The troop strength question

It's been an odd fight in Iraq: there has been a chain of highly visible political victories that have come about before we have completely defeated former regime elements and foreign terrorists.  In fact, the Multi—national Force Commander in Iraq, General George Casey, Jr., has said that we cannot win militarily, but that the Iraqis themselves would have to defeat enemy forces.  The successful passage of the new Iraqi constitution is a tremendous victory for the Iraqi people and a testament to the courage and tenacity of our service men and women.

The lack of decisive military action to defeat the enemy visibly has caused backers of the war to doubt our resolve in the Global War on Terror (GWOT).  Some even see us as abandoning essential elements of the Bush Doctrine.  Critics of the President have repeatedly chastised him for not reordering our priorities by boosting the most visible aspect of our combat power: ground troop strength.  It is an understandable concern, but rational and fair critics must also include a sheepish Congress, especially a weak US Senate, and the inside—the—beltway military leadership.  A detailed assessment of the entire troop strength question is long overdue.

What we find is that four years after 9—11, powerbrokers  in both the DoD and the Senate are still tied to a Euro—centric system of alliances, and an arcane Byzantine military funding system that delays a buildup of our troop strength level to conduct the global war.  The President's war—making powers are kept on a very tight string, because funding decisions are in the hands of politicians and Pentagon bureaucrats more interested in vested interests and job programs than building a foundation for fighting a global, long—term war.  Few American realize that the President and the SecDef are just now returning the Army to its stated pre—9—11 strength.

What did the Army and the Senate know, and when did they know it?

The most publicized critique of troop levels came when then—Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki testified before the Senate's Armed Services Committee in February 2003.  He said that we would need far more troops than the Administration had estimated to occupy and pacify Iraq.  Since that day, conventional wisdom has held that Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, & Company ignored a military leader of great candor and conviction.  This made for great media sound bites, but it also placed the General's testimony out of context.  Had the press examined Shinseki's complete statements in relation to his later Q & A session, a far different picture would have emerged.

The occasion was the General's annual appearance before Senate Committee on Armed Services, on the Posture of the United States Army.  He did not initially comment on troop strength levels for an Iraq war, but instead read from a prepared statement on the status of the Total Army.  He presented two key pieces of information that should have sounded alarm bells with the members of the Senate committee.

First, Gen. Shinseki stressed that the Army continued to focus on a capabilities—based approach that would enable the service to operate across the entire spectrum of warfare. The Army was ready to defend the U.S. homeland; provide forward deterrence in four critical regions; was prepared to conduct simultaneous warfighting missions in two regions, and preserved the President's option for decisive victory in one of those conflicts; and finally, the Army was supposedly able to participate in multiple, smaller contingency operations.

Second, Shinseki pointed out that the Army already had more than 198,000 Soldiers deployed to 120 countries performing missions that involved fighting in the Global War on terror (GWOT).  There were also more than 110,000 Reserve Component (Army Reserve and National Guard) Soldiers mobilized for active federal service in support of Operation Noble Eagle (homeland defense) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan.

It was after this formal presentation that the Senators then asked about his opinion on troop strength to occupy Iraq.  Keeping in mind the facts presented in his canned statement, Gen. Shinseki said (subscription required) that

"Something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers [emphasis added] are probably, you know, a figure that would be required.'

Look at his response again.  That's several hundred thousand soldiers in addition to the 198,000 already deployed.  Generally, the definition of 'several' means: 'being of a number more than two or three but not many.'  In a best case scenario, Shinseki was saying that at least 300,000 troops would be required for Iraq in addition to the nearly 200.000 already deployed.  The fact that no Senator's jaw dropped to the floor apparently meant that no one in the World's Greatest Deliberative Body could add up the numbers.  General Shinseki had just said that slightly more than the entire US Army active duty strength of 480,000 Soldiers would have to be deployed!

This is quite an admission from a service chief who is responsible for providing trained and ready forces to a Combatant Commander who is in the middle of a regional war.  Of course, the commander of CENTCOM, Gen. Tommy Franks, had the ultimate say—so of how many troops would be used for OIF.  He only needed about 100,000.  But the impression had been created that massive numbers of boots on the ground were required, which fed into other demands and complaints of the war opponents.

