest, Kagan's preferred approach -- adding new troops without cutting current defense spending -- is simply not an option. To govern is to choose, and by not choosing between troops and hardware, Kagan provides no real alternative to the status quo.

In order to ensure that the U.S. military builds the capabilities it needs in today's fiscal climate, the Pentagon should reorder its budgetary priorities. The Defense Department must add two divisions to the active force while maintaining the current strength of the reserves; double the size of the Special Forces to approximately 100,000 troops; add 10,000 military police, civil-affairs experts, engineers, and medical personnel to the active force; and maintain funding for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, unmanned aerial vehicles, the B-2 heavy bomber, the Future Combat Systems program, the Stryker Interim Armored Vehicle, and naval vessels such as the CVN-21 aircraft carrier and the Littoral Combat Ship.

Accomplishing these tasks will mean making some hard choices. Certain low-priority weapons systems -- especially those that do not address current threats or are extremely inefficient -- must be canceled or scaled back. These systems include the F-22, the SSN-774 Virginia-class submarine, the DD(X) destroyer, the V-22 Osprey, the C-130J transport aircraft, offensive space-based weapons, and the deployment of a national missile defense.

It is certainly possible to dream up future scenarios in which each of these lower-priority items would be useful, but one only has to read this morning's newspaper, or Kagan's article, to realize how much more useful additional ground forces would be. While it is tempting not to choose, the reality is that Americans must.

LAWRENCE J. KORB is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and was Assistant Secretary of Defense from 1981 to 1985.

PETER OGDEN is a National Security Analyst at the Center for American Progress.

Kagan Replies

I am grateful for the thoughtful support Lawrence Korb and Peter Ogden offer to my core argument: that manpower remains the principal determinant of a state's military power and is essential to success in almost any imaginable future conflict. The strains on the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps that we together have described are real, serious, and extremely dangerous. Fixing these problems should be Washington's number one national security priority. The only question is how.

Korb and Ogden argue that the key to success lies in establishing the right priorities within a predetermined defense budget, rather than increasing that budget. They dismiss as unrealistic calls for a substantial increase in military spending. They may be right that the political reality in Congress would block such an increase. But that is precisely the problem.

The world beyond the United States' borders -- and even, increasingly, within them -- does not conform to the limitations imposed by Washington's political reality. The international situation today requires larger U.S. armed forces than the currently proposed defense budgets can pay for. If U.S. policymakers choose -- and they do have a choice -- not to pay for the military the country needs, the result will be self-deterrence, the growth of dangerous threats, increased civilian and military casualties, and possibly even military defeat. This is the reality that will determine whether the American people are safe or at risk.

The fact is that no conceivable reordering of priorities in the current defense budget could generate a military with adequate strength to protect the United States' interests around the world today.

For one thing, thanks to the intricate and onerous obligations that most defense contracts place on the government and contractors, it is far easier in theory to recoup costs by killing a major weapons program than it is to actually realize those savings.

For another, today's levels of defense spending are simply inappropriate in the current global climate. The U.S. military is a relic of frenzied post-Cold War budget cuts conducted during the 1990s, at a time when many U.S. policymakers thought the world was in a "strategic pause." The current defense budget is similarly a relic of that time, having been increased only through supplemental spending bills and a handful of (albeit costly) personnel incentives. The Pentagon and the White House seem to assume that the strains now being placed on the U.S. military, however severe, will be short-lived and will not be repeated, and that therefore no major spending increases are required. This assumption remains unshaken despite five years of war and the daily appearance of new crises.

Yet President George W. Bush has repeatedly declared that the nation is at war, and his senior defense officials have declared that it will be a long one. But they have failed to take any steps to mobilize the nation accordingly. When was the last time that the United States engaged in a major war without mobilizing its resources to support its soldiers?

Looking back over the conflicts of the last two decades, one thing is clear: most of them -- at least those in which the United States prevailed -- led to protracted postconflict deployments. Consider Panama, Bosnia, and Kosovo. When the United States did not stick around, by contrast, the result was clear failure, as in Somalia and Haiti. The fact that the current missions in Iraq and Afghanistan demand large, ongoing commitments of U.S. ground forces should therefore not be surprising.

Americans should expect that most future crises will come with similar demands. Before September 11, 2001, U.S. leaders could imagine that engagement with the world was optional. If a particular mission cost more than Americans wanted to spend, they could ignore it. Whatever the dubious wisdom of that approach in peacetime, it is insupportable in the dangerous world of today. If the United States continues to refuse to spend significantly more money on defense, it may thereby exclude the possibility of succeeding in future conflicts, responding adequately to future threats, and protecting its people. No responsible leader would take that risk.