- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 9, 2007

My Army is breaking for the third time in my life in Iraqand Afghanistan. I was a young captain the first time it happened in 1972. Over-commitment in Vietnam had drained the Army of its non-commissioned officers. After they left, wounded, dead or disgusted, the barracks became a battleground for a war between officers and drug-addled criminals who pretended to be soldiers. I was a major in 1979 when the nation’s neglect created the “Hollow Army” that proved so inept during the failed Iranian hostage rescue attempt, Desert One, that a huge infusion of money had to be added to the Army’s budget to keep it from total collapse.

There simply is no way to sugar-coat the fact that a prosperous and empathetic nation like mine has willingly allowed one of its most essential institutions to come close to death on three occasions. Why? One reason is that my Army has been underfunded for more than half a century.

The Army’s slice of the total defense budget has remained steady at about a quarter on the dollar since the Korean War.

Today, the Air Force receives 36 percent of the weapons-buying budget, the Navy 33 percent, the Army 16 percent and defense agencies 15 percent. Yet except for the 1999 Balkan war, soldiers and marines have done virtually all of the killing and dying since the end of World War II. The nation hasn’t fought a sea battle since the defeat of the Japanese fleet at Leyte Gulf in 1944 and hasn’t faced any serious threat from the air since the Linebacker II bombing operation against North Vietnam in 1972.

The Air Force and Navy have more first-line fighter aircraft costing between 50 million and 450 million apiece than the Army and Marine Corps have infantry squads. Since the end of the Cold War the air services have spent more than $1.3 trillion on new airplanes (that’s trillion with a “t”). The return on this investment has been impressive. American fighter aircraft, in air-to-air combat against mostly Arab air forces, have established an impressive “exchange ratio” of 200 enemy shoot-downs for every loss suffered. Thanks to these expenditures, the U.S. Air Force and Navy have no peer now nor any in the foreseeable future.

The ground services, on the other hand, received less than one-fifth of the new equipment budget given to aircraft production and the consequences can be seen every night on network news. The “exchange ratio” in Iraq and Afghanistan for ground forces in close combat is about one American for every six enemy killed. I can’t simply follow the fashion and blame Donald Rumsfeld for the Army’s pending third meltdown. This administration shares some of the blame, to be sure. But the fault really rests with our society’s approach to war and blame goes back a long way beginning, curiously, with one of our own.

Excessive Korean War casualties convinced President Eisenhower to fight the Cold War with firepower rather than manpower. All of his successors followed suit, each devising a war-winning version of shock-and-awe built principally around airpower. All of these strategies would have worked splendidly except for the tiresome fact that the enemy had a vote. Ho Chi Minh got it right: “They will kill many of us,” he prophesized in 1964. “We will kill a few of them but they will tire of it first.” The idea is not to shoot down our Air Force or sink our Navy but to kill our soldiers and Marines. Al Qaeda is simply following Uncle Ho’s philosophy, so far with great success.

So, if our vulnerability is dead Americans, both empathy and strategic necessity would dictate that we spend more money to keep alive those most likely to die. So far no administration has heeded this simple dictum. Now the president has put the decision on how much to grow the Army in Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ court. Mr. Gates has two choices: one is to increase the defense budget in order to allocate more money to the ground services. Burgeoning budget deficits make this a tough sell. Option two is to re-slice the pie and, for the first time in half a century, ask the Air Force and Navy to live with less in order for the Army (and the Marine Corps) to have more.

This year the administration has raised the Army’s share of the budget — a good first step. But the solution is to shift budgeting priorities over the long term. I hope that Mr. Gates heeds the lessons of history and concludes that land warfare is no longer the cheap alternative. He must make some hard decisions very soon. A great many ground soldiers serving in this war are watching to see if he makes the right ones.

Retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales is a former commander of the Army War College.

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