Most critics who opined about lack of coalition partners were really complaining that we would have trouble getting troop support from our 'partners' in France and Germany.  Stubborn adherence to an outmoded collective defense arrangement perhaps made them think that these nations could be a potential source of major troop strength for deployment in Iraq.  But experience with Franco—German forces in GWOT operations outside their home territory of Western and Central Europe never inspired confidence in fielding and supporting large numbers of troops.

Today, Germany's troop levels in the Horn of Africa have dropped to a little over 300 from a previous high of nearly 2,000, primarily due to the poor performance of its socialist economy.  In Afghanistan, German troop levels have dropped to 2,100 from an initial commitment of over 5,000 .  Additionally, German ground troops are reluctant to participate in operations in Afghanistan outside of the Kabul area.  But still to this day, some politicians continue to promote  this fantasy of massive Franco—German 'assistance.'

OIF and beyond: lost opportunities

The myth that we had inadequate troop strength in Iraq must be debunked once and for all.  Most critics often point to the summer of 2003 when, thanks to the Administration's supposed shortsighted planning, the low number of troops couldn't suppress the rise of the 'insurgency'.  But it is exactly at this time that our troop strength was not only sufficient to defeat the terrorists and former regime elements, but the actual combat power of our forces far surpassed anything the Army generated on the battlefield in WW II.  That is, the percentage of Soldiers in combat divisions and regiments committed to battle was higher than it had ever been in both the Pacific and European Theaters combined. 

Roughly three and one—third division equivalents were deployed in the initial assault in March of 2003. By the end of June, they were joined by the 4th Infantry Division, which had been prevented from entering Iraq through Turkey, the 1st Armored Division, the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, the 2nd Light Cavalry Regiment, and the 2nd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division.  Just in Army strength alone, an additional three division equivalents had been sent to Iraq, resulting in a combat formation Army strength totaling about 80,000 troops.  In WW II, out of a total of 8 million ground troops, the US Army had no more than 375,000 troops deployed overseas and committed to battle at any one time.  So, we actually had a combat force to 'tail' ratio in Iraq over three times that the Army had in WW II.

On top of these US Army strength figures in June, we must also add 8,600 Marines, 2,400 US Special Operations Forces (SOF), and 12,000 Coalition troops in the 1st UK Armored Division, an Italian Brigade, and a Dutch Battalion.  This amounted to a total of 103,000 troops in combat formations in Iraq in June of 2003, which was roughly twice the number that were used to oust Saddam's regime a few months earlier.

The supporting logistics units, such as medical specialists, transportation units, and the like resulted in a theater—wide troop level of 167,000 Soldiers.  This was over 33 percent of the entire active duty Army.  Of course, we had to accept increased risk in other parts of the world, but if Gen. Shinseki's posture statement was correct, then this should not have been an insurmountable problem, especially when adding the mobilized reserve components to the force.

The Army did not seem to think it needed more troops.  In June it instituted a long—term ground force rotation plan, instead of surging forces to quickly complete the job at hand.  The remainder of the 82d Airborne Division and Polish forces deployed to Iraq in September 2003 and the following Spring, several US brigades deployed into Iraq, including National Guard units.  But then a similar number of brigades were rotated out.  This early decision regarding a rotation scheme is one of the mysteries of the early stages of the occupation.  The sheer number of troops wasn't the problem, although the employment of these troops was certainly problematic.

A possible reason for quickly adopting the Bosnian template of presence patrols, small unit raids, and a routine rotation plan was the desire of Gen. Franks to draw in more coalition partners to participate in what we hoped our allies would see as less—risky stability and support operations, rather than outright combat.  But just what capabilities these other nations could bring to the table remains murky.

Manning and readiness: the color of money

That congressional politics affect the distribution of defense dollars is obvious.  But if you thought that a war would clarify the funding issues and readjust our budget priorities, you would be wrong.  Even a cursory examination of the Army's budget since 2001  shows the personnel hole that we have been forced to climb out of, thanks to business as usual politics and a decade of neglect.

