In the current debate over the nation’s defense strategy and spending priorities, there is an elephant in the room that few are willing to acknowledge: Our ground forces are under enormous strain. This strain, if not soon relieved, will have highly corrosive effects on the force.
Much of the pressure on ground forces today stems from their high tempo of operations. Every available combat brigade from the active duty Army has already been to Afghanistan or Iraq at least once for a 12-month tour. Many units are now in their second or third tours of duty, and some individuals are going back for their fourth tours. In addition, approximately 95 percent the Army National Guard’s combat battalions and special operations units have been mobilized since 9/11.
Short of full mobilization or a new presidential declaration of national emergency, there is little available combat capacity remaining in the Army National Guard. Less than 16 percent of the Army Reserve remains eligible for mobilization to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan under current authorities, and many of the remaining specialties are not in demand. At the same time, the average length of tour for reservists has more than doubled — from 156 days in Desert Storm to 342 days in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The Marine Corps is also under significant strain. All active duty Marine Corps units are being used on a “tight” rotation schedule of seven months deployed, less than a year home to reset, and then another seven months deployed. Active duty Marine Expeditionary Units are experiencing two operational deployments per cycle rather than the usual one per cycle. In addition, all of the Marine Corps Reserve’s combat units have been mobilized.
This high tempo of operations, combined with raised expectations that new recruits will be sent to the dangerous environment of Iraq, have increased the difficulty of recruiting young men and women into the Army. Indeed, the Army is experiencing the beginnings of what could become a major recruiting crisis. The active duty Army began missing its recruiting goals in February 2005, when it fell short of its monthly goal — by 27 percent — for the first time since 2000. At the end of fiscal 2005, the active Army fell 6,627 recruits short of its annual goal of 80,000 new accessions.
Although this development is not alarming in and of itself, the recruiting shortfall may become far larger this year if public support for the war in Iraq continues to decline, the demographic of young Americans eligible to serve continues to shrink, the economy continues to offer more attractive alternatives to young job seekers and the propensity of young Americans to enlist continues to decrease. Although the Army has made its monthly recruiting goals in the first months of 2006, it has done so by “front loading” its intake of new recruits and by lowering its quality standards. In October 2005, for example, 19 percent of Army recruits were drawn from “Category IV,” the lowest aptitude level accepted — a percentage far higher than the historical average.
The Army Reserve fell 16 percent behind its recruiting target for the year, and the Army National Guard 20 percent short of its annual goal. Although the National Guard appears to be coming out of its recruiting slump, the Army Reserve is still struggling to bring new people into its ranks.
Part of the problem is that not as many people leaving the active duty military are signing up for the Guard and reserves as in the past. Some are being prevented from leaving the active Army by “stop loss” orders. Others are choosing to stay in the active force. Still others, once they get out, do not want to risk being deployed again as a reservist. As a result, the Army Guard and reserves have fewer “prior service” personnel and are now in direct competition with the active Army for new recruits.
The flip side of the recruiting coin is retention. The good news is that the Army and Marine Corps are meeting their overall retention goals, for the moment, thanks in large part to the willingness of young patriots to endure additional danger, hardship and time away from home when their country calls. But this may not be enough to avoid a major retention crisis for the Army.
Although the Army is reporting that many soldiers are taking advantage of reenlistment bonuses, it is difficult to get an accurate picture of retention, because of the administration’s use of “stop loss” orders to keep members in service beyond their original commitment. This practice has skewed the data somewhat and effectively hidden growing personnel deficits, particularly in the junior grades of the Army. Some 9,800 soldiers are currently under “stop loss” orders, and the Army will likely continue stop loss for up to 9,000 soldiers through the end of fiscal 2006.
