U.S. Ground Forces, Broken or Just Bent?

by JINSA Research Associate Allison Krant.

by JINSA Research Associate Allison Krant.

“As you know, you go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time,” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously remarked to soldiers in Kuwait about to deploy to Iraq during a “town hall” meeting on December 8, 2004. Those soldiers were concerned about a lack of vehicles strong enough to withstand roadside bomb attacks. Today, more than four years after the 2003 invasion, a substantial portion of the U.S. military remains in Iraq, with worn-out equipment and weaponry and personnel exhausted by frequent tours of duty and insufficient time at home between deployments. Concerned observers are increasingly asking: “Is America entering into another phase of the ‘Hollow Army’, like that of the post-Vietnam era? Has the military become a broken force?”

Fears and warning bells about the potential for a broken Army have been sounded from experts across the military establishment over the past several years:

  • Gen. Barry McCaffrey: “The ground combat capability of the U.S. armed forces is shot.” Remarks to the Senate Armed Services Committee in April 2007 after a trip to Iraq.
  • Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, then-Army Chief of Staff: “Over the last five years, the sustained strategic demand … is placing a strain on the Army’s all-volunteer force.” Remarks to a commission studying possible changes in the National Guard and Reserve in a Capitol Hill hearing on December 14, 2006. “At this pace … we will break the active component” unless reserves can be called upon more to help.
  • Lt. Gen. James R. “Ron” Helmly (USA): In a memo sent to other military leaders in 2005, the head of the Army Reserve expressed “deepening concern” about the continued readiness of his troops, and warned that his branch of 200,000 soldiers “is rapidly degenerating into a ‘broken’ force.”
  • Gen. Colin Powell: The “active army is about broken.” Comments on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on December 17, 2006.

Army leadership disputed the “broken Army” premise. Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey declared on July 13, following a tour of Fort Bliss in Texas, that although the Army is stretched, “it’s a very vibrant force. There’s a lot of questions about a broken Army, and that is not the case.”

But others simply think it is only as matter of time. Reporter Joe Klein conceptualized an Iraq pullout timeframe as a countdown clock in his June 28 Time magazine article, “In Iraq, Operation Last Chance.” Klein called it a “Broken Army Clock” that is ticking away toward the eventual, and inevitable, exhaustion of the force. “According to the Broken Army Clock, troop levels will begin to wane in March 2008, no matter what Congress decides in September,” he wrote, referring to the then-pending report due out in September from America’s top commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus. In fact, Gen. Petraeus said in his testimony before Congress that he planned to reduce the number of combat brigades in Iraq from 20 to 15 by July 2008.

Like Gen. Casey, Lt. Gen. Earl Hailston, USMC (ret.), disagrees with the notion of a “broken Army.” The Army is not “broken,” he said in a late July interview with JINSA, “but with money, time and great leadership,” the serious problems it is facing certainly “can be fixed.” But Hailston, commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Central Command who led the Marine component into Afghanistan and Iraq in 2003, does agree that particular components of the military, like the Army Reserves, are stretched. “We have used and abused these forces,” he said.

Bent but Not Broken: The Military Challenge for the Next Commander-in-Chief, a February 28 report on military readiness undertaken by Dr. P.W. Singer, Director of the Brookings Institution’s 21st Century Defense Initiative, confirmed Hailston’s point of view, stating that the military “is certainly far from broken, but warning symptoms are clearly mounting.” He concluded, “Our military is not broken, but there are clear, unavoidable symptoms of its distress.” Those warning symptoms include the lowering of recruitment standards, the overuse of special operations forces, and frequent deployments that lead to pressure at home, among the more obvious signs of equipment shortages, low recruitment numbers, and funding shortfalls.

“The problem with the Army is a leadership problem. Each institution needs some level of fixing, so that they fit together,” retired U.S. Army Gen. Crosbie “Butch” Saint, a former Commander in Chief of the U.S. Army in Europe, also told JINSA. “This is complex, and is going to be a long haul,” he concluded.

