NYP - Will This War Ruin The Army?
July 19, 2005
Will This War Ruin The Army?
By Mackubin Thomas Owens
EVEN those of us who supported the decision to go to war in Iraq have to acknowledge that the U.S. military, especially the ground forces, are being stretched to near the breaking point.
I remain guardedly optimistic about the war in Iraq. But the larger problem remains, easily transcending the now-sterile debates over postwar planning or whether enough troops were used in the initial invasion. It has to do with the longterm health of the U.S. military.
Of course, this is not a new phenomenon. It should not come as a shock to anyone that long wars wreck armies — even the best ones, well-led and with high morale and esprit de corps.
Good personnel policies can put off the day of reckoning for a while, but not forever.
The U.S. Army and the Marine Corps bear most of the burden in Iraq. Both services have gone out of their way to avoid the personnel mistakes of Vietnam, where we learned that policies that undermine unit cohesion will thereby lessen fighting power and make casualties more likely. But the demands of today's conflict are making it increasingly difficult to do the right thing.
Of course, we've always known that soldiers fight better when surrounded with those they know and trust. So, during the early months of the conflict in Southeast Asia, both the Marines and the Army tried to rotate entire units through Vietnam — that is, to keep the same men fighting together, replacing the entire group after six months. But heavier-than-expected casualties led both services to move to an approach of leaving the unit in place, and replacing individuals.
On the one hand, knowing that you'd be in-country for only a year (13 months for us lucky Marines) enhanced morale. On the other, a unit lost its most experienced members each month, to be replaced by "FNGs" (f---ing new guys).
The U.S. military performed extremely well in Vietnam — but over the long run, the individual-replacement system undermined unit cohesion and reduced U.S. fighting power.
The problems that plagued the post-Vietnam military had many causes, but none was more
damaging than this personnel-replacement system, which took about a decade to repair. To fix the problem, the services tried to reduce personnel turbulence. For instance, the Marines instituted a "cohort" approach to training and deployment for infantry units. The idea is to keep individuals together as long as possible throughout their enlistment.
But today's high operational and personnel tempo (that is, the time between military operations, and how quickly service members are rotated into combat theaters) are close to breaking this system. Simply put, the tempo is likely to prompt many good soldiers and Marines to decide not to "re-up" when their terms of enlistment ends.
Yes, the Army is currently ahead of its retention goals for fiscal year 2005 — but it's doubtful that will last. A new RAND study, commissioned by the Army ("Stretched Thin: Army Forces for Sustained Operations") concludes that the service will face readiness problems unless overseas deployments are scaled back.
Then there's the problem of recruiting new troops. For fiscal year 2005, the Army is 40 percent short of its goal of 80,000 new soldiers.
After missing its quotas for four consecutive months, the Army did reach its monthly recruiting goal in June. But it still faces a shortfall equal to a month's worth of recruits — not a good thing when the Army is trying to increase its end strength by some 30,000 soldiers in order to create 10 new combat brigades.
While the Marines met their new-recruit goal, they missed their monthly contracting goal — recruits who sign up now for training sometime in the future — for the fifth month in a row. Low contracting figures say "trouble ahead" for recruiters.
What's reducing the pool of recruits? Probably not concerns about casualties: The Marine Corps, whose casualty rate is three times that of the Army, continues to exceed its recruiting goals. The economy seems more relevant: The last time the Army was so short of recruits was six years ago — when there was no war but a strong economy.
Also troubling is the decline in enlistments for the National Guard, now some 10,000 soldiers short of its year-to-date goal. The operational tempo for the Guard is also very high — these "part time" soldiers now account for almost half of U.S. forces in Iraq and have taken over most of the Army's peacekeeping duties elsewhere, e.g. in Kosovo.
What can be done?
A draft? Not going to happen. In any case, conscription won't provide the sort of soldiers the current and future American military needs.
The Army is in the process of increasing the number of combat brigades from 33 to 43. This helps, but it will take time. So does an increase in the number of recruiters. But at the micro level, there are not many good options in the short run.
The Army already pays enlistment bonuses of $20,000 to certain individuals; the Pentagon will probably ask Congress to double them. The Defense Department will also ask Congress to raise the age limit for active-duty service from 35 to 40.
More troubling is the Army's decision to go to a 15-month enlistment policy (as opposed to three- or four-year hitches), which means that a soldier will receive only basic and advanced individual training — with no unit training — before deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan as an individual replacement — a veritable repeat of the failed Vietnam policy.
To make matters worse, the Army is also contemplating lower enlistment standards and the retention of "problem soldiers" whom it otherwise would have released from active duty.
Shorter enlistments, lower standards and so on will all harm cohesion — as does shifting troops from non-deploying units in order to bring deploying units to full strength. The turbulence caused by such practices cascades, eventually causing the same sort of havoc that occurred during Vietnam — damage that, again, took years to repair.
There are more choices for the long run — expensive ones: offering more educational benefits for military service; adding some pension benefits for those who don't intend to serve 20 years; increasing enlistment and re-enlistment bonuses.
But the most important thing that the country needs to do is to fix the strategy-force mismatch that now afflicts the military: For better or worse, the United States now underwrites the security of much of the world. Accordingly, our strategy requires ground forces oriented not only toward winning wars but carrying out "constabulary" missions. The Pentagon's emphasis on buying high-tech weapons means that the ground forces necessary to execute such constabulary missions are often underfunded.
Of course we need naval, air and space power, too. But constabulary missions of the sort our current strategy requires depends on robust ground forces which, before the war in Iraq, were seen by many defense analysts as not very useful. This was especially true of those enamored of a "revolution in military affairs" based on emerging information technologies.
Some elements of military transformation will indeed permit ground forces to do more with less, but the kind of war we are fighting in Iraq today requires a robust ground force.
If we're not willing to fight these kinds of war, our strategy will fail. But it will also fail if we try to fight them without the necessary forces.
Mackubin Thomas Owens is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.