The Army and Marine Corps are planning to ask incoming Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Congress to approve permanent increases in personnel, as senior officials in both services assert that the nation's global military strategy has outstripped their resources.
In addition, the Army will press hard for "full access" to the 346,000-strong Army National Guard and the 196,000-strong Army Reserves by asking Gates to take the politically sensitive step of easing the Pentagon restrictions on the frequency and duration of involuntary call-ups for reservists, according to two senior Army officials.
The push for more ground troops comes as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have sharply decreased the readiness of Army and Marine Corps units rotating back to the United States, compromising the ability of U.S. ground forces to respond to other potential conflicts around the world.
"The Army has configured itself to sustain the effort in Iraq and, to a lesser degree, in Afghanistan. Beyond that, you've got some problems," said one of the senior Army officials. "Right now, the strategy exceeds the capability of the Army and Marines." This official and others interviewed for this report spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly about the matter.
The Army, which has 507,000 active-duty soldiers, wants Congress to permanently fund an "end strength," or manpower, of at least 512,000 soldiers, the Army officials said. The Army wants the additional soldiers to be paid for not through wartime supplemental spending bills but in the defense budget, which now covers only 482,000 soldiers.
The Marine Corps, with 180,000 active-duty Marines, seeks to grow by several thousand, including the likely addition of three new infantry battalions. "We need to be bigger. The question is how big do we need to be and how do we get there," a senior Marine Corps official said.
At least two-thirds of Army units in the United States today are rated as not ready to deploy, as well as lacking in manpower, training and -- most critically -- equipment, according to senior U.S. officials and the Iraq Study Group report. The two ground services estimate that they will need $18 billion a year to repair, replace and upgrade destroyed and worn-out equipment.
If another crisis were to erupt requiring a large number of U.S. ground troops, the Army's plan would be to freeze its forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and divert to the new conflict the U.S.-based combat brigade that is first in line to deploy.
Beyond that, however, the Army would have to cobble together war-depleted units to form complete ones to dispatch to the new conflict -- at the risk of lost time, unit cohesion and preparedness, senior Army officials said. Moreover, the number of Army and Marine combat units available for an emergency would be limited to about half that of four years ago, experts said, unless the difficult decision to pull forces out of Iraq were made.
‘Equipment and personnel shortfalls’
"We are concerned about gross readiness . . . and ending equipment and personnel shortfalls," said a senior Marine Corps official. The official added that Marine readiness has dropped and that the Corps is unable to fulfill many planned missions for the fight against terrorism.
Senior Pentagon officials stress that the U.S. military has ample air and naval power that could respond immediately to possible contingencies in North Korea, Iran or the Taiwan Strait.
"If you had to go fight another war someplace that somebody sprung upon us, you would keep the people who are currently employed doing what they're doing, and you would use the vast part of the U.S. armed forces that is at home station, to include the enormous strength of our Air Force and our Navy, against the new threat," Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a briefing last month.
But if the conflict were to require a significant number of ground troops -- as in some scenarios such as the disintegration of Pakistan -- Army and Marine Corps officials made clear that they would have to scramble to provide them. "Is it the way we'd want to do it? No. Would it be ugly as hell? Yes," said one of the senior Army officials. "But," he added, "we could get it done."
According to Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East, the Army and Marine Corps today cannot sustain even a modest increase of 20,000 troops in Iraq. U.S. commanders for Afghanistan have asked for more troops but have not received them, noted the Iraq Study Group report, which called it "critical" for the United States to provide more military support for Afghanistan.
"We are facing more operational risk than we have for many, many years," said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a member of the Armed Services Committee. He called it "shocking and scandalous" that two-thirds of Army units are rated "non-deployable." He said the country has not faced such a readiness crisis since the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
The U.S. military has more than 140,000 troops in Iraq and 20,000 in Afghanistan, including 17 of the Army's 36 available active-duty combat brigades. When Army and Marine Corps combat units return from the war zone, they immediately lose large numbers of experienced troops and leaders who either leave the force, go to school or other assignments, or switch to different units.
The depletion of returning units is so severe that the Marines refer to this phase as the "post-deployment death spiral." Army officials describe it as a process of breaking apart units and rebuilding them "just in time" to deploy again.
Cuts in training time
Training time for active-duty Army and Marine combat units is only half what it should be because they are spending about the same amount of time in war zones as at home -- in contrast to the desired ratio of spending twice as much time at home as on deployment. And the training tends to focus on counterinsurgency skills for Iraq and Afghanistan, causing an erosion in conventional land-warfare capabilities, which could be required for North Korea or Iran, officials say.
If a conflict with North Korea or Iran were to break out and demand a medium to large ground force, the Army would be forced to respond with whatever it had available.
The U.S. military today could cobble together two or three divisions in an emergency -- compared with as many as six in 2001 -- not enough to carry out major operations such as overthrowing the Iranian government. "That's the kind of extreme scenario that could cripple us," said Michael E. O'Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution.
Unable to count on a significant troop withdrawal from Iraq, the Army seeks to ease the manpower strain by accelerating plans to have 70 active-duty and National Guard combat brigades available for rotations by 2011. Next year, for example, the Army intends to bring two brigades on a training mission back into rotation. It is investing $36 billion in Guard equipment in anticipation of heavier use of the Guard.