While the Army Reserve and Army National Guard exceeded their retention goals for people in more senior grades, they fell substantially short of their goals for those deciding whether to renew their commitment for the first time, creating the potential for long-term imbalances in the force. Of particular concern is the downward trend in Army Reserve end strength. Current authorized end strength is 205,000 personnel, but actual end strength is only about 190,000. The Army Reserve now projects increased losses of personnel, which will make achieving its fiscal 2006 target extremely difficult
In addition, the U.S. military is having trouble keeping some of its most highly skilled people. The administration’s decision to use large numbers of private contractors on the battlefield in Iraq has had the perverse effect of incentivizing highly trained special operations forces personnel to leave the armed services in order to work as contractors for much higher pay
Other indicators further suggest a major retention crisis may be on the horizon. Between 2001 and 2004, divorce rates among active duty Army officers tripled, and rates among Army enlisted soldiers grew by 50 percent as deployments lengthened and increased in frequency. Although these divorce rates have begun to decline in the past year, they underscore the severity of the strains on active duty personnel and their families.
Similarly, the incidence of domestic violence reportedly increased over the same period. These and other warning signs have caused some commanders to fear that personnel who were willing to undertake successive deployments as part of a temporary surge may not be willing to sustain this tempo of operations over the long term due to the adverse impacts on their families.
The Army and the Army National Guard also have experienced equipment shortfalls that increased the level of risk to forces deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan and reduced the readiness of units in the United States. From the beginning of the Iraq war until as late as last year, the active Army experienced shortages of key equipment — such as radios, up-armored Humvees, trucks, machine guns, rifles, grenade launchers, and night vision equipment — for troops deploying overseas.
While many of these shortfalls have now been addressed for deployed units, the readiness ratings of many non-deployed units have dropped. This is particularly worrisome because some of these units are slated to deploy later this year. This situation is even worse for Army National Guard units, many of which have had to leave their equipment sets in Iraq for arriving units. These readiness shortfalls are only likely to grow as the war in Iraq continues to accelerate the wear-out rate of all categories of equipment for ground forces.
Army personnel policies generally aim for at least two years at home between deployments for active duty personnel and mobilization no more than once every five to six years for Guard and reserve personnel. This is the tempo that the Army believes it can sustain for long periods without losing personnel. But the Army cannot sustain its current deployment levels beyond 2006 without either sending active duty forces back to Iraq with less than two years’ rest, re-mobilizing reservists, or building additional new brigades. All of these options pose significant problems.
Similarly, the Marine Corps can temporarily surge to two deployments per three-year rotation cycle, but it is unlikely to be able to sustain this tempo.
If recruiting trends do not improve during the next year, the Army, both active and reserve, will experience great difficulties. Fewer than needed recruits and first-term re-enlistees could result in a significant “hollowing” and imbalance in the Army. There is already a deficit of some 18,000 personnel in the Army’s junior enlisted grades. Even if it meets its recruiting and retention goals, the Army is expected to be short some 30,000 soldiers — not including stop loss — by the end of fiscal 2006.
The all-volunteer force is now in historically uncharted waters — fighting a protracted conflict with volunteers rather than draftees. What will happen if the current surge for Iraq becomes the steady state, and the Army and Marines are not resourced with the people, units and equipment they need for a long-term fight? When will the dedication and sacrifice of our troops run up against the needs of families and communities? Will they vote with their feet?
Most of our active duty military has chosen to stay in the force after one or even two tours, but it is reasonable to fear that after a third year-long deployment in a compressed period, many will choose to leave the force. Many senior military officers who lived through the Vietnam era and its aftermath believe that if significant numbers of senior non-commissioned officers and field grade commanders begin to leave the force, this could set off a mass exodus and lead to a “hollowing out” of the Army.
Meanwhile, the United States has only limited ground forces ready to respond to contingencies outside the Afghan and Iraqi theaters.
As a global power with global interests, the United States must be able to deal with challenges in multiple regions of the world simultaneously. If the Army were ordered to send significant forces to another crisis today, its only option would be to deploy units at readiness levels far below what operational plans would require.
