- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 11, 2007

Near the end of his Wednesday night speech, President Bush announced his intention to “form a new bipartisan working group” that would “help strengthen our relationship with Congress.” Good idea. In a political environment characterized by increasingly intense partisan warfare over military action in Iraq, the president has found a defense issue on which both parties in both chambers of Congress will find common cause with the White House.

“We can begin,” the president suggested, “by working together to increase the size of the active Army and Marine Corps.” With the Congress on board, from liberal New York Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton to conservative California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter, the president must now follow through with a bold plan, which he should unveil next month in his fiscal 2008 budget.

The need to significantly increase the size of the Army and the Marine Corps should be beyond dispute. Consider the experience of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division. Several hours before the president’s speech, the division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team began deploying to Iraq. During the fourth year of the conflict, the division, which led the American assault on Baghdad in March 2003, is heading for its third year-long tour in Iraq. Its second deployment began in March 2005. In 2004, between its first and second visits to Iraq, the 3rd Infantry Division became one of the first of the Army’s 10 active-duty divisions to be totally converted into modular forces. The conversion represents a transformation that the Army considers to be its most extensive restructuring since World War II. A major goal of the transformational process is for active soldiers to be at home for two years after being deployed abroad for up to one year. Clearly, as the Army enters the home stretch of its modular transformation, the service is nowhere close to achieving this goal.

As recently as 1990, before the Cold War ended, the Army had nearly 20 active-duty divisions and 732,000 soldiers. By 2000, the Army had reduced itself to 10 active divisions and 482,000 soldiers, or 250,000 fewer than a decade earlier. Over the same period, the Marine Corps had declined from 197,000 Marines to 173,000. From 1990 to 2000, the Navy and the Air Force had experienced manpower reductions (35.6 and 33.5 percent, respectively) comparable to the Army’s (34.2 percent). Reductions of these magnitudes helped the United States to decrease its spending on national defense from 5.2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 1990 (itself down from 6.2 percent in 1986) to 3 percent (1999-2001). This year, including the forthcoming $100 billion supplemental for Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States will still spend only 4 percent of its GDP on defense. Under President Kennedy, before Vietnam, we spent 9.1 percent of GDP (1961-63) on defense.

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Army and the Marine Corps have carried out the vast majority of combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Active-duty forces have been stretched to the limit and appear to be approaching the breaking point, as many experts, including outgoing Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker, argue. The same is true for the Reserves. Current Army mobilization policies stipulate that soldiers in the National Guard and Reserves can only be involuntarily mobilized once — 24 months over five years. Today, fewer than 100,000 of the 522,000 members of the Army National Guard and Reserves are available to be mobilized; and many of them have to be assembled from different areas into “broken,” “non-cohesive” units for deployment overseas.

Since September 11, Congress has authorized the Pentagon to temporarily increase its active-duty forces by 30,000 troops, raising the total from 482,400 to 512,400. The increase was deemed temporary as the Army deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq amid its massive transformational process.

In the early stages of modular transformation, the Army planned to convert its existing 33 active-duty combat brigades into 43 brigade combat teams (BCTs). Officials seriously considered raising the total to 48 BCTs, whose combat personnel range from 3,300 soldiers in a dismounted infantry brigade to 3,700 soldiers in a heavy brigade (Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting vehicles) to 3,900 in a Stryker brigade (Stryker vehicles). The Army initially planned to have 34 modular combat brigades in the National Guard. Then, when the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) was released in February 2006 (the same month that Sunni jihadists destroyed the Shi’ites’ sacred Golden Dome Mosque in Samarra, unleashing the widespread, escalating sectarian strife that has bordered on civil war ever since), the Pentagon reduced its planned BCTs to 42 for active-duty soldiers and 28 for the Guard. Incomprehensibly, the QDR announced plans to “stabilize the Army’s end strength at 482,400 active” soldiers by 2011.

In an outbreak of sanity inside the Pentagon, Gen. Schoomaker testified last month that the “temporary” 30,000 soldiers should become permanent and that the Army’s active force should then rise by 7,000 a year. That’s a movement in the right direction. Surely the president can raise the annual increase significantly above 7,000, beginning with the release of his 2008 budget early next month. The Marine Corps must also be substantially increased.

In future editorials we will consider both the magnitude and costs of such expansions. But it is of central importance that the budget increases necessary for such expansions not be taken out of the budgets of the Navy or Air Force. Each branch of our services must be fully funded at the level necessary for them to carry out all their missions. The pie doesn’t need to be sliced differently. It needs to be bigger.

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