Expanding the size of US armed forces could be an expensive and lengthy task – in essence, a redoubling of the national effort to grapple with the challenge posed by Islamic extremism.
The move would be irrelevant in the Iraq war, say some critics, because by the time more troops are recruited, trained, and deployed, the conflict there will probably be set in its course.
But in calling for such an increase, President Bush said the US military must be positioned to deal with terrorists for a generation to come.
"It's the calling of our time," he said at a press conference Wednesday.
Mr. Bush has not specified the degree to which he believes the Army and Marine Corps should increase. New Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, currently in Iraq, first must propose a plan that includes numbers and estimated cost, Bush said at his news conference and in an earlier interview with The Washington Post.
If approved by Bush, the plan will then be tucked into the budget the administration will submit to Congress early next year.
Currently, the Army has an authorized strength of some 514,000 troops, with about 30,000 of that total a temporary rise approved by Congress in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The Marine Corps has 180,000 personnel.
Bush was careful to note that he was not telegraphing an increase in troops in Iraq by asking for an overall larger US ground force. The administration's new strategy to fight rising violence there won't be unveiled until early next year.
Instead, Bush billed a larger US military as essential for the security of today's children and their children.
"Securing this peaceful future is going to require a sustained commitment from the American people and our military," said Bush. "We have an obligation to ensure our military is capable of sustaining this war over the long haul and performing the many tasks that we ask of them."
Ground forces may not be as glamorous as high-tech weaponry, but they are expensive nonetheless. Each increment of 10,000 soldiers added to the Army costs just a tick over $1 billion, according to a service estimate.
Thus, adding 30,000 troops a year for two years, as proposed by a recent American Enterprise Institute study co-written by military expert Robert Kagan, would add more than $6 billion to the military budget at a time when the cost of the Iraq conflict is exceeding $6 billion per month.
In addition, more troops mean more long-term spending on equipment, training, and future benefits, says Gordon Adams, senior White House official for national security budgeting under President Bill Clinton.
"At more than $500 billion a year, we are already overspending on defense," says Mr. Adams, now a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Any new forces would probably not be ready in time for use in the Iraq conflict, says Adams. It would take at least two years to get them ready. By then, events in Baghdad would have already determined whether the country has split apart or whether an Iraqi government has managed to establish security. The US is likely to be withdrawing from Iraq in two years, according to Adams.
An overall troop increase "is not about Iraq," he says. "It's about militarizing our national-security policy for the long war."
The White House, however, has some reason to believe that a call for a larger military may not be overly controversial. In the past, Democrats in Congress have called for such a move. In part, this reflects their criticism that the war in Iraq has been prosecuted with too few US troops, and that the pace of rotations in and out of Iraq is such that the Army is now close to breaking.
For instance, Rep. Ike Skelton (D) of Missouri, who will chair the House Armed Services Committee in the next Congress, has long supported a larger military as a means of breaking the deployment cycle of one year in Iraq, one year at home, and then another deployment.
Democrats remain wary, however, that Bush's call for a larger military is a means to make more politically palatable a separate decision to increase troop strength in Iraq. That is a move many of them oppose.
"More troops would get us in deeper and is a military response to a political problem," said Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, incoming Senate Armed Services chairman, in a statement.