July 9, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

No More Troops

America has about 3 million men and women in uniform. But we have a tough time keeping 160,000 in Afghanistan and Iraq.

You do the math.

The problem isn't that the military is too small. It's just structured to fight the last war in the last century. The result: Too many troops in the wrong uniform, in the wrong places, trained in the wrong skills to be of much use in the War on Terror.

Yes, our military is overstretched. Washington needs to do something about that. But, many of the ideas being floated by pundits and policymakers are simply wrongheaded. Let's kill some of the dumb ideas first. Three come to mind.

Dumb Idea No. 1: Don't Depend on Citizen-Soldiers. When the military announced the call-up of 5,600 from the Individual Ready Reserve, critics cried foul. Noting that IRRs are not assigned to units and don't do regular training, the critics sought to depict these citizen-soldiers as the military equivalent of couch potatoes. "Dragging them off to war proves we don't have enough troops," they argued.

Au contraire. It really means that the system is working. We have a large pool of reserves (about 47 percent of the force) exactly for moments like this, when we need to rapidly expand.

The problem is not that we are sending citizen-soldiers to fight our wars. The problem is that we can't send more. The Pentagon tapped only about 5 percent of IRR members. Additional call-ups will be limited, at best, because few of the remaining 95 percent have the skills and equipment needed.

Similarly, much of the National Guard was created during the Cold War to fight World War III. So, we still have lots of armor and artillery units to fight pitched battles on the German plains, but few trained to chase bin Laden in the Afghan hills or police the streets of Iraq. If we had a more usable force, we could rotate more troops overseas. A reasonable goal is to be able to tell reserve soldiers that, at worst, they would have to deploy once every five years.

Dumb Idea No. 2: Bring Back the Draft. This idea is unsuitable for so many reasons, it's hard not to conclude that it's suggested just to scare people. Conscription made sense during World War II. America had 10 million in uniform, almost the entire draft-age male population. There is no way we need anything near those numbers today. A draft would be little more than a lottery for the unlucky.

Worse, a conscript army with, say, two years of mandatory service would be less skilled, less cohesive and not cheap, because the services would constantly be training and replacing the ranks. Germany has this kind of army, and guess what? The Germans think it's totally unsuitable and are exploring ways to create an all-volunteer force based on the U.S. model.

Dumb Idea No. 3: Add More Troops. At the end of each year, Congress sets the maximum number that may be in uniform. Right now, lawmakers are toying with the notion of adding 20,000 to 30,000 spaces. But the Pentagon is already swelling the ranks by 30,000, using long-standing personnel policies to temporarily increase the troop count. Pentagon officials rightly argue that a permanent expansion is unnecessary.

The congressional approach would be much more expensive. Permanent increases bring all the baggage of a 20-year career: big-ticket items like housing, medical care and retirement. When Iraq ramps down, the armed forces will have more troops than they need. If all those troops are "regulars," the Pentagon would either have to keep them all aboard - shouldering needless expense - or launch a disruptive and costly downsizing.

Using policies to keep troops who already trained to do the job makes more sense. After all, they are volunteers and understand that volunteer service sometimes requires an extra bit of hardship and sacrifice when the nation needs them.

So what's the right answer? Easy: Restructure the military so we can make better use of the 3 million volunteers already serving. Three quick examples:

  • Get rid of the four-star generals in Europe. U.S. troop levels there are far below Cold War numbers. We really don't need our top brass there anymore. Sure, the European four-stars will suffer bruised egos when left to talk with "lesser" U.S. generals. But winnowing our Old World brass and their staffs will free up 20,000.
  • Turn ROTC training over to military retirees rather than active-duty personnel. That's a few thousand more.
  • Trade in some artillery and armor units for more Special Forces and military police.

Of course, none of this is really easy. Any significant change in military structure faces automatic, entrenched opposition from the forces of tradition, politics and parochial interest. But Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has already started working on many restructuring initiatives. Let the man do his job. In the end, we'll have a more professional, responsive, and successful force than we could ever get with dumb ideas and bad math.

James Jay Carafano, a 25-year veteran of the armed forces, is a senior research fellow in defense and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First appeared in the New York Post