WASHINGTON - The Pentagon's announcement last week that it will increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to 150,000 to provide more security for the Jan. 30 national election highlights a growing concern that America's armed services are dangerously overextended and possibly nearing a breaking point.
With nearly all of the Army's 10 divisions serving in Iraq, preparing for deployment there or refitting from a combat tour in that country, there are few forces available to deal with a new major threat or emergency, military experts say.
As Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, said at a congressional hearing last month, "I'm committed to providing the troops that are requested (for Iraq). But I can't promise more than I've got."
The Army is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and maintaining a military presence in the Balkans, Germany, South Korea and other foreign countries with a total force of just under 500,000. It had more than 800,000 under arms when it waged the brief Persian Gulf war in 1991.
"You need a bigger Army if you're going to carry out the Bush national security strategy," said Lawrence Korb, who served as assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. "Right now, you're really using the reserves at an unsustainable pace, and you're violating the norms that you have for deploying people overseas that you've established not only for equity but for retention."
The United States has more troops in all branches serving abroad than it averaged from 1950 to 2003, and three times as many overseas as it had in December 2001, according to a study by the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.
"If you look at the world - and what we're likely to see in the future in terms of potential threats and areas where we need to be involved, either to deter or actually conduct operations - I think it's clear that we need a larger force than what we have," said Michelle Flournoy, a former deputy assistant defense secretary now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has long maintained that the United States has been supplying all the troops the commanders in the field require. "If they ask for more troops, they'll get them," he said.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki was pushed into early retirement and Army Secretary Thomas White resigned last year after they argued that the United States would need several hundred thousand troops in Iraq to maintain security after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime. Since then, Pentagon commanders have been reluctant to contradict Rumsfeld, on or off the record.
But in testimony last month before the House Armed Services Committee, Schoomaker hinted that an expanded force may be required, particularly because so much of the military burden is being borne by National Guard and reserve members who were considered part-time but have virtually become part of the active-duty force.
"If the Army National Guard or Army Reserve cannot muster and provide the formations that are required, perhaps we need to increase the size of the regular Army," Schoomaker told the committee.
The Defense Department announced last week that more than 183,000 National Guard and reserve troops are on active duty, compared with 79,000 on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Of the 138,000 troops still on duty in Iraq, 40 percent are Guard or reserve members.
For years the Pentagon operated on the theory that even with reduced force levels it could fight two "medium regional conflicts" simultaneously. Rumsfeld, who favors a leaner, more flexible military, has insisted the United States still has that capability. But increasingly that premise has come under question, and the Defense Science Board, an advisory panel for the defense secretary, has called for more manpower.
"While I don't think we're going to invade countries and attempt regime changes as a matter of routine," Flournoy said, "I do think it is likely that we'll need to engage in more than one theater at once, and the force we have today in terms of ground forces is not large enough."
The increasing seriousness of the situation emboldened Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., to assert during the campaign that re-electing President Bush could mean bringing back the draft.
"With George Bush, the plan for Iraq is more of the same, and the potential is great for a return to the draft," he said in an interview with The Des Moines Register.
To rebut that assertion, House Republicans arranged an election-eve vote on a reinstatement of the draft that saw it defeated 402-2, sending a clear signal that the idea was politically unpalatable.
While arguing against a draft, Kerry called for expanding the Army by two divisions, or about 40,000 troops, a position supported by Korb and Michael O'Hanlon, a national security specialist for the Brookings Institution think tank.
Rumsfeld has said more pay increases will be required if the Pentagon finds it necessary to add to the force. There also is a danger that recruiting standards might have to be lowered, as happened in the post-Vietnam era of the 1970s.
Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., John McCain, R-Ariz., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., successfully sponsored legislation for a permanent increase of the authorized ceiling on Army troop strength from 482,000 to 502,000. The administration already had used emergency powers to increase it to about 497,000, but only as a temporary measure.
The White House has refused to fund permanently an increase in troop strength out of the regular Defense Department budget, insisting that the money come out of special appropriations because the increase is temporary. Every 10,000 troops costs the United States about $1.2 billion a year.
"I find it baffling," said Reed, a West Point graduate and former captain in the 82nd Airborne Division. "You don't have to be a trained military strategist to know that you needed more people in Iraq, and the only way to have more people in Iraq is to have more people in the service."
As a recruiting and retention inducement, military personnel received a 3.5 percent pay raise this year, plus increases in housing allowances and other benefits. About 40,000 servicemen and women have been held in the military beyond their retirement or separation dates under emergency "stop loss" orders, or kept overseas beyond their transfer dates under "stop move" orders.
The Army National Guard achieved only 87 percent of its recruitment goal in the fiscal year that just ended. According to Lt. Gen. James Helmly, chief of the Army Reserve, the reserve is short about 5,000 captains - officers who fill vital roles as company commanders or perform other important duties in the field.
Reserve and National Guard units also are losing midlevel non-commissioned officers.
"There is no question that the pace of our nation at war challenges our Army," Schoomaker said.
SIZE OF MILITARY DROPS IN LAST THREE DECADES
The number of U.S. troops on active duty has decreased considerably since the end of the draft and the Cold War. Some experts say the military must grow to meet U.S. commitments overseas.
U.S. ACTIVE DUTY TROOPS All service branches, in millions, 1950-2004
1973: Draft ends; switch to all-volunteer military
ACTIVE DUTY MILITARY PERSONNEL
As of Sept. 30, by service branch
Total: 1.4 million
Air Force: 376,616
Marine Corps: 177,480
COUNTRIES WITH MOST
U.S. TROOPS BASED THERE(ASTERISK)
As of Sept. 30
S. Korea 40,840
About 170,000 U.S. troops are deployed in and around IraqSource: Department of Defense
but have home bases elsewhere, including in the United States.
Copyright 2004 Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved.REPRINTED AT http://www.military.com DEMCEMBER 5, 2004