The Army We Need

Editorial

New York Times

January 2, 2005

The nation mourns the men and women in uniform who are killed or wounded in Iraq, one by one. But the public needs to be aware, and be worried, about the larger picture too. Our military and our military readiness have been strained and risk real, permanent damage.

Twenty-five years ago, America's Army was a lot larger and had a lot less to do. Now, a substantially smaller force is struggling to cope with the demands placed on it by Iraq, where boots on the ground are in chronically short supply. For much of the past two years, the bulk of America's frontline ground forces have been tied down in an open-ended counterinsurgency war they were not expected, or given the resources, to fight. These soldiers and marines, active-duty and Reserve, have shown courage and determination, despite shortages of armor and other equipment, involuntarily extended enlistments and accelerated rotations back into combat.

Their fortitude has allowed the Pentagon to sustain a situation that everyone recognizes cannot go on indefinitely, even though no end to the Iraqi conflict is yet in sight. The extended unplanned deployment of American forces is taking a heavy cumulative toll, especially on the Army and Army National Guard. It is undermining readiness and morale, and limiting America's ability to send substantial ground forces elsewhere to back up its diplomacy or respond to emerging threats.

The Pentagon is beginning to resemble a desperate farmer who feeds his starving family the seed corn meant for sowing next year's crop. To keep enough boots on the ground now, it is sacrificing the ability to retain the leaders of tomorrow. As overdeployment has become chronic, promising young officers are opting not to re-enlist. When new crops of young people graduate from school, they will be less willing to combine their civilian careers with service in the Army National Guard; recruitment is already down almost 30 percent. The Regular Army is hurting too. Despite enlistment bonuses, it has had to speed up its reporting schedules, sending new recruits straight into basic training.

This growing crisis is not due to a lack of preparedness on the part of military brass, but to the ideology on which preparedness was based. Before Iraq, Pentagon dogma - supported by most Republican politicians and many conservative Democrats - held that United States troops were war fighters. Peacekeeping and nation-building were jobs for Old Europe. Well, that was then.

Now, more than half of the Regular Army's fighting forces have either served in Iraq, are currently there or can expect to be on their way soon, along with a substantial fraction of the Marine Corps and historically high proportions of the Army National Guard and Reserves. Rotations are being accelerated, with units that have already served in Iraq returning for second tours. These faster rotations are degrading readiness, wearing down equipment and leaving less time for normal training exercises. Reservists, including police, firefighters and other homeland defenders, are spending lengthy tours overseas. Four out of 10 Americans now serving in Iraq come from Reserve or National Guard units.

None of this should lead Americans to worry that the United States - with the world's premier Air Force, Navy and nuclear strike force fully intact - is defenseless. If a new threat suddenly arose - if, for example, Al Qaeda threatened Saudi oil fields, radical Islamist officers got control of Pakistani nuclear weapons or China attacked Taiwan - Washington could respond forcefully and decisively. But that does not mean that broader American security interests are not paying a price. Any additional foreign engagement that dragged on beyond a few months and required large numbers of ground troops would require a wider call-up of reserves and perhaps a return to the draft.

Many potential enemies overseas doubt that the public would have the appetite for that kind of sacrifice. As a result, America's diplomatic clout is being subtly undermined. Iranian mullahs weighing whether to give up their nuclear programs may conclude that Washington is in no position to face them down. North Korea's dictator, Kim Jong Il, may also feel freer to proceed with his nuclear plans and move troops closer to the South Korean border. Chinese leaders may see this as an opportune time to escalate their bullying of Taiwan.

Listing all the dangers is much easier than coming up with solutions. But there are some obvious short-term answers. Barring any unexpected breakthroughs in Iraq, Washington needs to increase its recruitment quotas sharply for active-duty service in the Army and Marine Corps. The current Army recruitment ceiling of just above 500,000 ought to go up to nearly 600,000, still substantially below the levels of the late 1980's. The Marines' ceiling should go up from the current 178,000 to around 200,000. Attracting those recruits will require offering financial and other inducements on top of the added payroll costs.

Most of the additional money required for this could come from elsewhere in the military budget. The Pentagon is taking a big step in the right direction by proposing sharp cuts in the unneeded F-22 stealth fighter program. As the military raises recruitment targets for the Army and Marines, it can reduce recruitment for the Air Force and Navy, which have more active-duty members than they now need. America's ground forces have been asked to do too much, with too little, for too long.