- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 22, 2017

Manpower, not money, may prove a bigger challenge to President Trump’s hopes to rebuild what he calls a “hollowed-out” U.S. military.

While much of the debate over how the administration will pay for its ambitious defense buildup, an equally large question mark looms over whether Mr. Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis can find enough willing and able recruits to meet the demands for soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Trump called for a restoration of force levels across the services to numbers before a series of “sequestration” cuts to defense spending, including a 540,000-member Army, backed by a 350-ship Navy and an Air Force of 1,200 fighter aircraft.

The increases to the Navy and Air Force would likely result in a small uptick of 100,000 sailors and airmen combined, compared with the force levels sought in the Army and Marine Corps, Mark Cancian, senior international security adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Washington Times.

Between the proposed expansions of the Army and Marine Corps, Mr. Trump’s plan would fall hardest on the Marines, Mr. Cancian said.

Mr. Trump’s plan for the Army would put the service’s total force on par with troop levels at the height of the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the White House’s plan to boost the Marine Corps to 36 infantry battalions — more than 200,000 Marines — would put the service at force levels “not seen since Vietnam.”

“That would be quite a struggle,” he said.

One small sign of the challenge ahead came with the announcement this month that the Army was offering soldiers who have the option of leaving before October incentive bonuses of $10,000 or more to stay on for another 12 months. Those in high-demand fields also could be offered choice assignments or educational training if they stay.

The Army Times noted that the service is scrambling to meet the mandate of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, which says the active Army must have 476,000 soldiers in the next eight months — 16,000 more than the generals originally planned for.

“Is it dire? No. But we need more soldiers,” Army Sgt. Maj., Dan Dailey told the newspaper this month. “We need to do this pretty rapidly.”

Another challenge facing Mr. Trump’s plan is the lukewarm response from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to an expedited surge in the ranks.

Publicly and privately, the service chiefs have expressed wariness over the massive troop increases proposed in the Trump plan, Mr. Cancian said.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller have publicly stated that they would be willing to have a smaller troop increase and use the additional funds to repair aging weapon systems and procure newer ones for their arsenals, he said.

Gen. Milley has expressed a desire for a 490,000- to 500,000-member force, and Gen. Neller said a total force of 184,000 Marines would be adequate. If the Trump administration seeks to push troop increases on the services too quickly, it risks a politically dangerous fight with the military brass, said Mr. Cancian.

But retired Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, director of the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense, said Mr. Trump has an opportunity to address a readiness issue that has not received sufficient attention in recent years. Attracting and retaining capable recruits is among the “top one, two or three national security risks we are not talking about,” he said.

While hardware and high-tech weapons are critical, “quantity has a quality all its own” in ensuring U.S. forces have the capability to address national security threats around the globe, Gen. Spoehr said.

Dwindling pool?

Only 1.4 million Americans, or less than one-half of 1 percent of the country’s total population, are serving as active-duty members of the U.S. military, according to Defense Department statistics. Only 17 percent of all military-age Americans would be deemed physically “qualified military available” for service, according to the most recent assessment of possible military manpower by the nonprofit Center for Naval Analyses.

The pool of military recruits may be dwindling as the job market improves in the private tech and service sectors. Meshing those factors with the manpower goals required by the Trump administration’s defense buildup plan “is going to be a challenge,” said Mr. Spoehr.

Money also will be an issue for the Pentagon.

“You can’t do this on the cheap. You are going to have to grow into this thing,” he said. The Army in particular, he noted, can typically boost its force levels by an average of 10,000 troops per year.

Go faster than that, Mr. Spoehr said, and “you are going to make some bad decisions” regarding the quality of soldiers who are brought into the service.

These bad decisions came to the forefront during the troop surges in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr. Cancian noted.

“We just saw one of them be pardoned by the president,” he said, referring to Chelsea Manning, the transgender Army intelligence analyst convicted of leaking military secrets in 2010. President Obama commuted her sentence as one of his final official acts last week.

Manning was part of the wave of recruits brought into the armed forces as part of the Pentagon’s effort to maintain troop “surge” levels in Iraq and Afghanistan in the mid-2000s.

To avoid those mistakes, the Trump team at the Pentagon must focus on bringing in “capable manpower,” not just swelling the ranks of the armed forces with fresh recruits, said David Johnson, a senior national security fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.

“The issue will be how fast the [military] expansion will be” under Mr. Trump and Mr. Mattis, Mr. Johnson said. “The biggest challenge is we are not just looking for efficiency in the military, we are also looking for effectiveness in the military and the two are not necessary mutually exclusive.”

One option to ensure that balance is struck is to slow down the schedule for retirements of more experienced service members, Mr. Johnson said, noting that retaining those officers and senior enlisted members would ease the pressure on fresh recruits.

Mr. Spoehr agreed that slowing down the retirements of seasoned officers and senior enlisted service members could ease the manpower challenges: “That is a spigot you can turn on quite quickly,” he said.

The Pentagon could look to its reserve and guard units to take a larger role, Mr. Mattis, a retired Marine general, has said.

“It’s not just a strategic reserve anymore. It’s also an operational reserve,” he told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing this month.

The Obama administration sought to offset reductions in American military might by leaning on global defense alliances and proxy forces to battle extremist groups in places such as Syria, Iraq and Libya.

But that status quo of the Obama national security doctrine is in danger of buckling, as Washington faces renewed military threats from near-peer rivals such as Russia, China and Iran, Mr. Mattis told Congress.

“That’s just a reality when we’ve shrunk our military to the point we have yet not reduced our strategic obligations,” he told the Senate defense panel.

• Carlo Muñoz can be reached at cmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

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