The US military may have reached a critical point in generating Army and Marine ground forces to fight its global war on terror.
When it comes to force levels, finding 15,000 to 30,000 additional troops for Iraq is not the real problem, say officers and experts outside the government. The White House is considering such a surge as a way to counter rising sectarian violence.
More difficult is deciding how long to keep those extra units there. After years of war, US active duty ground forces are stretched to the limit. Many National Guard and reserve personnel can't be deployed to Iraq. Recruiting more soldiers would be an expensive and time-consuming process.
"The other issue is equipment," says Kevin Ryan, a retired Army brigadier general and fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "Even if you could magically have 30,000 more troops, you don't have the equipment to give them."
To the layperson Washington's current debate about troop levels in Iraq might seem somewhat confusing.
On the one hand, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, among others, keeps insisting that we need more units in Iraq for a full push to provide security. A recent American Enterprise Institute study by a cadre of retired military officers and AEI scholar Frederick Kagan called for seven more Army brigades and Marine regiments for Iraq – and said that such a surge "is necessary, possible, and will be sufficient."
On the other hand, many Democrats keep pushing for a US commitment to withdraw troops, not add them. And respected figures such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell have cast doubt on whether the US even has enough extra troops to send.
"The current active Army is not large enough and the Marine Corps is not large enough for the kinds of missions they're being asked to perform," said Mr. Powell.
The gap here, in essence, may lie in differing views about how hard current units should be used.
"It is possible for both of [these points of view] to be correct," says General Ryan, who in his last active duty assignment was responsible for Army strategic war plans, policy, and international affairs.
The AEI study does not hinge on plucking seven rested units from US bases and sending them to Iraq. Instead, it would advance the planned deployments of four brigades of troops by a matter of some weeks, while extending the rotations of other units already in Iraq.
For the next several years, active duty ground forces must accept longer tours in Iraq – perhaps 15 months, instead of the current 12 – and National Guard units will have to accept increased deployments, according to the AEI study.
President Bush should request an increase in active duty ground forces of at least 30,000 per year for the next two years, according to the Kagan study. "The president must call for young Americans to volunteer to defend the nation in a time of crisis," notes an outline of the AEI report.
Given the unpopularity of the Iraq conflict with US voters it might be politically difficult for the White House to call for such a redoubled effort. If nothing else, the expense of increasing US forces by 60,000 over the next two years would be considerable, on top of the extra money already appropriated for the war.
A report in the Washington Post Tuesday said that the Joint Chiefs of Staff privately are opposed to increasing troop levels in Iraq. In public, their comments on the issue have been hedged.
Last week, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker at a Capitol Hill hearing noted that over the past five years, sustained strategic demand has placed a strain on the Army's all-volunteer force, testing it for the first time in an extended period of conflict.
Dwell time, or regrouping time at home, for active duty brigade combat teams is now less than one year, noted General Schoomaker. "At this pace, without recurrent access to the reserve components through remobilization, we will break the active component," he says.
Access to the National Guard and reserve components of the military has become a sensitive issue for the top military leadership. These citizen-soldiers have performed well in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, Department of Defense personnel policies make them more difficult to send abroad than active duty troops.
Of the current 520,000 guard and reserve personnel, only about 90,000 currently are available for deployment, according to figures presented Friday to a congressional commission.