Rebuilding Iraq and Rebuilding the U.S. Army

What are the ingredients of success—or at least of staving off failure—in Iraq? This is a very difficult and multi-faceted question involving numerous military, economic, and political aspects. But one of the issues is clearly becoming the combined size of American ground forces. Some may tend to view such a question as strictly a matter of defense policy, to be left to the Pentagon and the Congressional armed services committees. But in fact it is becoming a central foreign policy question for the United States. With numerous units of the American military already heading back to Iraq for second tours, and third tours sure to ensue within two to three more years, it is becoming impractical for policymakers in Washington to consider any increase in the size of the deployment in Iraq. In fact, pressure may soon mount to curb American troop strength there prematurely—not only because of growing casualty counts, but because of the strains on the men and women of the all-volunteer military.

But success in Iraq is too important to allow the present size of the U.S. Army to predetermine our options for deploying troops to the mission there. Even in the unlikely event that the stabilization effort can begin to be downsized in the coming months, strains will be too great on combat troops. The only conscionable response is to increase the size of the U.S. ground forces—and to do it soon, while recruits are still ready to join and before the back of the all-volunteer military is broken.


After criticizing the Clinton administration for overdeploying and overusing the U.S. military in the 1990s, the Bush administration is now doing exactly the same thing—except on a much larger scale. This comment is not intended as a critique of the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein. But having made that decision, and having badly underestimated the difficulty as well as the force requirements of accomplishing the post-Saddam stabilization effort successfully, the Bush administration or its successor now needs to get serious about making means match ends. At present, the former are simply insufficient.

Because of the intense strains on people, the possibility exists that large numbers of active-duty troops and reservists may soon leave the service rather than subject themselves to a life continually on the road. The seriousness of the worry cannot be easily established. So far the problem has not become acute. Stop-loss orders that prevent some military personnel from leaving the service at the scheduled end of their tours, together with a surge of patriotism after September 11, together with limited awareness to date of just how long the Iraq mission is likely to last, have limited the fallout of overdeployments. But there can be no assurance that this state of affairs will continue. Avoiding a personnel crisis in the all-volunteer military has become the chief management challenge for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his successor, much more so than transforming the armed forces or relocating overseas bases.

The problem is most acute for the U.S. Army, which only numbers a half million active-duty troops (see table), and the 175,000-strong U.S. Marine Corps. Even as most sailors, airmen, and airwomen have gone home to a grateful nation after the overthrow of Saddam, the Army still has nearly 150,000 troops deployed in and around Iraq. About 10,000 more are in Afghanistan. Over 25,000 are in Korea (though several thousand are soon headed from there to Iraq, a policy decision that while risky makes sense in light of the strains on the Army); several thousands are in the Balkans; dozens here and hundreds there are on temporary assignments around the world. Virtually all of the above soldiers, the majority of them married, are currently separated from their home bases and families. Marines are now bearing much of the brunt of U.S. security missions as well, having again deployed forces to Iraq and elsewhere. The Pentagon has made a number of temporary changes in policy to relieve their strain somewhat, such as canceling more than a quarter of its training exercises for 2004, but the enormous strain remains nonetheless.1

Indeed, life has actually become somewhat easier for the Navy in the aftermath of Saddam’s overthrow, since less naval presence is now needed in the Persian Gulf. And for the Air Force, while ferrying supplies to the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan theaters continues to place demands on transport and refueling crews and aircraft, the burden on most combat forces has been reduced relative to pre-war norms due to the end of the no-fly-zone mission over Iraq. Moreover, both the Air Force and Navy have adopted new means of operating their forces that have further eased the burden on people. The Air Force has organized itself into Air Expeditionary Forces—essentially on—call packages of several types of capabilities that take turns being ready for quick deployment if need be.2 And the Navy has reduced somewhat its emphasis on maintaining a continuous overseas presence (largely due, it appears, to the improved security environment in the Persian Gulf) in favor of maintaining more carriers ready to deploy quickly at any given moment should a crisis erupt.3

