An Army Stretched Thin

The limits of America's volunteer army are showing, revealing a need to rethink this country's troop levels.

To keep enough forces in the hot spots of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Army this month blocked the pending reassignment or retirement of 7,000 soldiers from the region. It also offered bonuses of up to $10,000 (tax free) to encourage active-duty personnel deployed in the area or headed to it to re-enlist. This on top of the largest deployment of Reserve and National Guard units since World War II.

At the same time, precisely because the forces in Iraq are volunteers whom the Pentagon wants to return to their families by the end of May, a massive troop rotation is under way that could increase the danger for those on the ground. Normally, a significant number of units would be left behind for continuity's sake, but almost the entire battle force in Iraq is being replaced. Troops and equipment clogging the highways and airways make ripe targets for enemy attack.

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It's hard to know exactly how far to go in beefing up on the nation's slimmed down forces, because it's not clear whether this is a short-term problem to be toughed out, or a long-term issue that requires strategic change. Will a significant number of forces be in Iraq a year from now? Will some other conflict, in Syria or even North Korea, come next?

At the very least, the Army's heavy reliance on Reserve and Guard supplements - normally weekend-duty folks who never expected to leave their day jobs for a year - should compel serious rethinking about troop levels.

One idea to be immediately discarded is a return to the draft. Anxious parents across the country fear this arbitrary beast, and the experience of the past three decades has proven the volunteer Army to be better trained, better motivated, and more disciplined than an Army of largely unwilling draftees.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld emphasizes a shift of skills within the military that would more closely reflect the demands of modern warfare. For instance, he wants more of the noncombat functions now performed by the Reserve and the Guard - such as policing and engineering - to be taken on by active-duty forces. If the Army adopts more of these nation-building skills, it won't need to get them from the reserves.

That may address the evolving mission of the Army, but it doesn't increase the ranks. Perhaps now is the time to work even more diligently for "jointness" among the branches of the US armed services as a way to reduce redundancy. It's encouraging that among the rotating forces in Iraq, 25,000 Marines are being sent to help relieve the outgoing Army divisions.

A credible examination of this subject would fall short if it limited itself to Mr. Rumsfeld's vision and only shuffled boxes within the military. Some military analysts now advocate increasing the Army by a couple of divisions. That would bump it up by 50,000 to 60,000 people. The Defense Department should not be afraid to move in this direction if that's what's needed. War is too serious a business in which to be caught short-handed.

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