February 22, 2005
Troop strength and CongressBy Douglas Hanson
The debate continues about US troop strength and its impact on the ability of our forces to conduct sustained combat operations in the War on Terror. Recently, The Weekly Standard published a bi—partisan Open Letter to the majority and minority leaders of both houses of Congress. The letter urges the Congressional leaders to enact legislation to increase the size of the US Army and the US Marine Corps by 25,000 per year over a period of 'several years.' The letter is signed by an impressive group of retired military leaders, military historians and analysts, and former members of the civilian defense establishment.
Overall, I agree with the need to increase our active duty strength, and stated as much in April of last year. A decade—long process enacted by an entrenched military and civilian bureaucracy has gotten us into this mess. Guard and Reserve units were structured around Cold War needs and have not been reconfigured for the realities of the War on Terror. Local economic interests and political considerations too often interfere and delay any meaningful change to our military forces. Witness the recent flap over women in combat in the new Units of Action about to be deployed to Iraq. Reflecting the Commander—in—Chief's public backing of the current law, we were assured by the Army that they would abide by the legislative restriction on women in direct ground combat — for the time being...sort of...maybe.
Nevertheless, the letter makes a good case to increase our troop strength over the long term, and thankfully does not repeat the typical Weekly Standard 'fire Rumsfeld' mantra. However, the letter makes a rather strange statement concerning our reserve troops:
Reserves were meant to be reserves, not regulars.
What does this mean? After all, the Reserve Component, comprised of the National Guard and the Reserves, have long been an integral part of the Total Army, especially as touted by the Army itself ever since the Vietnam War. In time of emergencies, the National Guard and Reserves are to provide critical war—fighting capabilities to the active component. This is most evident with the National Guard, which has been structured as combat divisions and brigades, and prides itself as having 40 percent of the combat power of the Total Army. As you read this, tens of thousands of Reserve and National Guard troops are fighting valiantly in the Global War on Terror. Some have paid the ultimate price for our freedom.
However, the Guard's leadership is publicly making the case for increased expenditures for manpower and equipment needs before the organization falls into a 'crisis' situation. Here we are, over three years after 9—11, and almost two years from the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the Guard leadership is anxious about its ability to handle future commitments.
For one of the most honest assessments of this situation, readers are encouraged to review the article Analysis of the Future of the Reserves and the National Guard by Steven Daskal on the WorldThreats.com website. I recommend that readers go directly to the Conference Report on the Future of the Reserves and National Guard, then come back to read Daskal's scathing analysis of the meeting. Suffice it to say, anytime a conference seeks to philosophize in high—level policy discussions about reserve structure and social change, it only succeeds in muddying the waters and diverts attention away from those who should be held accountable on basic issues, such as readiness reporting.
Daskal points out what was viewed as a key reason for both the leadership and the individual reservist to train and be ready to fight:
... the need for a large RC was based upon the now obsolete notion that the US would only need this substantial augmentation force in the event of a "once in a lifetime" major theater war. Unfortunately, the dramatic shrinkage of the Army after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and USSR, combined with the elevated ops tempo realities of the Global War on Islamism, make the maintenance of a large, distinct federal Reserve an increasingly poor investment —— what is needed is a large, ready active component, and a National Guard at home focusing on newly rediscovered homeland defense requirements.
Daskal is correct in that the Reserve Component, particularly the National Guard combat units, often touted the 'once in a lifetime' prospect of war against the Warsaw Pact as being their prime motivator for taking the time and sacrificing their employment to be ready to deploy and fight. In other words, the battle in Central Europe would be necessary for national survival and therefore, their participation would theoretically prevent a tactical nuclear exchange from taking place, possibly escalating to the strategic level, thereby destroying the homelands of the belligerents, and of course, wrecking the global economy. Who needs a job to return to, if Hometown, USA is a pile of ashes?
However obsolete the idea is of a large RC because of the demise of the USSR and Warsaw Pact, the analysis skirts the issue of National Guard leaders and the US Congress fighting tooth and nail to avoid any manpower reductions during the drawdown of the 90s. There have been very few mass unit deactivations in the National Guard in modern times. One example is the 50th Armored Division, which had units based in the northeastern US. Severe manpower shortages, and a reluctance of a few state governors to cooperate with federal authorities to deploy selected units to Central America, led to the remainder of the division being rolled into other Guard divisions and the colors being cased in 1988.
