Breaking the Army

After criticizing the Clinton administration for overdeploying and overusing the country’s military in the 1990s, the Bush administration is now doing exactly the same thing—except on a much larger scale. Hordes of active-duty troops and reservists may soon leave the service rather than subject themselves to a life continually on the road. Much more than transforming the armed forces or relocating overseas bases, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld must solve this problem before the Bush administration breaks the American military.

The problem is most acute for the Army. Even as most Marines, sailors and Air Force personnel go home to a grateful nation, the Army still has more than 185,000 troops deployed in and around Iraq. Another 10,000 are in Afghanistan. More than 25,000 troops are in Korea; some 5,000 are in the Balkans; and dozens here and hundreds there are on temporary assignments around the world. Nearly all of these soldiers are away from their home bases and families.

This total of nearly 250,000 deployed troops must be generated from an Army of just over 1 million. The active-duty force numbers 480,000, of which fewer than 320,000 are easily deployable at any given moment. The Army Reserve and Army National Guard together include 550,000 troops, many of whom already have been called up at least once since 9/11.

Deployment demands are likely to remain great, even if Rumsfeld and Bush hope otherwise. The Pentagon is lining up 20,000 to 30,000 allied troops to help in Iraq come September, from countries such as Poland and Italy and Ukraine. Unfortunately, as recent events underscore, the overall mission will still likely require nearly 200,000 coalition forces. That means 125,000 to 150,000 U.S. troops could still be needed for a year or more—with 50,000 to 75,000 Americans remaining in and around Iraq come 2005 and 2006 if past experience elsewhere is a guide.

As a result, a typical soldier spending 2003 in Iraq may come home this winter only to be deployed again in late 2004 or 2005. The typical reservist might be deployed for another 12 months over the next few years. These burdens are roughly twice what is sustainable. The problem is so severe that we must approach it from several angles:

  • Temporarily add 10,000 to 20,000 more troops to the Army. However, this is such an expensive solution—and takes so long to implement, given the challenges of recruiting and training—that other measures need to be adopted as well.

  • Approach a broader range of allies, especially larger countries such as France and Germany and even Japan and South Korea, for substantial troop contributions. Each of these countries can provide roughly 5,000 troops; we should also be able to solicit more help from those South and Southeast Asian states with peacekeeping experience.

  • Make the Marine Corps a full partner of the Army in peacekeeping, not just warfighting. This means substantially reducing the Marine Corps presence in Okinawa; it also means asking Marines to accept a temporarily higher global deployment pace themselves—possibly including a small mission soon in Liberia as well. (Even though they are not perfect substitutes, we could ask the Navy and Air Force to increase East Asia deployments temporarily to compensate for reduced Marine Corps presence.) The Marines should be able to sustain 15,000 to 20,000 personnel in Iraq.

  • Make a higher percentage of Army troops deployable. This is not easy, given the need for numerous stateside functions, but certain activities, such as mid-career education, can be suspended for a year or two. The Army is in crisis, and it needs to take radical measures as a result.

  • Finally, as Rumsfeld and Gen. James Jones of European Command draft their plans for relocating many American forces from Germany, they need to bear the overdeployment problem in mind. Rather than creating new facilities where troops are sent primarily on temporary assignments, they should try to establish new bases in Eastern Europe that permit troops to bring their families.

It would be the supreme irony, and a national tragedy, if after winning two wars in two years, the U.S. Army were broken and defeated while trying to keep the peace. Unfortunately, the risk that this will happen is all too real.