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January 24, 2006

Army Stretched To Breaking Point?

Before I dive into this topic, I'd like to thank the always gracious Ace of Spades HQ readers for their comments and courtesy. You always make me feel welcome here, and I appreciate that.

Also, big thanks to Ace for inviting me to guest blog, I am much obliged.

Anyway, if you dig what I write, you're always welcome to visit my blog, Garfield Ridge. The beer is free, cold and plentiful.

On to the story:

Stretched by frequent troop rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has become a "thin green line" that could snap unless relief comes soon, according to a study for the Pentagon.

Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer who wrote the report under a Pentagon contract, concluded that the Army cannot sustain the pace of troop deployments to Iraq long enough to break the back of the insurgency. He also suggested that the Pentagon's decision, announced in December, to begin reducing the force in Iraq this year was driven in part by a realization that the Army was overextended.

As evidence, Krepinevich points to the Army's 2005 recruiting slump β€” missing its recruiting goal for the first time since 1999 β€” and its decision to offer much bigger enlistment bonuses and other incentives.

"You really begin to wonder just how much stress and strain there is on the Army, how much longer it can continue," he said in an interview. He added that the Army is still a highly effective fighting force and is implementing a plan that will expand the number of combat brigades available for rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Full disclosure: I haven't seen this report, nor would I be in a position to see it in my job. Everything I write from here on out is my personal opinion only.

I'm intimately familiar with Krepinevich's work, however, having written about it at length on my blog. He's a fair analyst, but he's always had his fair share of axes to grind, so I'm curious to see which items he chose to emphasize in his latest analysis. I'm guessing his highlights don't quite sync up with the "doom and gloom" bits the Associated Press chooses to tout.

The basic question, of course, is whether the Iraq War is stressing the Army in such a way that affects its ability to win not only this war, but also the *next* war, wherever that may be.

In order to properly structure the Army, or any military service, the Pentagon has always had to deal with an enduring challenge: how to balancing threat assessments with available resources.

To the lay observer, the threat is obvious: Iraqi insurgents armed with roadside bombs. The responses seem similarly intuitive: more armor, better Humvees, better Arab linguists, etc.

I'm here to let everyone know that the lay observer is wrong.

The "threat" isn't Iraqi insurgents armed with roadside bombs. Oh, they are *one* threat, but they are not the only one. They're not the only one in Iraq, and they're not the only one worldwide. And they're not even likely the *greatest* threat we face. Hell, the greatest threat may not even be Al Qaeda.

Ask yourself, which does the Pentagon fear more: an Iraqi terrorist cel in Baghdad equipped with explosive mines, or an Iranian Army unit perched at the Straight of Hormuz equipped with several hundred cruise missiles? Or a *Chinese* Army unit armed with the same across from Taiwan and the East Pacific shipping lanes? And who has the nukes-- the one weapon that can instantly change all warfighting equations?

The lay observer would retort, "But we're at war in Iraq, we have to fight and win THAT war!" That statement, while correct, is incomplete-- because our military leaders have to balance risk. The worst day on the road to Baghdad International Airport pales in comparison to the worst possible day on the Korean Peninsula. As critical and necessary as it is to win the war in Iraq, as much as the Army wants to win this war, to focus all our efforts on that war to the exclusion of all other prudent measures is foolhardy, and ultimately invites attack from adversaries fully aware that the United States is tied down in the Middle East.

Don't believe me? Read this Insight piece from a couple of months back.

The overwhelming assessment by Asian officials, diplomats and analysts is that the U.S. military simply cannot defeat China. It has been an assessment relayed to U.S. government officials over the past few months by countries such as Australia, Japan and South Korea.
Gee, I wonder why anyone would ever think that? Could it perhaps be tied to how the United States is *still* fighting in Iraq, almost three years after the beginning of the war?

Tell me, how useful is an uparmored Humvee in facing Iranian cruise missiles and sea mines? What good will another 40,000 soldiers do against 2,000,000 Chinese? Explain that to me, please.

Of course, this threat assessment extends to all levels of military preparedness. Not just strategy, but operations, and tactics. If you're fighting a mobile war against a mechanized enemy, you don't need uparmored Humvees. If you're fighting a war against an enemy that can deny you access to the theater of operations, you don't want to depend upon heavy forces that require access to those vulnerable nodes. You also don't want to ignore your "kick down the door" forces, like the Air Force and the Navy.

For additional perspective, I covered many of these "threat assessment" points back in 2004 on my site.

So, what does all of this have to do with this Army study?

The Army *is* stretched thin. Everyone acknowledges that, the Pentagon and its critics alike. The question is, what do we do about it? Do we try to win the war with the force we currently have, with some modifications at the edges, or do we take an entirely different tack, and restructure the Army in order to combat the insurgency? Do we undergo wholesale changes in equipment, force structure, and manpower in order to fight and defeat this insurgency?

