More than any other part of the military, the US Army has borne the brunt of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving it stretched to the breaking point.
By Shaun Waterman / Washington for ISN Security Watch / 20/05/08
In almost any conflict, those directly impacted by the fighting pay the greatest price. The war in Iraq has claimed the lives of more than 4,000 US service personnel. The number of Iraqi civilians killed remains shamefully unknown, although it is certainly in the hundreds of thousands. But in this column I want to address the direct impact of the fighting on an institution: the US Army.
More than any other part of the US military, the army has borne the brunt of the war, leaving it stretched to what some consider breaking point. “There aren’t enough ground forces to fight another major engagement,” Lawrence Korb, a former senior Pentagon official now at the left -leaning Center for American Progress, told ISN Security Watch. “The Army is barely able to maintain its obligations in Iraq and Afghanistan, let alone take part in another big conflict.”
In recent statements, senior US military officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have acknowledged that if another major regional war were to break out, US forces would have to lean heavily on naval and air power. “The United States has ample and untapped combat power in our naval and air forces, with the capacity to defeat any, repeat any, adversary who committed an act of aggression, whether in the Persian Gulf, on the Korean Peninsula, or in the Straits of Taiwan,” the statements read.
“There is a risk,” in the commitment of land forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, “but it is a prudent and manageable one.” About half of the Army’s 43 combat brigades – the 3,500-strong units which actually do the fighting in any war – are in Iraq and Afghanistan at the moment, on deployments that currently last 15 months. But the rest have either just returned from a deployment, or are gearing up to go back. “For every year in a combat zone, [deployed soldiers] are supposed to get two years at home” to repair and replace equipment, rest up and re-train, said Korb. “At the moment its one year” for a 15-month deployment.
Michelle Flournoy, another former senior civilian official at the Pentagon, who now heads up the centrist Center for a New American Security, agreed that “We don’t have much of a ready reserve.” Nonetheless, she was slightly more sanguine about the ability to deploy US ground forces in a potential new conflict. “You could divert brigades going to Iraq or Afghanistan” to the new theater, she said, adding that although National Guard and Army Reserve forces had been used extensively in both conflicts, they had been “selectively mobilized,” she told ISN Security Watch.
Were US forces to become embroiled in a second major war, she said, “You’d probably see a full-scale mobilization” of the guard and reserve, adding that getting the additional forces to the front would require in many cases equipping and training them, which would take “anything from a few months to very many months.” But she acknowledged that “the magnitude and duration of the conflict has tested the all-volunteer force in an unprecedented way.” She said the stress was being felt “on personnel, equipment and families.”
The huge costs of replacing or repairing war-damaged equipment and caring for injured veterans will be a drain on resources for years to come. Korb, whose says his charge when he was appointed to the Pentagon by president Ronald Reagan was to save the all-volunteer force, added that the stress could also be seen in the problems Army leaders were having recruiting and retaining high quality individuals. “They have had to lower their standards,” he said, both for the level of education applicants must have, for scores on admission tests and in the number of waivers that have to be issued to allow individualswith criminal records to enlist.
“Since the country has turned against the war,” he said, “opinion formers, teachers, parents, leaders, what have you, they are not motivating young people to join up.” At the same time, he said, graduates of the Army’s elite officer training academy at West Point, NY, were leaving in unprecedented numbers. By January 2008, he said, more than half of the class of 2000 and 46 percent of the class of 2001 had left the service. “We’re talking about captains,” he said, calling them the backbone of the force.
He acknowledged that the Marines, the other ground fighting force of the US military, was not having problems meeting its recruiting goals. “They have a special kudos,” he said, adding that they also served seven-month deployments, with seven months between them. Korb said the army hoped to be able to return to one-year deployments if and when the number of combat brigades in Iraq was cut to 15, a move currently slated to happen later this year.
But the bottom line, he said, was that there needed to be a big increase in so-called end-strength, the number of troops the US military could deploy into conflict. “That’s expensive,” he said. He noted that Congress continued to provide all the funding the military asked for, and to allow the money to be appropriated in emergency supplemental bills, which are not subject to usual federal budgetary rules. Korb said the Democrats, since they took control of Congress in 2007, had at least insisted that the supplemental bills be presented at the same time as the regular budget, so that they could be subject to the same scrutiny, rather than being rushed through at the last minute. “In the sixth year of a war, you should know how much it’s costing you,” he said.
Will the spending actually gets a closer look-over? The Senate is this week taking up just such a supplemental bill, so we shall see. Despite the apparent indulgence of Congress, Flournoy said the US military faced a budgetary “perfect storm” – domestic political and economic pressures on spending as the country slipped into recession; “enormous O&M [operations and maintenance] costs” of repairing and replacing equipment lost or damaged in the war; “skyrocketing personnel costs,” both for recruitment and retention, and for health-care; and “procurement spending going through the roof.” “There are some very tough choices ahead,” she said.
Gates said recently that big ticket procurement programs would have to show their relevance to the kind of wars – long-term, low-intensity – the US military found itself having to fight right now. “I believe that any major weapons program, in order to remain viable, will have to show some utility and relevance to the kind of irregular campaigns that, as I mentioned, are most likely to engage America’s military in coming decades,” Gates said. [Go here for the article at Antiwar News.]
Shaun Waterman is a national security reporter based in Washington DC. His column, “Costs of War,” appears every other Tuesday.