Most recruiting and retention goals have thankfully been met by all the services in recent years.4 That has continued even recently: for example, in the first quarter of fiscal year 2004 only the Air Force Reserve was short of recruits, among the six parts of the U.S. military reserve component.5 Similar conclusions apply to the active-duty forces. This should not be cause for complacency, however. For one thing, so-called stop-loss orders have prevented many Army soldiers from leaving the military—at least 24,000 active-duty troops and 16,000 reservists through early 2004.6 For another, the fact that the Army will have to continue to deploy and redeploy forces abroad is only now becoming well known around the country. The surge of patriotism after 9/11, the impressive successes of the U.S. military in toppling the Taliban and Saddam Hussein regimes, and improved military compensation have helped prevent a “hollowing out” of the military to date. But it would be irresponsible to assume that will continue. There are serious warning signs on the horizon, including a recent Washington Post poll that three-fourths of all Army spouses expect the service to face reenlistment problems in the coming months, as well as surveys of troops in Iraq indicating some serious morale issues.7

Table: Existing and Planned Active-Duty Force Levels
(thousands of personnel)

Service Authorized Strength, 9/03 Actual Strength, 9/03 Reservists, 9/03 Mobilized Request, 05
Army 480.0 499.3 127.5 482.4
Marine Corps 175.0 177.8 11.1 175.0
Navy 375.7 382.2 3.5 368.1
Air Force 359.0 375.1 21.2 359.8

Source: Under Secretary of Defense David Chu, “How Might We Think About Stress on the Force?” Briefing at the Pentagon, February 11, 2004.

The total of some 200,000 deployed troops (in Iraq, Korea, Afghanistan, the Balkans, and elsewhere) must be generated from an Army of just over one million. As noted, the active-duty force numbers 500,000, of which only about 320,000 are easily deployable at any given moment. The Army Reserve and Army National Guard together include 550,000 troops, about 150,000 of whom have been typically been activated in recent times. For example, in late 2003, 156,000 Army reservists were mobilized out of a total of 558,000. Cumulatively since September 11, 2001, 213,000 Army reservists have been mobilized at least once. Roughly 30 percent of Air Force Reserve or National Guard personnel have been mobilized as well, just under 25 percent of Navy reserve personnel, and more than 50 percent of the Marine Corps’s small reserve. Such a heavy use of the reserve component raises some concerns about whether all of its troops are sufficiently prepared for the difficult conditions they are facing in Iraq; it definitely raises worries that reservists will be themselves overused.8

Deployment demands are likely to remain great, even if Secretary Rumsfeld and President Bush hope otherwise. Foreign coalition partners in Iraq continue to provide about 25,000 troops, but that number does not seem likely to increase. That makes it likely that U.S. troop strength will have to remain substantial for years to come. Indeed, even before the worsening of the Iraqi security environment in the spring of 2004, the U.S. military was preparing for the possibility that its current strength of just over 100,000 might have to remain at that level for years—perhaps until 2007 or so.9 The history of recent stabilization missions suggests that even a favorable scenario might see the number decline to about 75,000 in 2005, 50,000 or so in 2006/2007, and perhaps half that latter number for a period thereafter.10

As a result, the typical active-duty U.S. soldier in a deployable unit could literally spend the majority of the next three to four years abroad. In 2004 alone, 26 of the Army’s 33 main combat brigades in the active force will deploy abroad at some point; over the course of 2003 and 2004 together, virtually all of the 33 brigades will be deployed (see table).

Table: Recent Deployments of Army Active-Duty Combat Units

Unit Deployed Deployment in 2003/2004 Brigades Deployed
3rd Infantry Division (GA) Iraq (Rotation 1) 3
101st Airborne Division (KY) Iraq (Rotation 1) 3
4th Infantry Division (TX) Iraq (Rotation 1) 3
173rd Airborne Brigade (Italy) Iraq (Rotation 1) 1
3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment (CO) Iraq (Rotation 1) 1
1st Armored Division (Germany) Iraq (“Rotation 1.5”) 3
2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment (LA) Iraq (“Rotation 1.5”) 1
1st Infantry Division (Germany) Iraq (Rotation 2) 3
2nd Infantry Division, Stryker (WA) Iraq (Rotation 2) 1
25th Infantry Division (HI) Iraq (Rotation 2) 1
1st Cavalry Division (TX) Iraq (Rotation 2) 3
82nd Airborne Division (NC) Iraq (Rotation 2) 1
82nd Airborne Division (NC) Afghanistan (Rotation 2) 1
10th Mountain Division (NY) Afghanistan (Rotations 1, 2) 2 (x2 deployments)
25th Infantry Division (HI) Afghanistan (Rotation 3) 2
Total: 34

