May 24, 2004

May 24, 2004 | Commentary on Middle East

The Troops We Need

Sometime you just have to do things the old-fashioned way. Despite America's tremendous battlefield advantages in military technology, sometimes it takes good old-fashioned boots on the ground to get the job done.

We're seeing that in Iraq - where, after a lightning-like dash to Baghdad by the U.S. Army (and Marines), the paramount concern now is to stabilize and secure the country. It takes GIs to do that.

Some argue that Star Wars-like technology has made ground forces increasingly irrelevant to modern warfare. But the Iraq experience put that idea to rest.

Moreover, the unexpected shift this summer of 3,600 (of 37,000) GIs from South Korea to Iraq and the delay of the rotation of some U.S. troops home is a sure-tell sign that the U.S. Army is short-handed and stretched thin.

Adding to the pressure on the Army, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz last week told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he didn't know how many U.S. troops would be needed in Iraq over the next 18 months: "It could be more, it could be less" than the 135,000 troops now deployed there.

At the end of the Cold War, the Army underwent a drastic contraction - downsizing from 750,000 soldiers to 480,000. It's time for a measured increase in the Army's strength.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I. and a West Point grad) plans to offer an amendment to the Defense Department bill to increase the Army by 30,000 soldiers at a cost of $3.6 billion a year. Says Reed: "The stress on our land forces undermines the nation's capability to pursue a diplomatic strategy backed by unquestioned military power."

Indeed, the Army is so strained that it has called up more than 100,000 reservists and ordered tens of thousands of soldiers to remain on duty involuntarily after their tours have ended.

But we shouldn't increase the Army's size in a knee-jerk fashion. Rather, we must consider a number of factors to ensure that American tax dollars are well spent and our troops well-served. Simply throwing more money at a problem is rarely the solution.

Here's a couple of things to consider as we move to right-size the Army:

Structure: The amount and type of growth should reflect current national-security needs. These vary from theater to theater and from mission to mission. What's needed in Iraq or Afghanistan is far different than what's necessary to deter aggression in Korea and the Taiwan Strait.

For instance, Gen. John Abizaid of Central Command last week testified that he doesn't need more combat infantry troops in Iraq. What he needs is more military police, intelligence and civil-affairs specialists. The Army probably also needs more special operations forces (e.g., Green Berets) for the challenges of global counterterrorism.

The average soldier costs taxpayers $100,000 per year in pay and benefits, reports the Congressional Budget Office. Privatizing some non-combat functions could be an effective way to get more soldiers on the pointy end of the spear while still doing all the rear area work needed to keep the Army humming along.

Commitments: We should review and adjust our global force commitments and defense relationships to meet our security requirements. For instance, can South Korea do more to defend against the North Korean threat without undermining stability on the Korean peninsula?

Should NATO shoulder the entire burden of Bosnia peacekeeping, thereby freeing up 3,000 U.S. troops deployed there (and another 6,000 either recovering from a Bosnia tour or training for another deployment)?

The answer to both: Yes.

Modernization: The cost of adding soldiers to the force adds up pretty quickly and takes money away from technological R&D that keeps our troops on the cutting edge. The defense budget isn't unlimited and we must strike a balance between modernization and growing the force. Our soldiers must have the best equipment when they go into battle.

The Army - and the Marines - are overdue for a plus-up. A well-considered increase in their end-strength will ease the operational pressure on our forces and help us accomplish our military missions.

But, in the end, long-term battlefield success requires developing a force that balances the right troop numbers with the most advanced fighting gear this country can provide our brave warriors.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the New York Post