President Bush only acceded to a jump in the number of U.S. Army and Marine Corps ground troops after intense pressure from senior officers, active and retired, including the Joint Chiefs, defense sources said.
Mr. Bush, who announced Wednesday that he will increase an active force that now stands at 1.4 million personnel, this month heard about the stressed Army and Marines Corps from a group of retired officers at the Pentagon.
But the deal-clincher came when he traveled to the Pentagon and met with the six-member Joint Chiefs inside the super-secret "tank."
There, the commander in chief listened to a request for more combat forces from Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, and Gen. James T. Conway, the Marine commandant, said defense sources briefed on the meeting.
The Army, with a little more than 500,000 active soldiers, is pulling the brunt of the war on terror both in Afghanistan and Iraq. Army combat brigade teams only receive about a 13-month home-base stay before deploying again. What's more, the Army is fast wearing out its inventory of armored vehicles and weapons and needs replacements fast, Gen. Schoomaker has said.
The Marines, who patrol the al Qaeda-infested al Anbar province, west of Baghdad, send 1st and 2nd expeditionary forces on seven-month rotations. Marine officers have complained of insufficient troop numbers to control the Sunni Muslim province.
The messages on a larger armed forces, but not necessarily a troop increase for Iraq, came in rapid succession earlier this month. On Dec. 11, Mr. Bush welcomed to the White House two outside military analysts and three retired officers, including former Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a critic of former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Gen. McCaffrey said in a previous interview that the Army should be increased by 80,000 soldiers.
"We have inadequate Army and Marine Corps combat power to sustain this level of deployment," said Gen. McCaffrey, who led the 24th Infantry Division in Desert Storm.
Two days after he met with the retired generals, Mr. Bush went to the Pentagon and later called the discussion "candid." A day later, Gen. Schoomaker told a blue-ribbon commission on the Guard and Reserve that the Army "will break" unless the active force is bumped up. He suggested 6,000 more soldiers per year.
Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee have endorsed an increase of 11,000 Army soldiers, to 523,000, and 8,000 more Marines, to 187,000. On a trip to Iraq this week, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates did not endorse any specific numbers.
Gen. Schoomaker and Mr. Rumsfeld's staff did not see eye to eye on the size of a budget increases needed to replace damaged equipment in a process called "reset."
"Schoomaker wants everything replaced so every unit and every soldier is equipped to the max," said an aide.
The good news for the president is that the Joint Chiefs do not favor proposals from Democrats to remove all 135,000 troops immediately from Iraq or to bring them out in a preset timeline. A defense source also said the chiefs "are cool at best" to the Iraq Study Group proposal to have virtually all land combat forces out of Iraq by early 2008, if conditions permit.
"I think one of the most important things the new secretary of defense has to do is realize we are badly underfunding the Department of Defense for the missions we have given them," said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, an Iraq war hawk. "We are going to have to increase the defense budget significantly."
The Pentagon is spending about $460 billion annually, plus an expected $170 billion more this fiscal year to fund the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
"The president is not only going to have to do an Iraq strategy, he is going to have to do a national strategy for the whole military," Gen. McInerney said. "We cannot continue like we are going now."
Mr. Bush's decision to ask Congress for a bigger Army and Marine Corps is a break from the policy of Mr. Rumsfeld. Instead of seeking a permanently larger Army, he exercised his legal authority to temporarily boost the Army by up to 30,000 soldiers.