Building of the Force

Hailston is one of many advocates calling for a “building of the force.” The downsizing that occurred in the late 1980s and into the 1990s during one of the largest peacetime expansions of the economy in America’s history, was detrimental to the military, he believes, and its repercussions are being felt today as the United States fights a protracted ground war in Iraq and Afghanistan while simultaneously positioning forces in other hot spots around the world.

Indeed, President Bush announced earlier this year plans to increase the size of the Army by 65,000 and the Marine Corps by 27,000, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced a plan upon taking the post in January to increase Army and Marine Corps end strength by 92,000 over the next five years, a complete reversal of policy from his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld, who vigorously opposed any increase in troop size, favoring instead to spend money on building a high-tech force with sophisticated weaponry. Gates’ plan was to increase the size of the Army to 547,000 by 2012, from the current 519,000, by adding roughly 7,000 new troops each year, over the next five years, and increasing the Marine Corps end strength to 202,000 over the next five years as well.

But on September 27, Gates moved up his timeline and announced plans to add 74,000 full-time troops to its ranks in the next four years instead of five. “We concluded that we could expedite the growth by a year and that would help relieve stress on the force,” Army Secretary Pete Geren told Agence France-Presse, September 27.

Among those most in need of a boost are the Army National Guard and Reserve, which have been heavily utilized in Iraq. According to the plan, those forces will add 74,000 soldiers to their active duty force. The 74,000-soldier increase includes an immediate permanent increase of 30,000 troops in the Army’s authorized end strength from 482,400; 35,000 active-duty troops to be added over five years; and 9,000 National Guard and Reserve troops to be added by 2013.

Many of the top candidates for the presidential race in 2008 on both sides of the political spectrum, too, have come out in favor of bolstering U.S. ground capabilities, including Democratic front-runners Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama. Both candidates favor adding somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 new troops; Democrat hopeful Joe Biden is calling for 100,000 additional soldiers; and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, though he has not yet specified an explicit number, has said the U.S. “might need a substantial increase of troops” at a speech in front of the Council on Foreign Relations on May 23.

Republican contenders, too, believe the Army needs to be expanded. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani said in a speech at The Citadel last spring that he supports a troop increase of 70,000 more soldiers; former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney wants 100,000; Arizona Senator John McCain is calling for 200,000 more soldiers and Marines; and former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson has also argued for a larger military.

Recruitment, however, remains a problem. The Army announced on October 2 that although it met its stated recruiting goal of 80,000 new active-duty soldiers for fiscal year 2007, which ended September 30, the service fell short of a larger internal goal of 83,000 to 86,000 more troops to expand the size of the overall force, according to The Washington Post, October 3. Enlistees for the new fiscal year will only number about 6,500 to 7,000, which is less than nine percent of the overall recruiting mission for 2008 and much less than the 35 percent that is standard for the Army, Lt. Gen. Benjamin Freakley, head of the Army’s Accessions Command, said. Accessions Command oversees all Army recruiting and initial military training.

Also, the Army was forced to extend combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan from 12 to 15 months earlier this year to ensure that all units would have at least a year at home between deployments, further weakening overall retention numbers. And that length of tour could increase. “I cannot look you in the eye and guarantee that it would not go beyond,” Gen. Casey told the Associated Press in an interview on April 28 in Hawaii during a tour of Army bases in the Pacific.

“We live in a difficult period for the Army because the demand for our forces exceeds the supply,” Casey added. The chief of staff strongly advocates the expansion of the force by as early as 2010. Casey served as the top commander in Iraq for two-and-a-half years before he accepted the Chief of Staff’s post this past April.

But the fact is that a significant percentage of Americans are tiring of the war in Iraq, and a high proportion advocates that the troops come home. If an Iraq drawdown is approaching as early as 2008, as many Democratic, and some Republican, lawmakers are calling for, then what would troop increases mean for the Army’s role in the future?

