Is US fighting force big enough?
America needs a bigger military to stabilize weak or potentially threatening nations, some analysts argue.
American's armed forces are growing bigger to reduce the strains from seven years of war, but if the US is confronting an era of "persistent conflict," as some experts believe, it will need an even bigger military.Skip to next paragraph
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A larger military could more easily conduct military and nation-building operations around the world. But whether the American public has the appetite to pursue and pay for such a foreign-policy agenda, especially after more than five years of an unpopular war in Iraq, is far from clear.
Last week, the Army released a new manual on "stability operations" that outlines for the Army a prominent global role as a nation-builder. The service will maintain its ability to fight conventional land wars, but the manual's release signals that it expects future conflicts to look more like Iraq or Afghanistan than World War II. While Defense Secretary Robert Gates has not publicly supported expanding the force beyond what is already planned, he has said the United States must prepare for more counterinsurgency wars like the ones it is fighting now – a hint that a larger military may be necessary.
Some analysts are certain of that need.
The Army currently has about 540,000 active-duty soldiers and is expected to attain its goal of 547,000 by 2011. The Marine Corps, also tapped to expand, should top 202,000 within the next couple of years. The total American force – including active-duty, reserve, and guard – is about 2.2 million.
John Nagl, a counterinsurgency expert and a retired Army officer, says in coming years the Army should grow to 750,000 and the Marine Corps to 250,000. Demand for troops is already high, and it won't abate anytime soon even if substantial numbers of troops return from Iraq, he recently said at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington.
Meanwhile, the top US commander in Afghanistan has asked for more American troops that the US simply can't produce until more leave Iraq.
"We don't have enough brigades to fight – that is an inconvertible fact," says Mr. Nagl.
If the US is to remain a superpower in a world in which weak nations, not strong ones, are the big threats, then it must expand its forces so it won't again enter a conflict using too few troops, as it did in Iraq, say other experts. America must stay engaged in nations with weak or nonexistent governments to prevent extremism from taking root and threatening the US.
"This is not a prediction of conflicts to come, but a recognition that the potential for stabilization and reconstruction missions remains high," writes Fred Kagan, a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, a think tank here, in a book he cowrote called "Ground Truth." Mr. Kagan and Thomas Donnelly argue for a total force of about 2.8 million, which includes an active Army of about 800,000 and a Marine Corps of about 200,000.