Iraq or Bust

August 18, 2006

Charles Pena addresses the destructive policies the Pentagon has employed to maintain the U.S. troop presence in Iraq. Some believe this is reason to expand the Army, which will provide no short term relief, except for the politicians. Pena suggests a more logical long term solution.

A prominent group of U.S. defense experts, chaired by former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry and including retired Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General John Shalikashvili, has issued a clarion call that "two-thirds of the Army's operating force, active and reserve, is now reporting as unready." General H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, has also acknowledged that more than two-thirds of the Army National Guard's 34 brigades are not combat ready. Apparently, the active duty Army claims to be in better shape but is suffering from the same problem. One Army official admits that active duty Army units serving in a war zone are 100 percent combat ready, but not other units. Other data reported to the House Armed Services Committee implies units deployed to Iraq are also in low readiness. According to Army Chief of Staff General Peter Schoomaker, the primary problem is a funding shortfall resulting in an inability to repair or replace equipment as it is being used up in conflict. Schoomaker's assertion implies that if the equipment problem can be fixed, the U.S. Army can prevail in Iraq. But even if current equipment shortfalls can be remedied (General Schoomaker believes the Army needs more than $17 billion in 2007 and General Blum thinks it could cost as much as $21 billion for the Army National Guard), the real problem in Iraq is not just equipment; it includes manpower and perhaps a bit more.

Earlier this year, military and Pentagon officials hinted that they hoped U.S. troop deployments in Iraq would drop to 100,000 by the end of this year. But now, the plan is to increase troop levels to roughly 135,000 boots on the ground. However, it is not possible to keep 135,000 troops deployed in Iraq (or anywhere else) indefinitely. The ones in Iraq and elsewhere must eventually be relieved by fresh troops, since excessively long or too frequent periods of time away from home creates the risk that soldiers will decide against a military career. For a professional volunteer military force to be able to retain soldiers over time, the rule of thumb for active duty units is a 3:1 rotation ratio (meaning three units are needed to keep one unit fielded). So keeping 135,000 troops in Iraq requires an additional 270,000 for rotation or a total of 405,000 soldiers. This number is precariously close to the total size of the active duty Army, about 500,000 troops. Moreover, the U.S. Army has another 64,000 troops deployed elsewhere overseas that requires a total of 192,000 troops to sustain it. So when you do the math, the Army is about 100,000 soldiers shy of being able to keep up the current deployments. (Of course, if we were fighting a war of national survival -- such as World War II -- troop rotation would not be an issue. We would field as many troops for as long as necessary until victory was achieved. But Iraq and virtually all other U.S. foreign military deployments have nothing to do with national survival.)

Moreover, using the National Guard and Reserves to fill the gap is not the answer. As of the beginning of August, a total of nearly 90,000 members of the Army Reserve and National Guard have been mobilized (that number has been as high as 163,000), and as much as 40 percent of the force in Iraq has consisted of Guard and Reserve. In the past four years, more National Guard and Reserve soldiers have been called to active duty than were cumulatively mobilized since the Cuban Missile Crisis (including for the Vietnam War, the Cuban refugee crisis, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Desert Storm). Plus there is a ripple effect rotation ratio problem for the Reserves and National Guard. Because these are part-time soldiers, the rotation ratio believed to keep them enlisted is between 7:1 and 9:1. Using 8:1 as an average, the current mobilization requires a total force of 720,000 citizen soldiers -- which pretty much accounts for all of the Army Reserve and National Guard force.

The solution applied to the rotation problem caused by Iraq has been twofold. First, deployments have been extended to keep troops in Iraq for longer than normal. Recently, the Defense Department announced that the deployment of the Army's 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team -- more than 3,500 troops -- will continue for as long as an extra four months in an effort to boost security in Baghdad. Second, the Iraq mission has forced the military to resort to the use of "stop-loss" orders to prevent soldiers from leaving the military when their terms of enlistment expire. In November 2003, the Army issued stop-loss orders for the 110,000 soldiers whose units were preparing to go to Iraq and Afghanistan. In January 2004, stop-loss orders were issued covering 160,000 Army soldiers who were returning from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other deployments. And in January 2006, the Army stop-loss program forced 50,000 soldiers into extended duty. But extending deployments and stop-loss are like the little Dutch boy trying to plug all the holes in the dike with his fingers. There are only two real solutions. One is to increase the size of the Army, but this is problematic given that the Army is barely meeting recruiting goals to maintain its current end strength. But even if the Army could be expanded, 135,000 troops in Iraq are not enough.

According to conventional wisdom, the force ratio required for imposing stability and security is 20 troops per 1,000 inhabitants, which is what the British -- often acknowledged as the most experienced practitioners of such operations -- deployed for more than a decade in Malaysia and more than 25 years in Northern Ireland. With a population of nearly 25 million people, to meet the same standard in Iraq would require a force of 500,000 troops for perhaps a decade or longer. Paradoxically, however, a large American ground force in Iraq would just make the problem worse -- confirming that the United States is an occupying power and increasing support for the insurgency. Worse yet, a larger military contingent in Iraq removes any shred of doubt from the case made by the radical Islamists that the West is invading Islam, which only encourages the Muslim world (regardless of their sympathies towards al-Qaeda) to unite against the United States. So if military victory in Iraq is a quixotic quest, that leaves the second choice, which is to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq before the Army goes bust.

Charles V. Pena is an adviser on the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information, and a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy. He is the author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism (Potomac Books, 2006).

This commentary first appeared at the Taylor Marsh political blog at on Aug. 16, 2006, and was distributed by the Straus Military Reform Project.

Posted by coalition at August 18, 2006 11:03 AM

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