At The Citadel, Giuliani stated,” We need a force that can both deter aggression and meet the many challenges that might come our way,” The New York Times reported on May 5. But he has yet to specify what those challenges may be in the future, and what it means for the role of the military.

Thompson, too, was vague when he told a group of people at Fort Dodge in Iowa, “We’re going to have to spend more money for the kind of threats, the old kind and the new kind,” The Washington Times reported on October 3.

In the same speech that Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards called for an increase in the size of the military in front of the Council on Foreign Relations on May 23, he also said, “My plan calls on Congress to use its funding power to stop the surge and force an immediate withdrawal of 40,000 to 50,000 combat troops from Iraq, followed by an orderly and complete withdrawal of all combat troops in about a year.” If he plans to add a significant number of new troops while reducing the largest single deployment we have, what would he do with the increased force?

Senator Barack Obama certainly believes he will do a better job as the next President. “We must use this moment to rebuild our military and to prepare it for the missions of the future,” he wrote in an article that appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs. He provided clues as to what his national security doctrine would look like should he assume the presidency: “…to support friends, to participate in stability and reconstruction operations, or confront mass atrocities,” he wrote, but whether and how the use of larger ground forces would be needed in such missions is yet to be made clear, as he proposed “a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces … by March 31, 2008” earlier in the article.
What is the Mission?

Military planning begins with the question, “What is the mission?” For the Army to be successful in the future, Iraq has to be factored out of the equation for now, Saint contended. When we talk about building the force, “we are looking beyond Iraq,” he said, and towards a “capable, multi-faceted, and multi-talented force, one with a spectrum of ability.” It becomes problematic when the military has just “one structured capability, like terrorist hunting” he added, “and if you are not careful, this is what will happen.”

Gen. Saint believes that the Army’s problem is one of doctrine. He told JINSA that the Army’s purpose must be established before the United States will be able to enter into another conflict. Other top military brass echoed Saint’s sentiments, such as Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, U.S.MC, who commented to The Washington Post in 2004: “We’ve got to have this new focus on the basics. Go back to studying the profession, trying to understand unconventional war, develop a theory, and then write the doctrine and move forward.”

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, an active duty officer with two tours in Iraq, also believes the Army doctrine is in need of revision. “The armed forces fought the global war on terrorism for the first five years with a counterinsurgency doctrine last revised in the Reagan administration,” he wrote in an article for the May 2007 issue of Armed Forces Journal. The buildup of technology in the 1980s and 1990s suggested that the Defense Department was preparing the Army for the last war – conventional, high-tech fighting – and not focusing enough on the new war of counterinsurgency, he added.

In an audacious move by a serving officer, Yingling also disparaged his seniors’ planning of military operations in Iraq. “After going to war with too few troops and no coherent plan for postwar stabilization, America’s general officer corps did not accurately portray the intensity of the insurgency to the American public. For reasons that are not yet clear, America’s general officer corps underestimated the strength of the enemy, overestimated the capabilities of Iraq’s government and security forces, and failed to provide Congress with an accurate assessment of security conditions in Iraq,” Yingling wrote.

Retired Colonel Douglas MacGregor, a decorated Persian Gulf War veteran and author for the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, believes this is not the whole picture, however. “In time of peace or war, civilians who command America’s defense establishment must not allow the nation’s military leaders the freedom to develop military strategy in isolation,” but instead must apply Clemenceau’s dictum, “War is too important to be left to the generals,” he wrote in an article for the October 2007 issue of Armed Forces Journal.

Along this same line, retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. James Jackson, former commander of the Military District of Washington, believes it is up to the civilian leadership to formulate the national strategy in concert with army doctrine. “The civilian leadership needs to be able to annunciate their desires – it can’t be smoke-like. The role of the Army is to defend the national strategy,” he told JINSA, and the role of America’s leaders is to come to a consensus on this.

