While Some Welcome Additional Troops, Equipment and Retention Rates Could Suffer

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

January 29, 2007

Like a poker player pushing all his chips to the table, President George W. Bush has committed the U.S. military to a bigger presence in Iraq for the rest of his presidency. However one views it, the decision by the commander in chief is a reality that the military will have to cope with for at least the next two years, and perhaps well beyond. Its impact on morale and equipment will be significant.

The early reports from the field are that many troops see the added numbers as a positive, because the force in Iraq has been stretched thin and unable to accomplish its varied responsibilities. However, many also worry that the additional numbers, just over 20,000, are still well below the 35,000 to 120,000 recommended by the original proponents of the strategy. Some soldiers are joking the numbers being sent are “JEL,” just enough to lose, when you calculate the ratio of troops available to the tasks they will be required to perform in their expanded mission.

The key element in the surge strategy is a likely confrontation with the Mehdi Army, a coalition of radical Shia gangs and paramilitaries led by the cleric Muqtada al Sadr. The Mehdi Army has been at the center of the sectarian conflict, but its base of operations in the Sadr City neighborhoods of Baghdad has been a no-go area for U.S. operations due to political restrictions.

The Mehdi Army has frequently baited U.S. patrols and tried to lure them into ambushes. Military officers are clear that this will change and the gloves are soon coming off. Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, for example, stated in a Jan. 8 press conference in Baghdad that the difference this time vs, past troop buildups is that troops will also be going into Shia areas in Bagdad, and will stay there. The reworked strategy toward the death squads and ending al Sadr’s free pass will be popular among the troops.

However, the long-term consequences of the surge on force morale weigh in an opposite direction. Most of the initial surge will come not from new troops being sent into Iraq, but by keeping troops currently there longer than they were told. Army troops originally were going to be there 12 months. Now, many will be there 16 months. For Marines, their deployments will be extended from seven to 12 months.

For many of the troops, this will be their third or more deployment, making this extension even more raw for them, and especially their spouses and children who were expecting them home earlier. A concern in our largely married military is the effect of such repeated deployments on families and the corresponding steady rise in divorce rates.

Our troops are strong and have grown used to such extensions. They won’t be happy about them, but they will digest the news and move on. Where the issue becomes more of a concern is in the follow-up deployment waves that start a half year from now. The Pentagon has announced that it will source these units by abandoning its old policy of limiting Reserve and National Guard call-ups to 24 months cumulative. Calling-up units past this limit is contrary to the understanding under which they enlisted. Also, historically, activated Reserve units would prepare for six months and then deploy for 12 months, like regular units.

As a sop to the change in the rules, the new policy will squeeze the training, deployment and demobilization into a maximum of 12 months. This new expedited program will raise concerns among troops and their families that it risks sending in unprepared units. We can also expect to hear from officers disillusioned that this move is contrary to the lessons of counterinsurgency. In waging war at the neighborhood level, troops need time to build local ties, relationships and knowledge, making short-term drop-ins and frequent turnover counterproductive.

A key question soldiers ask is whether there will be civilian follow-up to the troop surge. No one within the chain of command believes that the conflict can be won through purely military means. But having already made multiple deployments, many troops are patrolling the same streets over and again, with no one else showing up to hand them over to.

President Bush announced that this time, the Iraqi government would be ready to take over. To ensure that, the United States will expand aid activities, including doubling the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT). But when you peel this announcement back, it becomes clear there isn’t a massive follow-up plan equal to the commitments.

No one believes the Iraqi government is ready to run functional programs; indeed, the whole reason for the surge is to meet this incapacity. While the doubling of PRTs sounds impressive, it actually comes out to just over 150 civilians, a drop in the bucket for what is really required.

If there is no Iraqi and American civilian surge synchronized with the anticipated military operations and prepared to execute its responsibilities, the impact will be sour. The realization that, once again, the troops are mainly on their own could prove perhaps even more negative than time away from families.

The effect of the surge also turns on equipment and readiness. The additional numbers being sent are more of a “surge light,” as they won’t increase U.S. forces past their high point of 2005. So, our forces will not lack for basic equipment, as much of the extra was stored in theater. As the numbers start to grow again, don’t expect to hear a repeat of complaints heard in 2004 about troops showing up to battle without flak vests or the like.

Instead, where the added numbers will bear down is certain shortages of newer, more specialized equipment designed for counterinsurgency. These include electronic jammers that disrupt signals sent by insurgents to explode improvised explosive devices, or vehicles like the Cougar or the M117, which, unlike the Humvee, are designed to protect against mines and explosives.

Wide gaps do not exist now, as the newest equipment was already being surged forward to the troops in Iraq rather than being distributed among units back home. Bnless there is an accompanying logistical and procurement surge, though, the added numbers will create unmet needs and grind on troops who feel they are being deployed without the best tools for the task.

For example, the Army’s 15-ton M117 is considered a better vehicle than the Humvee for patrols and convoy escort jobs because its V-shaped hull deflects explosions away from passengers. The chances of a soldier surviving an attack on such vehicles are significantly higher than for those riding in Humvees, and the soldiers know it.

The maker, Textron, is now building them at a rate of 48 per month under a contract to produce 1,250. But the Army now says it requires 2,600. Likewise, more than 860 armored personnel carriers that have been damaged in the war are stacked-up in Army repair depots. These depots had been running at half capacity due to Pentagon funding decisions.

How could such gaps occur despite the literally hundreds of billions in spending? First, the realization that we would be fighting a prolonged insurgency in Iraq took too long to sink in at the Pentagon, and the necessary purchasing and production decisions were delayed. For example, the order for the new M117s wasn’t sent in until more than a year into the insurgency.

Second, there has been an expectation that equipment acquisitions for U.S. forces would be trending downward in Iraq over the next few years, not upward. So the scale of purchasing for equipment acquisitions did not plan for surge and its higher force numbers.

Finally, the Pentagon arguably misused the budget supplementals Congress provided to cover its wartime needs. Instead, it often plugged in long-range transformation projects that it couldn’t get covered in the regular budget.

As we weigh the impact of the surge, it is clear that the issues of morale and equipment will not prevent the deployments from moving forward or our forces from fighting effectively. The soldiers and Marines who are called upon will follow orders and deploy. They will serve bravely and capably. They go into this surge courageously, knowing that they will fight and many will die.

What we must be concerned about is the impact on the military down the road. Retention rates have not yet reached a crisis point, but the question of re-enlistment was always predicated on the guarantees and commitments made to the troops by senior civilian and military leadership—creating expectations of a set number of deployments of fixed duration, and the best possible support and equipment.

A fear voiced by military officers is of an increasing number of troops voting with their feet in the years ahead because of unmet expectations and the sense that there are only so many times one can deploy and redeploy.

This fear grows as more of the assurances made to the troops are set aside. The more the force feels that promises to it have been broken, the more we must worry that the force itself becomes broken.