Note: The 1st Marine Division has also deployed to Iraq twice, both during the invasion and in 2004, and is to be replaced by the 2nd Marine Division in the fall of 2004. From its National Guard forces, the Army also deployed the 53rd enhanced separate brigade (Florida) and the 76th enhanced separate brigade (Indiana) to Iraq in the first post-Saddam deployment, followed by the 30th enhanced separate brigade (North Carolina), the 81st enhanced separate brigade (Washington state), and the 39th enhanced separate brigade (Arkansas) in 2004. All in all, 5 of 15 enhanced separate brigades deployed in 2003 and 6 are deploying in 2004.

Source: Bradley Graham, “Huge Movement of Troops Is Underway,” Washington Post, January 9, 2004, p. A13;; and R.L. Brownlee and General Peter J. Schoomaker, Posture of the United States Army 2004, February 5, 2004, p. 9.

The typical reservist might be deployed for another twelve months over the next three to four years. As one example, all 15 of the Army National Guard’s enhanced separate brigades are to be deployed at some point by 2006.11 But the greatest problem is with units that have to be mobilized more than once. To date, somewhat less than 40,000 reservists have been involuntarily mobilized more than once since 9/11, not an enormously high number, but one that is continually growing.12 The overall pace of Army overseas deployments on tours away from home base (and families) is more than twice what it was during the 1990s, when overdeployment was frequently blamed for shortfalls in recruiting and retention on several occasions.13

The problem is so severe that we must approach it from several angles. Some have already been espoused by the Pentagon in recent months. For example, after months of effectively being given a pass from the post-Saddam Iraq mission, the Marine Corps has again been deployed and is now a full partner of the Army in the stabilization mission. This has meant reducing the Marine Corps presence in Okinawa; it also means asking Marines to accept a temporarily higher global deployment pace themselves. (Even though they are not perfect substitutes for Marines, the Navy and Air Force could increase certain deployments in East Asia and elsewhere temporarily to compensate for the reduced Marine Corps presence.)

In addition, in a major and highly commendable move discussed further below, the Army is making a much higher percentage of its total number of troops deployable. This is not easy, since it means taking people away from specialties that have long been considered important, but it is necessary and indeed prudent given changes in the nature of modern warfare.

The United States must also continue to approach a broader range of allies, especially larger countries such as France and Germany, for substantial troop contributions in Iraq. Each of these countries can provide roughly 5,000 troops (perhaps a few more for France, a few less for Germany, depending on exactly when a deployment decision was made); we should also be able to solicit more help from those South and Southeast Asian states with peacekeeping experience such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Thailand. If that requires transferring greater decision-making authority for Iraq policy to the United Nations, so be it.

Finally, the Army should temporarily add about 40,000 more active-duty troops to its ranks, above and beyond the 30,000 the Pentagon is in the process of adding through emergency powers and supplemental appropriations to date. Ideally, to facilitate planning and reflect a strong national consensus behind the move, the increase in end strength should be done through law by an act of Congress signed by the president. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has resisted such a policy on the grounds that any such troop increase would be difficult to reverse in the future. But that argument is belied by the frequency with which troop strength has been legislatively adjusted throughout modern American history, especially in the aftermath of the Cold War. Given that the Army itself expects that the emergency increases could last five years, it seems more appropriate to view an increase as the right policy for this decade rather than a stopgap measure.14


But before estimating how many additional troops, and possibly Marines as well, are required in today’s American armed forces, it is important to ask if there are more efficient ways to structure and use today’s soldiers.