In Fiscal Year (FY) 2001 (the budget year when the attacks of 9—11 took place), the active Army's personnel funding was $28.3 billion for about 480,000 active duty troops.  For FY 02, it rose to $30.2 billion to fund the same 480K troop level.  In FY 03, the budget year of Gen. Shinseki's Senate testimony, the personnel account went up to $35.6 billion for the same 480K Soldiers.  Finally, in FY 05, the personnel budget rose to $39.5 billion, yet resulted in an increase of only about 2,400 Soldiers.  All told, the personnel account has gone up by a total of $13.1 billion, or over 46 percent, for five years for a whopping increase of a little over 2,000 to the Army's end strength — a minuscule 0.5 percent!

Until past or current Army and congressional leadership can shed light on why an increase of such magnitude has bought so few additional troops, we must conclude that Gen. Shinseki's appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee was a massive exercise in sloganeering masquerading as congressional testimony.  Including operational readiness funding (spare parts, fuel, and the like), the Army budget has had a five—year increase of $90 billion.  To be sure, pay levels have increased and better equipment has been deployed, but why troop levels have remained virtually stagnant is a mystery.  This is also the same Army that was touted by Gen. Shinseki on the eve of OIF as ready to achieve victory in a major regional war.

But this additional funding still isn't enough money to place the Army on a proper footing to conduct operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Most of the expenditures for the Iraq War and other GWOT operations are in supplemental funding measures , or what is called 'off—budget.'  A supplemental funding request for Iraq and Afghanistan of $75 billion will be submitted to Congress in early February and will include funding to add 30,000 Soldiers over the next few years.  In addition to this $75 billion, the Army had another supplemental request of $105 billion dollars, which is more than double its 'on—budget' authorization.  Bureaucrats and politicians use these nuanced 'color of money' distinctions to delay or obfuscate public scrutiny of the decade—long neglect of our armed forces, and their reluctance to support a buildup of a larger fighting force.

Think of it this way: the US Congress has been funding wartime requirements using short—term 'bonds' versus developing a long—term foundation of increased troop strength to establish a global warfighting capability.  This accomplishes a couple of things for our near—sighted representatives: it gives them civilian control over war—making absent a declaration of war, and it allows for an immediate drawdown of funding once operations are complete in Iraq and Afghanistan.  These year—to—year funding mechanisms provide a real incentive for some Senators to push for a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq, especially those that can't make the hard decisions to scrap politically sensitive entitlement programs.  All of this gives the legislators a tremendous amount of leverage over the President, who is trying to achieve victory in a long—term fight.

New challenges and new alliances

The President is just as committed to victory now as he was immediately after 9—11.  What we are seeing now, though, is a GWOT military culminating point  — the time when the attacker's strength is equal to or less than the defender's.  If we had pressed our regional offensive operation, we might have risked over—extension and counter—attack.  Given the fact that our deployable troop numbers are just now coming back up to the levels advertised in 2001, our leaders have wisely shifted the point of attack, emphasizing the diplomatic and economic weapons of war.  It's clear that the entire effort in Iraq has emphasized the political, with the military fighting to establish the best security environment possible to protect a nascent democracy.

We must, however, look to the future and those that will take advantage of any perceived American weaknesses.  Already, new and old adversaries are combining their forces to put the squeeze on the US and the Coalition in Central Asia.  Unnoticed by the legacy press, GW's National Security and State Department team have begun to forge  new alliances to continue to combat the global terrorist threat and a developing anti—American Asian confederacy.  These steps are truly monumental, weaning the US from decrepit defense arrangements in Europe that have long ago ceased to give us a significant military and diplomatic advantage.

But economic and political maneuvers by themselves are not enough in the long run, especially against Russia and China.  The US needs to take advantage of the intervening time from the end of this culmination point in Iraq to the start of the next offensive campaign.  Syria and Iran are still supporting terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere, while we apparently remain shackled by insufficient manpower in our ability to carry out regional military operations.

We have been hostage to outmoded collective defense arrangements for far too long.  Betting on the come for troops from countries that have long since lost their desire and ability to fight for the cause of freedom is no way to do business.  Sadly, this is perfectly acceptable to some in the Pentagon and Congress.  Our own socialist entitlement mentality doesn't help, either.  If GW and the SecDef can shepherd, or work around, a weak Senate and a moribund military establishment, to place us on solid ground to prosecute this generational war, they will have done yeoman's work for our long—term national security.  The American people will surely need such a force for years to come.

Douglas Hanson is the national security correspondent of The American Thinker.