Nearly two years ago, in a speech to Midwestern veterans, candidate George Bush blamed "back-to-back" deployments of US forces by the Clinton administration in the 1990s for pushing a neglected American military into sharp decline.
Now, the Bush team is itself facing complaints of military over-extension as it dispatches thousands of US troops to fight terrorism in Afghanistan, Yemen, the Philippines, Georgia, and Pakistan. The Pentagon has pledged to pursue terrorists in a dozen more countries around the globe if necessary.
The rapid-fire deployments since Sept. 11 are spurring a debate in Washington over whether US forces are being stretched too thin and what to do about it. Military service chiefs, backed by some in Congress, are calling for more manpower. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld is resisting expensive new recruitments, preferring instead to shift existing US troops out of "non-military" peacekeeping operations and civilian duties.
With new wartime demands ranging from Afghanistan to airport security, US military and defense officials agree that the faster operational tempo is straining personnel. More than 80,000 National Guard and reserve troops have been called up to join the 1.37 million-strong active duty force, a mobilization the Pentagon admits will be difficult to sustain long-term. Yet, a plan to demobilize 14,000 of those guardsmen and reservists by June 30 would add pressure to remaining forces.
Moreover, heavy demands on key military personnel such as Special Operations Forces, pilots, linguists, and military police, have led the Army, Navy, and Air Force to impose "stop-loss" orders barring as many as 25,000 active-duty personnel from retiring or leaving on schedule.
As a result, the military services are clamoring to boost their manpower, or "end strength" in Pentagon-speak, by more than 50,000 people. "We're very concerned about operational tempo and the impact it has on families and for the reserve component," Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers said recently in a televised interview.
One military official put it more bluntly: "We live and die by end strength," he said.
Congress is showing signs of obliging. Last week, a House Armed Services Committee panel approved the biggest single-year increase in military personnel since 1986, which would put an additional 12,500 people on active duty under the 2003 defense budget. That increase surpassed the Bush administration request by more than 10,000 people.
"Wartime operations have ... exacerbated the same debilitating stresses of high operations and personnel tempos and resource shortages that existed before the start of the global war on terrorism," said Rep. John McHugh (R) of New York, who chairs the House military personnel subcommittee.
The legislation provides $550 million toward paying for the manpower increases. It allocates the Army a 1 percent hike of 4,800 active-duty people over current levels, while giving the Navy slightly less than 1 percent with a boost of 3,500, and the Air Force a half-percent increase, or 2,000 people. The Marine Corps the only branch to win an increase from Rumsfeld fares the best. It gains 1.5 percent, or nearly 2,400 people, who are needed to establish a new Marine Antiterrorism Brigade. The sub- committee also proposed allowing the services to exceed Congress's mandated "end strength" numbers by 1 percent next year without the Defense secretary's approval.
Not so fast, says Rumsfeld, who is worried that the "enormously expensive" expansion of active-duty forces could sap funds from other priorities, such as developing new high-technology weaponry and transforming the military to face future threats. It costs about $50,000 to recruit, train, and pay a new enlistee in the first year, while costs for a new officer run about $90,000.
"I am very reluctant to increase end strength, if I can avoid it," Rumsfeld told a meeting of troops in Illinois two weeks ago. "Resources are always finite, and the question is, would we be better off increasing manpower or increasing capability and lethality?"
Instead, Rumsfeld seeks to use the personnel crunch to goad the services into scaling back on non-military duties such as overseas peacekeeping and US homeland security that siphon resources from fighting war. It is, he admits, an uphill battle. "I'm a little alone in my view on this," he said in Kyrgyzstan this weekend.
Using manpower as a carrot, Rumsfeld has asked each of the services to come up with "a reasonable program ... to bring people who are doing nonmilitary functions, back into the military." In return, he says he will grant them the flexibility but not necessarily the money to increase their ranks by 2 percent.
High on Rumsfeld's list of targets for cutbacks are international peacekeeping missions, popular under the Clinton administration, such as in the Balkans and Sinai Peninsula. Partly at his urging, the United States has started a process of drawing down its 7,500 troops currently serving as peacekeepers in Bosnia and Kosovo.
As for US involvement with the multinational force sent to the Sinai two decades ago, Rumsfeld speaks of it as an anachronism. Of the 800 troops there, "some three or four hundred of them are simply cooks and doing administrative things which could be contracted out," he says. "The idea that we have to leave people in the Sinai for 22 years seems to me to be a reach."
If peeling potatoes on the Red Sea does not rank highly with Rumsfeld as a military mission, neither do many civilian jobs performed by US forces at home from border patrol and airport security to immigration and customs. Currently, some 7,600 National Guard troops are engaged in those duties, a role Rumsfeld seeks to end.
Military personnel officials agree that many jobs not essential to combat could be handled by private contractors or transferred to other government agencies. "This is about trying to 'right size' so you can fight, but not have so many people cutting lawns, because you don't need someone to cut lawns in combat," said one military official. "They have other ways of defoliating," he quipped.