Remember the optimism that greeted the new millennium? Communism was a fading memory, U.S. air power had just won a war in the Balkans, and threats to national security seemed so modest that a new administration in Washington decided to take some risks to transform America’s military into an information-age force. Back then, the active-duty component of the Army — the full-time, professional warfighters — totaled 482,000 soldiers. That was way down from the 732,000 soldiers filling the ranks at the end of the Cold War, but overseas challenges requiring major troop deployments had become so scarce that the Bush Administration considered eliminating two more of the Army’s ten active divisions.
That golden age when philosophers thought history might have ended and armchair strategists thought air power could police the world is now long gone. Like most golden ages, it was short-lived. The first decade of the new millennium will be remembered for 9-11, the launching of a global war on terror, and the grinding counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq. So of course, the Army has gotten much bigger as new threats requiring ground forces have arisen, right?
Wrong. The active-duty Army today numbers 507,000 soldiers, barely five percent bigger than it was before 9-11. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been fought by mobilizing reserves and demanding much, much more from each member of the active-duty force. If the Iraq operation had been concluded quickly, as the Bush Administration originally forecast, that would have been enough. But the war has now been going on for nearly four years with no end in sight, and the Army is running out of options for fielding an adequate force. Although 186,000 members of the Army National Guard and 164,000 members of the Army Reserve have been called up since 9-11, those forces are largely tapped out. As Ann Scott Tyson reported in the Washington Post on December 15, only 90,000 members of the Army Guard and Reserve (out of 522,000) are still eligible for mobilization under current personnel policies.
In the near term, the Army has little choice but to request that personnel policies be adjusted to allow greater access to the Guard and Reserve (as Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker proposed last week). But that is a stop-gap. Over the longer term, it is obvious the nation needs a bigger active-duty Army. Not just the 20,000-30,000 increment that might have been useful in supporting a surge of troops to stabilize Baghdad, but an increase sizable enough so the Army can do other things at the same time — like cope with a new outbreak of violence in Afghanistan or Korea or the Balkans. The right number is probably in the 80,000-100,000 troop range, which would add $10-12 billion in personnel costs to the Army’s annual budget, and additional billions for equipment and infrastructure.
Neither of us likes recommending this increase. We have both resisted increasing the size of the Army in the past. But unless the American people are prepared to accept defeat in Iraq and the broader war on terror, we see no alternative to growing the size of the Army, because the nation is likely to be at war for a long time to come. Congress acknowledged that fact when it authorized an increase in active-duty headcount to 512,000 after 9-11, but given the slow pace of progress in Iraq, that isn’t going to be enough. The nation needs an active-duty Army of 600,000 well-equipped soldiers. And we shouldn’t fool ourselves that the money for that increase can come from the Air Force or Navy Departments, which have their own problems coping with terrorism and an aging arsenal. The defense budget will have to rise to a level that matches the threat until the war on terror is won.
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