Needed: more troops, not high-tech gadgets

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The Defense Department released two important documents in the past few days - the Quadrennial Defense Review and the defense budget for fiscal year 2007. Unfortunately, they seem to be diametrically at odds with one another.

The QDR - a major overhaul of defense strategy - calls for moving beyond a military configured exclusively for fighting mirror-image adversaries. "In the post-September 11 world, irregular warfare has emerged as the dominant form of warfare confronting the United States, its allies and partners," the QDR states. To win what the QDR calls the "Long War" - nee the Global War on Terror - it calls for strengthening such areas as "counterterrorism, counterinsurgency and stabilization and reconstruction operations."

The old assumption that the armed forces must be ready to fight two conventional adversaries at once has been eliminated. Now the US must be ready for only one conventional foe (say, Iran or North Korea) "if already engaged in a large-scale, long- duration irregular campaign." The QDR acknowledges that concepts such as "swiftly defeating" the enemy may not be applicable in this type of campaign, and that it will call for very different skills from our warriors, who will have to "understand foreign cultures and societies and possess the ability to train, mentor and advise foreign security forces."

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This is a welcome reversal of years - make that centuries - of conventional thinking among the upper echelons of the armed forces. But what is the Pentagon doing to realize this bold vision?

The defense budget announces a few positive steps, such as 30 percent increases in the number of special operations, psychological operations, and civil affairs units. Unfortunately, whatever the rhetoric of the QDR, too much of the $439-billion 2007 defense budget is still devoted to conventional weapons platforms left over from the cold war.

For example, the Pentagon is continuing to fund three ruinously expensive short-range fighters - the F/A-22 Raptor, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter - even though we already have total dominance in the air. The entire budget for language and cultural training - $181 million - comes to less than the cost of one F-35.

Also being funded is the Virginia-class nuclear attack submarine, with the QDR calling for an eventual increase in its procurement from one sub a year to two. These $2.4-billion subs are now being sold as great tools for gathering intelligence, firing Tomahawk missiles, and inserting Special Forces units into enemy waters, but they were designed to fight Soviet subs and surface ships, and that's still what they're best suited for.

Even more ill-suited for irregular warfare are two other ships whose development will eat up untold billions: the CVN-21 and the DD(X), a next-generation aircraft carrier and destroyer, respectively.

Attack submarines, aircraft carriers, and fighter aircraft may be glamorous, but they are almost entirely useless for the challenges the US faces today in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. There, the fighting is being done by Army and Marine infantrymen - and there are not nearly enough of them.

The Army was downsized 30 percent in the 1990s even as the number of deployments grew exponentially. More and more officers worry that if the current tempo of operations continues, the Army will become a "broken" force. There is a glaring need to expand the Army's active-duty ranks - and if not enough Americans are willing to volunteer, then open up recruiting to foreigners. Hire Gurkhas if necessary.

Yet the defense budget does not fund any expansion of Army strength, and the QDR actually calls for shrinking the Army slightly over the next five years - from 491,000 active-duty soldiers today to 482,400 in 2011. That's down from 710,000 soldiers in 1991!

What gives? Why is the Pentagon still throwing money into high-tech gadgets of dubious utility while ignoring the glaring imperative for more boots on the ground? Part of the answer may be politics: Big-ticket weapons have more champions on Capitol Hill than do ordinary grunts. But there also appears to be a large element of strategic miscalculation here.

For all the QDR's genuflections toward irregular warfare, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld still seems to think that Iraq and Afghanistan are the exceptions, not the norm - that in the future we won't need so many ground troops. The US has already paid a high price for the misguided decisions not to send enough troops to secure Iraq or to capture Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora. Now, it appears, we are fated to make the same mistake on future battlefields, simply because we won't have enough troops available.

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. ©2006 The Los Angeles Times.

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