There are at least two major headlines from yesterday's interview between President Bush and the Washington Post. In a wide-ranging discussion, Mr. Bush outlined plans for expanding our active duty military forces, and admitted for the first time that "we're not winning" in Iraq.
We'll tackle President Bush's assessment of the war in a separate post. While that will get most of the headlines, the big news (from a military perspective), is President's plan to add another 70,000 personnel to active duty units, primarily in the Army and the U.S. Marine Corps. While Mr. Bush offered no specifics during the interview, he has reportedly instructed his new Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, to prepare a plan for expanding active duty forces, hard-pressed to sustain on-going deployments and operations in the global War on Terror.
The decision to add more troops to the military represents a significant policy shift for President Bush. Running for re-election in 2004, he rejected a proposal from Democratic candidate John Kerry to expand the military for 40,000 personnel. More recently, administration officials have attempted to increase the number of combat forces by "outsourcing" support functions to civilian contractors, and attempting to entice former members of the Navy and Air Force (which are still downsizing), to join the Army and Marine Corps.
Mr. Bush's announcement of the expansion plan indicates that the Pentagon has hit something of a wall in those efforts. The inter-service transfer program (nicknamed Blue to Green) has been something of a bust. At one point, DoD hoped to persuade more than 10,000 former airmen and sailors to join the Army; so far, less than 2,000 have made the switch. The Fiscal Year 2006 goal for inter-service transfers was only 200; while that target was met, the numbers suggest that expectations for Blue to Green have been greatly tempered, and the program will never yield significant numbers of new soldiers.
There are also limits to the outsourcing option. A civilian contractor, handling security or transportation duties in Iraq, typically earns $100,000 a year--or more--about five times the salary of a buck private performing the same chores. Beyond that, there's the problem of retaining trained personnel and keeping them happy. The Air Force learned a hard lesson about outsourcing when it turned over aircraft maintenance functions to a civilian contractor at pilot training bases in the late 1990s. At Columbus AFB, MS, the newly-hired civilian mechanics promptly staged a wildcat strike against the contractor, shutting down the training mission at a time when the service was short of pilots. So far, there haven't been any labor actions in the combat zone, but outsourcing doesn't always produce the cost or labor savings that are usually promised.
President Bush has apparently been told that outsourcing and the reassignment/transfer of existing personnel have reached their limits, prompting the call for additional troops. That plan will (obviously) address a couple of key concerns in the war against Islamofacism. First, it will give commanders (and the commander-in-chief) greater flexibility in "surging" combat deployments to meet changing threats, such as the security situation in Baghdad. Secondly--and most importantly--it will take some of the burden off existing units and personnel, many of whom have completed at least two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But adding more soldiers and Marines is a difficult task, particularly in the era of an all-volunteer military. The biggest (and most obvious obstacle) is finding enough young men and women to fill additional units, and keeping them in uniform. After hitting a rough patch in 2005, recruiting efforts for the Army and Marine Corps are back on track, and both services are meeting, even exceeding, their enlistment quotas. Increasing the number of Army brigades and Marine regiments will put increased pressure on recruiters to meet higher recruiting goals, and possibly lower standards. Currently, the Army must attract about 80,000 new soldiers a year, to sustain an active duty force of about 495,000.
Let's say the Bush Administration wants to add another 50,000 personnel to the Army, enough for another 12-15 brigades. That would raise recruiting quotas by roughly 10%, and require that recruiters sign up another 8,000 soldiers a year. Is that target sustainable amid the steady drumbeat of bad news from Iraq? If current recruiting trends are any indication, the answer is probably "yes," but meeting those goals will require more bonus money and education incentives. Personnel costs already account for roughly half the military budget. In an era of tightening defense budgets, there are legitimate questions about how much more the Pentagon can spend to bring more people into the service.
Beyond that, there's the question of what you do with those young men and women once they sign up. To relieve pressure on existing units, the military must, at some point, begin to organize new companies, battalions and brigades. Even with a cadre of experienced officers and NCOs from existing formations, those units won't be ready for combat for at least a couple of years, after receiving the required resources to "fill out" their table of organization and equipment (TO&E). Given the time--and money--required for recruiting, training and equipping tasks, many of the new units wouldn't arrive in the field until the 2010-2011 timeframe, at the earliest. That would be a welcome development, but it does little to provide short-term relief to existing units.
Mr. Bush's proposal acknowledges something we've been sayaing all along: one of our biggest challenges in fighting the War on Terror is the force structure imposed on the White House and Pentagon by previous administrations. Twenty years ago, the Army had 18 active duty divisions; today, that number is 10. The troop strength from those "missing" divisions is about 160,000--roughly the same number we would supposedly need to secure Iraq. Most of those units were cut during the Bush #41 administration (two divisions) and Bill Clinton's tenure in the White House, when another four divisions were inactivated. The record shows that those cuts received bi-partisan support in Congress, and there was nary a peep from the Pentagon, either.
Obviously, no one envisioned the 9-11 attacks and simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan back in 1996. But in hindsight, political and military leaders were a little too anxious to cut our ground forces. The politicians kept talking about a peace dividend and more money for other programs, while the generals were looking for ways to fund the next generation of high-tech weapons programs. In that environment, Army and Marine ground units were a convenient target for the chopping block, because they're labor-intensive and expensive to equip, train and maintain. Never mind that those formations might be needed somewhere down the road. Many of the politicians and retired generals now calling for more troops were conspiciously silent 10 years ago, when our ground forces were gutted. Hypocrisy? You be the judge.
By pushing for an increase in the size of our ground forces, Mr. Bush is doing the right thing. We only wish he'd done this sooner, given the current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. And better yet, we wish our political and military leaders of the past--the same ones now cited for their "wisdom"--had exercised better judgment when they eliminated all those expensive ground units after the Cold War.
As for the "other" manpower option--bringing back the draft--the answer is still a resounding "no."