August 1, 2003

August 1, 2003 | Executive Memorandum on National Security and Defense

Reducing Stress on an Overstretched Force

Whether or not the U.S. military is large enough to perform its assigned missions is being debated once again. Given that American soldiers will not be coming home from Iraq on time, the answer seems to be an emphatic "no." However, before the size of the force is decided, its missions must be defined. The emerging capabilities gap exists because the force is being used too extensively. With the war on terrorism, operations in Afghanistan, fighting in Iraq, and peacekeeping in the Balkans all ongoing, some forces must be held aside in case North Korea starts a war. The United States is now being pressured to deploy peacekeepers to Liberia, and this is in addition to enduring U.S. peacetime responsibilities such as deterring large-scale aggression in vital regions of the world, maintaining alliance commitments, and ensuring access to the high seas.

To bridge the capabilities gap, the United States should focus its military resources on missions that are vital to the nation. Specifically, it must field a force capable of fighting the immediate war on terrorism, fighting with little or no warning in unanticipated places, maintaining adequate capability to deter aggression against America's interests and allies, and contributing to homeland defense. Only to the extent that America's capabilities exceed its ability to fulfill these missions should it consider contributing military resources to other non-vital missions. Moreover, the long delay in rotating troops out of Iraq demonstrates that the United States does not have enough forces for even its primary missions.

Why Simply Adding Manpower Is Not Enough
While U.S. forces are not adequate to sustain the current rate of deployment, simply adding manpower is not necessarily the answer. Clearly, the U.S. needs more capabilities. However, while adding manpower may seem like the quickest way to fill the capabilities gap, it is not the best way to solve the problem.

  • People are expensive
    The most effective weapons in the U.S. armed forces are soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. They are also, understandably, the most expensive. Only about a third of the defense budget is spent on developing and buying weapons. Most of the rest goes to personnel and operational costs. Maintaining personnel beyond the number needed to fulfill U.S. national security requirements takes resources away from important efforts such as modernization and transformation.
  • The result can be inappropriate deployments
    A perceived excess of manpower tempts political leaders to deploy forces on operations that have little or nothing to do with U.S. national security. After the Cold War, this perception arguably contributed to heavy U.S. involvement in peacekeeping efforts in places like Haiti, Somalia, and the Balkans.
  • It is not the only measure of capability
    Although manpower end-strength is important, it does not by itself determine capabilities. For example, a force trained and equipped for the Cold War, regardless of size, would be inappropriate for the war on terrorism. Similarly, a military unit using old technology may not be as capable as a unit half its size using new technology. Structuring the force to reflect modern national security requirements accurately is more important than investing resources in outdated and wasteful organizations.

Alleviating Stress in the Force
Although adding large numbers of personnel to the ranks may not be appropriate at this time, a number of steps should be taken to alleviate the stress currently being put on the force.

  • Reduce Balkan peacekeeping commitments and resist similar deployments
    Approximately 8,000 U.S. troops are deployed for Balkan peacekeeping. This is the functional equivalent of 24,000 troops out of service, because for every deployed troop, one is preparing for deployment and another is recovering from deployment. Worse, many of those deployed to the Balkans are in high-demand specialties. While the Bush Administration has acknowledged these problems, no plan is in place to withdraw significant numbers of U.S. peacekeeping forces in the near term. While these missions may give some real-world experience, troops participating in non-combat missions are not training for combat. More important, because sister units train or recuperate, every soldier deployed in the Balkans is, in effect, three that cannot contribute to the nation's other vital needs. Deploying troops to places like Liberia would only exacerbate these problems.
  • Reduce the non-warfighting responsibilities of uniformed service members
    Congress sets a ceiling on the number of active uniformed personnel in each service, which totaled approximately 1.4 million in 2003. Therefore, every service member in a non-warfighting role is one less soldier in the fighting force. Obviously, some uniformed personnel are needed to fulfill certain non-warfighting missions, but those activities should be kept to a minimum. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has identified 300,000 such positions that civilians could fill. Congress should give the Pentagon the management flexibility to begin shifting its resources toward its core responsibility: defending the vital interests of the United States.
  • Invest in high-demand assets
    The U.S. military has neglected to invest in many of the capabilities that have been in the highest demand in recent years. These include special operations units, reconnaissance assets, military police, units that specialize in chemical and biological agents, Patriot anti-missile batteries, electronic warfare assets, and in-flight refueling aircraft. The United States also needs more sealift and airlift capability, as is painfully clear each time the United States moves high volumes of assets. Bringing supply and demand of these critical assets into balance would improve both the efficiency and capability of the military.

Ultimately, the United States may simply need more uniformed personnel to meet all of its defense needs, especially to decrease dependence on the reserves, but those already in uniform should first be utilized more efficiently. By making smart investments and freeing wasted resources, the U.S. armed forces can increase their capability in the near term and be better prepared to fight and win America's wars.

Jack Spencer is Senior Policy Analyst for Defense and National Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Jack Spencer Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity