Do the Math: We Need More Boots on the Ground

Does the United States military need to be larger to handle stresses and strains in Korea, Afghanistan, the Balkans, possibly Liberia and, most of all, Iraq? Is Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld right in his recent claims that new efficiencies and innovations can allow the American armed forces to handle their tough workload without increasing the overall number of troops?

Rumsfeld’s instincts are laudable in many ways. The defense budget is already growing enough without increasing it further through added personnel. And the armed services do need to be pushed to innovate, privatize and reform their practices.

But Rumsfeld goes too far when he claims that we can get by with no additional soldiers in today’s U.S. Army. Even with more allied help—which Rumsfeld isn’t doing enough to recruit—we are likely to need at least another division within a year. That’s about 15,000 soldiers; accompanying support troops will double that number. Given our all-volunteer force, we need to start recruiting now.

The problem can be stated simply and starkly. Past experience in the Balkans and elsewhere shows that, in late 2004, we will probably need about two-thirds the number of international troops in Iraq as we have there now. But our rotation base will be depleted by then. That means we will have to take the unthinkable step of sending back to Iraq people who returned from there a year before. Many American soldiers, as dedicated as they are, will choose not to reenlist rather than accept such an unpalatable—and, frankly, unfair—demand upon them and their families.

The Army’s brutish deployment math specifically works like this. Sixteen of its 33 active-duty combat brigades (there are typically three brigades per division) are now in Iraq; another two are in Afghanistan; two more are in Korea; one more is in the Balkans. That leaves only 12 available for other missions, and most of those are now preparing to go to Iraq.

For example, when the 3rd and 4th Infantry divisions, 1st Armored Division, 101st Airborne Division, 2nd and 3rd Armored Cavalry regiments and 173rd Airborne Brigade come home, they will be replaced by the 1st Armored Cavalry Division, 1st Infantry Division, much of the 82nd Airborne Division, about two brigades of the Army National Guard, a new medium-weight brigade of the Army and more multinational forces. Allies will, it is hoped, also replace elements of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force still in Iraq.

For those doing their Army math, that leaves only the 2nd Infantry Division, 10th Mountain Division and 25th Infantry Division that will not spend time in Iraq in 2003 or 2004. But the 2nd and 25th are dedicated to the Korea mission, and the 10th is needed in places such as Afghanistan. There is no one left for the following rotation to Iraq, in late 2004 or early 2005.

Even if the United Nations Security Council passes a new resolution to put the U.N. formally in charge in Iraq, the problem will not be solved. That would help attract troops from other countries, but we would still probably need six to eight NATO brigades in the Sunni triangle of central Iraq in late 2004 and 2005, and most of those would have to come from U.S. active-duty forces.

Other countries that might provide forces under a stronger U.N. mandate, such as India and Russia, are not equipped or trained to handle the extremely difficult conditions in that region. Nor, despite their great capabilities, are the combat formations of the U.S. Army National Guard. France and Germany might be capable of helping—and willing if the U.N. were put in charge—but each would do well to muster a brigade.

The Marines can and should be expected to provide a brigade or two of the forces needed under U.N. auspices. But even with increased international and Marine Corps help, the Army would still need to generate two to four fresh brigades for Iraq, and another couple in Korea.

These demands are too great to realize through new efficiencies and force management tools, which have proved difficult to develop for many years. They can only prudently be met through a larger Army.