There are a few problems here. Again, there's that threat assessment-- we may be tailoring the Army to the war we have, but that might not be the gravest threat we face tomorrow, or even today. By radically changing the Army to win the war in Iraq as quickly and efficiently as possible is politically attractive. And I'm sure it could even save lives. But if saving hundreds of American lives in Iraq puts us at risk of losing tens of thousands of soldiers in East Asia, is that the right choice to make? It's a cold-hearted calculation foreign to the "feelings" crowd, but it's one that's made every day when forcerd to balance resources with risk.

There's also the matter of basic inaccuracy-- the Army *has* made a lot of changes along the way in this war, at all levels of the battlefield. Just because many of the changes are invisible to the lay observer does not mean they haven't been critical to our effort. The Army can be a frustrating bureaucracy, but they are not monolithic, nor are they inherently inflexible. Never forget that they are doing the best they can with what they have.

Finally, there's the issue of resources. We don't have the funding in order to do everything that we want. We also don't have the equipment, nor the time to develop new equipment. We don't have the luxury of training every soldier to have "Military Police" as their M.O.S. Secretary Rumsfeld's statement, that we "go to war with the Army we have" was the biggest "duh" statement in recent memory, at least to any informed analyst without a partisan axe to grind.

Most importantly, we don't have the *people* to do more. Absent a draft-- which is undesirable for many reasons too numerous to elaborate here-- the available recruiting pool will always be naturally limited. DoD wants smart soldiers, and more critically, *needs* smart soldiers given the complexity of modern technology and warfare. It's simple enough for a politician to wave the magic wand and say, "the Army needs 40,000 more deployable soldiers." It's another thing entirely to recruit, train and equip them. And, of course, extra soldiers may not even be the solution to your problems, either in Iraq, or in other theaters.

BTW, speaking of Secretary Rumsfeld, I enjoyed the following cheap shot in the A.P. story:

Krepinevich's analysis, while consistent with the conclusions of some outside the Bush administration, is in stark contrast with the public statements of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and senior Army officials.

Army Secretary Francis Harvey, for example, opened a Pentagon news conference last week by denying the Army was in trouble. "Today's Army is the most capable, best-trained, best-equipped and most experienced force our nation has fielded in well over a decade," he said, adding that recruiting has picked up.

Rumsfeld has argued that the experience of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has made the Army stronger, not weaker.

"The Army is probably as strong and capable as it ever has been in the history of this country," he said in an appearance at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington on Dec. 5. "They are more experienced, more capable, better equipped than ever before."

I call this a cheap shot because it is entirely possible-- indeed likely-- that the statements of Rumsfeld and the likes of Krepinevich are consistent with each other. Today's Army is the most experienced, most capable, and best equipped in American history. Simultaneously, today's Army is being severely stressed in the Global War on Terror. Then again, saying that today's Army is stressed doesn't quite capture things, as one would expect an Army at war to be stressed, duh. I wish one could ask General Eisenhower whether he thought the Army was "stressed" during the third year of World War II. I'm guessing his answer would have come with a colorful metaphor or two.

Ultimately, it's that World War II perspective that remains the deepest impediment between ignorance and understanding for the lay observer. 2006 isn't 1944. Mass armies can't be made at a whim, and even if they could, who would want them? In order to make *effective* armed forces, you need to spend a lot of money on them, and we've got ourselves a gold-plated Army today. I'm certain that more could be done with less-- just ask the Israelis-- but the United States Army has infinitely more roles and responsibilities than any other military service in the world today.

If America wanted a larger volunteer military, we could begin to build one tomorrow-- all it will cost is money (although a greater appeal to patriotism and duty would help). After all, twenty years ago, the volunteer Army during the Cold War was significantly larger than today, and drawn from a smaller population pool. Unfortunately, the Army we need today isn't the Army that we needed in 1986. Today's Army, whether fighting in Iraq or standing watch in Seoul, requires different skills, mastery of different tactics, and frankly, a whole lot more money per soldier to field. That said, even with fewer people, it's more powerful than that larger Army ever was. Of course, it's true that eventually less is simply less, but the studies from Krepinevich and others aside, I for one remain unconvinced that the Army has reached that point yet. The trend lines are not positive, but they don't yet appear to be critical, especially if we can begin withdrawals in force this year.

Bottom line? War is hard, folks.

This is a complex issue, requiring a sustained, intelligent debate that goes beyond the partisan soundbites everyone keeps getting fed, both by the politicians, as well as folks in the media. We owe that much to our soldiers.

This posting was made on my personal computer.

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posted by Dave From Garfield Ridge at 08:55 PM

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