Indeed, such an effort is underway in the U.S. Army. Under the able guidance of Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, the Army is embarked on an ambitious plan to reassign many of its personnel over the course of the rest of the decade. Units of less likely utility on the modern battlefield would in many cases be eliminated to permit increases in those units that have been in highest demand in recent years, and that seem likely to remain heavily employed in the future. (In addition, in 2004 and 2005 the Army will convert a total of some 10,000 military jobs to civilian positions, freeing up additional soldiers for high-demand tasks.15) This idea, while bold, is not entirely new or radical. Even in the late 1990s, the Army’s own war plans suggested it had 150,000 too many combat troops (mostly in the National Guard) and 50,000 too few support troops, suggesting that there was a strong case for major overhaul and rebalancing then.16

Under the new plan, the Army would streamline its field artillery, air defense, engineer, and armor units substantially (reducing them by 24, 10, 11, and 19 battalions, respectively). It would reassign many of the billets to augment its transportation, civil affairs, and psychological operations units, as well as military police and special operations forces. Certain other units would be affected as well. Exact numbers of personnel to be shifted are unclear from existing documentation, but the total is reported to exceed 100,000 or some 10 percent of the total Army. Those specialties expected to undergo significant increases or reductions in troop totals are indicated below.

Table: Army Force Structure (thousands of personnel)

Active Specialty Changes Reserve Troops Planned Personnel Total Planned Changes
(Main Specialties)
Air Defense Artillery 12 9 21 reduction
Armor 24 29 53 reduction
Artillery 29 48 77 reduction
Aviation 25 21 46  
Engineering 21 62 83 reduction
Infantry 49 57 106  
Maintenance 10 33 43  
Military Intelligence 24 13 37 increase
Military Police 16 27 43 increase
Signal (Communications) 22 16 38  
Transportation 12 41 53 increase
Subtotal 234 356 590  

(Support and Secondary Specialties)

Adjutant General, Finance,
Chaplain, History,
Judge Advocate, Public Info
Civil Affairs
Combat Service Support
(Indirect Support)
Ordnance, Quartermaster, Supply
some of each
Psychological Operations
Special Operations
Support for Miscellaneous
Specific Units
Grand Total

Source: U.S. Army communication to Brookings, 2003.
Note: Figures are generally rounded to the nearest thousand.

The active Army’s combat divisions are also changing. They will continue to comprise 10 main combat divisions, as is the case now. But rather than have 3 brigades per division, plus three independent brigades (making for a grand total of 33 combat brigades in the active force), the Army will add at least one brigade per existing division to make a total of 43, with the possibility of a further increase to 48 in 2007 or thereafter. Each unit will be somewhat smaller but also more independently deployable and operable than today’s brigades. Of the 43 planned brigades, 20 are envisioned as heavy, 9 as light forces, 5 as medium-weight or Stryker brigades, and 9 as airborne forces. Meanwhile, the Army National Guard’s combat structure will change from its current composition of 15 enhanced separate brigades, 19 brigades within divisions, and 1 (non-enhanced) separate brigade to 32 brigade combat teams and 1 Stryker brigade combat team. In other words, the divisional structure will be eliminated, and in contrast to the active Army, the overall number of brigades will not increase.17

These smaller, more deployable brigade combat teams may make sense given improvements in Army firepower and the frequent demands of various small operations. But they do not solve the current problem that the Army is trying to do too much with too few people, particularly in Iraq, where the character of the individual brigade matters less than the sheer size of the U.S. ground forces.


Despite all the above laudable and promising initiatives, therefore, the U.S. ground forces need an immediate increase in active-duty troop levels. The personnel could be added to just the Army, or to the Army and Marines in roughly proportionate numbers given their existing sizes. But regardless, they should be added to the active-duty forces, and added soon.

In fact, the decision is becoming badly overdue. At the latest, it should have been made as soon as it became obvious in mid-2003 that the post-Saddam Iraq stabilization mission would be difficult and long. According to CBO, it would take 5 years to fully train and recruit an additional 80,000 troops. (That would be enough for two divisions plus associated support. It would have an annual cost of about $6.5 billion just to maintain the needed forces stateside—not counting investment costs, estimated at just shy of $20 billion.)18 Even if CBO’s methodology is too cautious, and its time estimate too pessimistic, the time to act is now. That is because the period of maximum stress on Army personnel from the Iraq mission is likely to be 2004-2007. It is during that period when force totals will remain high and when units that have already deployed once to Iraq will have to return—not just one more time, but at least twice.

How to determine the appropriate increased size of the Army? There is no definitive answer to this question. It is impossible to determine exactly how large of a rotation base would be needed to continue the Iraq mission over a period of years without causing undue strain on the all-volunteer force. We will only know the answer to the question with certitude once we drive large numbers of people out of the military, at which point it will be clear that the force was indeed too small. But at that point, it could also be too late to fix the problem, since by definition it will have become very hard to increase recruiting and retention levels and build up a larger force.