Retired Navy officer Rear Admiral John Sigler, now a security policy professor at the National Defense University in Washington, believes that although today’s and future wars are asymmetrical, such as the counterinsurgency the United States military has encountered in Iraq, he does not agree that “we should fully organize for these types of war,” he told JINSA in an interview at the beginning of October. “We need to maintain a strong conventional capability as well so we do not lose our ability to fight in traditional wars,” the former Central Command Plans and Policy officer added.

With the number of troops currently deployed in Iraq at an all-time high – currently some 162,000, with half of the Army’s 43 combat brigades deployed overseas, in addition to all of the Army’s “ready brigade, the 82nd Airborne Division, dedicated to Iraq and Afghanistan – the Bush Administration committed an additional 30,000 troops (another five combat brigades) in the Iraq surge plan that arrived there in the first half of 2007, as well as a 3,500-member brigade to Afghanistan to accelerate training of the local forces there.

But with top Senate Democrats, including Sen. Carl Levin, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, acknowledging in late August that the troop surge is producing “measurable results,” the more fundamental questions about the future of America’s military loom large.

Lawmakers, including Sen. Levin, are seriously questioning the future role of the military. During a hearing on the 2008 budget in February 2007, Levin asked whether an increase in defense spending implies the United States plans to stay in Iraq for years to come, and whether the Bush Administration believes the war on terror is going to be won with large ground forces, according to The Hill, a newspaper covering U.S. Congressional affairs, February 7. Requests in the defense budget for military construction in both Iraq and Afghanistan led Levin to believe “that a long-term presence may be envisioned.”

In response to Levin’s questions, the then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General Peter Pace, maintained that the military must be prepared for other future challenges, including North Korea, Iran, China, and Russia. Expanding the size of the military means not only an increase in the defense budget, but also committing more troops to unpopular wars, like that in Iraq, and designing the military to fight with large forces trained for another long ground war. “The conventional Army thinks that the future is more Iraqs … They are trying to figure out how they can build an Army that will do better in the next one,” explained Stephen Biddle, Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, to on September 27.

Like Gen. Saint and Gen. Jackson, Dr. Conrad Crane, Director of the U.S. Army Military History Institute, said that whether your mission is to export democracy around the world or to maintain stability, “that all ties into what is your national security strategy … What are you trying to do?” he told

Too much of our attention is focused on one spot in the north of the Arabian Gulf, and the U.S. military needs to be capable of entering into conflict in other spots around the globe, like Latin America or China, Hailston said. “We need more people,” he told JINSA. The Marine Corps mission objective, too, has been stretched. According to Hailston, the Marines have lost their cross-spectrum capabilities that they once had. For example, the Jungle Warfare School was closed, suggesting that a future scenario of conflict in South America is not currently in the minds of top military planners. “The focus on Iraq means the Marines are not training for missions they did in the past and will do in the near future,” Hailston argued.

Earlier this year, the House Armed Services Committee passed legislation calling on the military to determine its core capabilities and also those that are missing. During the hearings in June, the committee determined that “when it comes to some of the critical roles and missions for national security, the U.S. military may be missing in action,” Defense News reported, June 25.

Determining that future challenges will be asymmetrical in nature, the committee concluded that the U.S. military’s mission objective needs to be revisited and restructured for irregular warfare and counterinsurgency over conventional warfare in order for the military to be able to respond effectively to future challenges to American national security interests. Specifically, the Department of Defense was not addressing seriously enough the “three major and enduring challenges” which include radical Islamists, countries with nuclear capabilities, and the rise of China.

Clearly a broad range of opinion exists on what is the right size for the U.S. armed forces and what missions those forces should be planning to accomplish. It appears that the size of the force will be increased before the new missions become apparent. One thing, however, remains abundantly clear – the incoming President will have to articulate a new national strategy before the meaning of the increase is understood.