By and large, the National Guard and the politicians were successful in staving off any massive reductions in the 90s. Yet, Daskal points out that,
... the Abrams doctrine was little more than a hoax —— a shell game to fool the naive into thinking the US had more army than it actually did. Why? Because the "round—out brigades" were never utilized in time of conflict the way they were purportedly raised, trained, and equipped to be used. Whether this was because the active Army loathed its enforced reliance upon National Guard brigades; because it was too hard to integrate the Guard brigade and its unfamiliar officers and "style" into an active division; because the Guard units (especially at the brigade HQ level) simply weren't proficient enough in participating in divisional operations; or some combination of the these is immaterial.
I strongly disagree with Daskal's notion that the reasons for this shell game are immaterial; in fact, just the opposite. If the National Guard and its political sponsors were successful in keeping a disproportionately high number of Soldiers on its rolls, then why is there a crisis around the corner requiring a major infusion of men and resources in the coming months? When we examine the numbers, it sadly appears to be a case of 'paper tiger syndrome' and political cronyism, rather than bad policy decisions.
Focusing on the Guard, where the overwhelming majority of combat formations are located, provides a good comparison of the numbers. The Army website provides a listing of major Guard units*. Taking all of the combat maneuver brigades listed in both the Guard divisions and separate brigades, the total full strength of these units amounts to about 150,000 Soldiers. Granted, these units would not be at full strength at mobilization, but this assumption helps illustrate the manpower picture absent classified readiness reports.
Also, our friends at GlobalSecurity.org have provided a detailed listing of the status of National Guard combat maneuver brigades. They list 10 brigades currently deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo. Estimated at about 3500 troops each, this amounts to 35,000 National Guard troops deployed in combat maneuver brigades, assuming they are at or near full—strength. Add to this number the brigades listed that are in pre—deployment train—up or those refitting after returning from overseas, and the total number of brigades in the deployment cycle goes up to 17, with a grand total of about 59,500 troops. At any one time, 39 percent of the Guard's combat maneuver brigades are deployed, training for deployment, or are reconstituting after returning to the States. If one considers only the brigades actually deployed, then 23 percent of the Guard's combat maneuver brigades and Soldiers are committed to battle at any one time.
At face value, these manpower numbers are not indicative of stretching the force too thin, thus resulting in a near—term crisis situation. Even acknowledging that no unit is at authorized strength, the causes underlying the Guard's future manpower problems requires a brutally honest assessment. For example, we know that by the fall of 2003, medical readiness of Reserve Component Soldiers was a problem. The major press was falsely reporting on the high number of wounded Soldiers, supposedly returning from Iraq, held over on military installations for lack of medical care. In reality, up to 60 percent of these soldiers were reserve and NG troops who had failed to meet medical deployment standards because of pre—existing conditions, and had not even been deployed overseas. The question is not so much where did everybody go, as, were they ever really there in the first place?
It now becomes clear why Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has taken so much flak from politicians of both parties and some retired military leaders. When Senator Chuck Hagel calls for an increase in active duty strength while simultaneously complaining about the long—term mobilization of National Guard combat units, keep in mind the old Tip O'Neill proverb which I modify here: like politics, all armories are local, and so are the benefits of the infusion of federal tax dollars.
Hometown armories and Reserve Component units were a hedge on the local economy, pumping in dollars while gambling that the 'big one' would either finish too rapidly to draw in the local force, or at least that predictable time—driven deployments would be the norm, like the Stability Force rotations to the Balkans. But world events have upset the apple cart, and we need a larger force than can be found in the active duty Army. Rummy looked at the status board and decided to make use of all of the instruments in the toolbox. You go to war with the forces you have.
At least the Weekly Standard letter has been sent to the right people. Ultimately, it's Congress's job to adjust the troop levels. They must now find it within themselves to prioritize budget dollars for the active duty forces, their hometown reserve units, and other pet projects. If the past is any indication, they'll want to have their cake and eat it, too. The politicos will find it extremely difficult to iron out a solution without calling for tax increases or a freeze on the President's tax cuts.
In a way, this is another example of the brilliance of Rummy. Unflappable during Congressional testimony, his unwillingness to beg forgiveness for his 'mistakes,' and his failure to plead directly for increased troop levels has placed the burden on these matters squarely where it belongs: on the shoulders of the members of Congress.
* For some reason, the Army website still lists the 49th Armored Division of the Texas National Guard. This unit was re—flagged and is now the 36th Division.
Douglas Hanson is our military affairs correspondent