It is foolhardy to push our luck too hard. Not only logic, but a basic sense of fairness, suggest that we should not generally send active-duty troops back to Iraq after only a short respite at home between successive deployments. One year in Iraq, one year home (at most), and then back for a year is extremely demanding—yet that is exactly what the Army will soon need to do with some units. Such a pace effectively turns soldiers into visitors in their own country, since the short time spent at home is dominated by the period of recovery from a previous deployment and then preparation for the next deployment. Moreover, as argued convincingly by Lt. General James Helmly, chief of the Army Reserve, reservists should not have to be involuntarily activated for more than a nine-to-twelve month period once every five to six years, given the expectations those individuals have when joining the National Guard or Army Reserve.19

Today’s policies for deploying forces abroad risk breaking the all-volunteer force. Indeed, in his summer 2003 confirmation hearings, General Peter Schoomaker indicated that his initial instincts were to increase the size of the force if confirmed (as he was) as Army Chief of Staff.20 It makes sense to take out insurance against the possibility of breaking the force by increasing the size of the land forces, while the military is not yet having particular trouble recruiting more soldiers (and Marines as well, if that option is desired).

As one simplified but still illuminating way to think about the necessary increase in troop strength, imagine creating enough new units to conduct all deployments in the year 2006 or 2007. In practice, of course, the United States would never depend entirely on fresh recruits in such demanding missions. But this simplification still gives the proper sense of the scale of what is needed. We basically need the ability to give most parts of the U.S. ground forces at least one more year at home than they are otherwise likely to have in the coming three to four years.

So how many troops does that require? The Army and Marines might have to provide 100,000 troops to these missions in 2006, roughly speaking. This range of figures assumes 25,000 ground troops in Korea, about 10,000 in Afghanistan, and 50,000 to 75,000 troops in Iraq. Perhaps 10,000 troops can be provided out of combat brigades of the Army National Guard (though by 2006/7 even these units will have been heavily deployed), leaving a need for some 90,000 fresh soldiers and Marines. Of that total number, 10,000 should be generated due to existing and appropriate Pentagon plans to privatize certain current military positions. And 10,000 to 20,000 more active troops might be available due to the rebalancing of the force discussed above, by which individuals in high-demand units are increased in number as units such as artillery are reduced in number.

This arithmetic leaves a need for 60,000 to 70,000 additional troops from an increase in end strength. Secretary Rumsfeld is planning to use emergency powers to increase the size of the active ground troops by roughly 20,000 to 30,000, so 40,000 additional troops would be required according to this rough calculation. Some might be added in the special forces. But given the nature of special forces—elite, older, extremely well-trained, very highly specialized—and the need for more regular combat forces and support units, most should be in normal Army formations.21


In recent months, a debate over whether the U.S. military is large enough for its current tasks has intensified. Democratic presidential frontrunner John Kerry and a number of prominent members of Congress of both parties say it is not, and call for adding several tens of thousands of additional uniformed personnel to the American armed forces for the next few years. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush, by contrast, prefer to add only modest numbers of troops using emergency powers rather than formal and traditional legislative methods. (They have added many contractors to DoD’s payroll and called up large numbers of reservists, but have resisted official increases in active duty “end strength.”)

While the position of Rumsfeld and Bush is understandable—active-duty forces are expensive, and additional soldiers are probably only needed for a period of a few years—it is not persuasive in the end. It risks breaking the all-volunteer force. That is, it risks making military service seem so unappealing that many in the military will start to leave the service when their existing terms end, and that recruits will dwindle in numbers. Once such a process begins, it can become a vicious spiral, since the only antidote to losing people from the armed forces is to recruit even more, and that may not be possible (even if signing bonuses and pay are further increased).

No more time should be lost—about 40,000 more troops, mostly Army soldiers but perhaps some Marines as well, should be added to the U.S. military. At worst, this will prove to be unneeded insurance against the possibility of a major crisis in recruiting and retention. Just as likely, for the relatively modest cost of a few billion dollars a year it will help protect the excellent all-volunteer military from experiencing a major personnel crisis. That could in turn leave the country with few choices besides a return to the draft, with its even greater problems of a much less proficient and committed military.