The Case for Larger Ground Forces

Michael E. O’Hanlon and Frederick Kagan

We live at a time when wars not only rage
in nearly every region but threaten to
erupt in many places where the current
relative calm is tenuous. To view this as a strategic
military challenge for the United States is not to
espouse a specific theory of America’s role in the
world or a certain political philosophy. Such an
assessment flows directly from the basic bipartisan
view of American foreign policy makers since
World War II that overseas threats must be countered
before they can directly threaten this country’s
shores, that the basic stability of the
international system is essential to American
peace and prosperity, and that no country besides
the United States is in a position to lead the way
in countering major challenges to the global order.

Let us highlight the threats and their consequences
with a few concrete examples, emphasizing
those that involve key strategic regions of the
world such as the Persian Gulf and East Asia, or
key potential threats to American security, such
as the spread of nuclear weapons and the
strengthening of the global Al Qaeda/jihadist
movement. The Iranian government has rejected
a series of international demands to halt its
efforts at enriching uranium and submit to international
inspections. What will happen if the
US—or Israeli—government becomes convinced
that Tehran is on the verge of fielding a nuclear
weapon? North Korea, of course, has already
done so, and the ripple effects are beginning to
spread. Japan’s recent election to supreme power
of a leader who has promised to rewrite that
country’s constitution to support increased armed
forces—and, possibly, even nuclear weapons—
may well alter the delicate balance of fear in
Northeast Asia fundamentally and rapidly. Also,
in the background, at least for now, Sino-
Taiwanese tensions continue to flare, as do tensions
between India and Pakistan, Pakistan and
Afghanistan, Venezuela and the United States,
and so on. Meanwhile, the world’s nonintervention
in Darfur troubles consciences from Europe
to America’s Bible Belt to its bastions of liberalism,
yet with no serious international forces on
offer, the bloodletting will probably, tragically,
continue unabated.

And as bad as things are in Iraq today, they could
get worse. What would happen if the key Shiite
figure, Ali al Sistani, were to die? If another
major attack on the scale of the Golden Mosque
bombing hit either side (or, perhaps, both sides at
Bridging the Foreign Policy Divide
Frederick W. Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, specializing in defense transformation, the defense
budget, and defense strategy and warfare. Previously he spent ten years as a professor of military history at the United StatesMilitary
Academy (West Point). Kagan’s 2006 book, Finding the Target: The Transformation of American Military Policy (Encounter Books), examines
the post-Vietnam development of US armed forces, particularly in structure and fundamental approach. Kagan was coauthor of an
influential January 2007 report, Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq, advocating an increased deployment.
Michael O’Hanlon is senior fellow and Sydney Stein Jr. Chair in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, where he specializes
in U S defense strategy, the use of military force, and homeland security. O’Hanlon is coauthor most recently of Hard Power:
the New Politics of National Security (Basic Books), a look at the sources of Democrats’ political vulnerability on national security
in recent decades and an agenda to correct it. He previously was an analyst with the Congressional Budget Office. Brookings’ Iraq
Index project, which he leads, is a regular feature on The New York Times Op-Ed page.
the same time)? Such deterioration might convince
many Americans that the war there truly
was lost—but the costs of reaching such a conclusion
would be enormous. Afghanistan is
somewhat more stable for the moment,
although a major Taliban offensive appears to
be in the offing.

Sound US grand strategy must proceed from
the recognition that, over the next few years
and decades, the world is going to be a very
unsettled and quite dangerous place, with Al
Qaeda and its associated groups as a subset of
a much larger set of worries. The only serious
response to this international environment is
to develop armed forces capable of protecting
America’s vital interests throughout this dangerous
time. Doing so requires a military capable
of a wide range of missions—including not
only deterrence of great power conflict in dealing
with potential hotspots in Korea, the
Taiwan Strait, and the Persian Gulf but also
associated with a variety of Special Forces
activities and stabilization operations. For
today’s US military, which already excels at
high technology and is increasingly focused on
re-learning the lost art of counterinsurgency,
this is first and foremost a question of finding
the resources to field a large-enough standing
Army and Marine Corps to handle personnelintensive
missions such as the ones now under
way in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Let us hope there will be no such large-scale
missions for a while. But preparing for the
possibility, while doing whatever we can at
this late hour to relieve the pressure on our
soldiers and Marines in ongoing operations, is
prudent. At worst, the only potential downside
to a major program to strengthen the military
is the possibility of spending a bit too
much money. Recent history shows no link
between having a larger military and its overuse;
indeed, Ronald Reagan’s time in office
was characterized by higher defense budgets
and yet much less use of the military, an outcome
for which we can hope in the coming
years, but hardly guarantee. While the authors
disagree between ourselves about proper
increases in the size and cost of the military
(with O’Hanlon preferring to hold defense to
roughly 4 percent of GDP and seeing ground
forces increase by a total of perhaps 100,000,
and Kagan willing to devote at least 5 percent
of GDP to defense as in the Reagan years and
increase the Army by at least 250,000), we
agree on the need to start expanding ground
force capabilities by at least 25,000 a year
immediately. Such a measure is not only prudent,
it is also badly overdue.