As stated rather blandly in one Defense Department presentation, the Army “continues to accept risk” in its ability to respond to crises on the Korean Peninsula and elsewhere. The absence of a credible, sizable strategic reserve increases the risk that potential adversaries will be tempted to challenge the United States. Although the United States can still deploy air, naval, and other more specialized assets to deter or respond to aggression, the visible overextension of our ground forces could weaken our ability to deter aggression.
The wear and tear on Army and Marine Corps equipment, meanwhile, is increasing the costs of “resetting” the force as units return home. Resetting the force involves rehabilitating and repairing equipment. Given the harsh environments of Iraq and Afghanistan, this is proving more extensive and expensive than in previous operations. Furthermore, both the Army and the Marine Corps expect to see increasing costs associated with recapitalizing aging forces. As the active Army’s force structure expands from 33 to 42 brigades, its equipment requirements will increase substantially.
Finally, the equipment requirements associated with enabling the Army National Guard and Army Reserve to serve as a truly “operational reserve” — available as a rotation base to support the active Army in operations on a regular basis — are not fully understood, but are expected to be quite large.
As our forces draw down in Iraq, the United States must pursue five courses of action:
Fully fund the recovery and transformation of the ground force.
Resetting the force is under way and has been funded through emergency supplemental appropriations. But anticipated equipment rehabilitation costs will extend well beyond the current supplemental appropriations. Additionally, both the Army and the Marine Corps have systems that are nearing the end of their projected service lives. Restoring the health of both services is not a matter of simply returning them to their status quo ante. It is a matter of ensuring that they are organized, trained, equipped and resourced to meet the full range of traditional and non-traditional challenges in the future.
Adapt the roles, missions, organization, training and equipment of the National Guard and Army Reserve.
The Guard and reserves have evolved from being a strategic reserve to an operational reserve. The reality is that the operational reserve model is here to stay. The U.S. has to be prepared for circumstances where a high demand for military forces arises again. But budget, demographic and recruiting realities preclude a major expansion of the active duty military in the foreseeable future. This new reality is not yet reflected in how reserve forces are being organized, trained, equipped, and funded. Consequently, there is a legacy force that is making heroic efforts to perform a new set of missions at an unsustainable tempo of operations and without the necessary resources, training and equipment.
The challenge is to figure out how to make the operational reserve model work. The Army National Guard and Army Reserve have proposed putting their forces on a rotation-based footing which would ensure that units would deploy no more than once every five or six years. This new paradigm will require additional investment in equipment and training. It will also require a greater depth of support capabilities within the Guard. Perhaps most importantly, it may also require developing a new social compact between the government and our “citizen soldiers” that clarifies both the new expectations of a more operational reserve and the government’s obligations to those who are serving under this new construct.
Homeland defense and civil support are becoming increasingly important missions for the National Guard, and that should be reflected in how units of the Guard are equipped and trained. The Defense Department needs to better define the federal roles, missions and requirements of the Guard in homeland defense and civil support, and the Guard needs to conduct an in-depth assessment of how its organization, training, equipment and force management approaches should change. The reserves continue to offer a cost-effective way to rapidly expand the pool of available military forces in crisis or war, and sustain critical links between the military and the American people.
Increase the pool of deployable forces in the Army by at least 30,000 personnel.
The demand for U.S. ground forces is unlikely to remain as high as it is today, but it is likely to remain higher than pre-9/11 levels. This argues for making permanent the 30,000 person increase in active duty Army end strength that Congress has authorized but that the secretary of defense views as only a temporary measure. Making this increase permanent would allow the Army to expand its active duty force structure to a larger rotation base of at least 48 brigade combat teams — rather than just 42. While increasing the size of the Army would make it easier to meet future operational requirements, it will certainly not be easy.
In the near term, recruiting the additional soldiers would be difficult, if not impossible — at least until the military turns the corner in Iraq. Building additional force structure would take time and would cost about $1.5 billion for each new brigade plus recurring personnel costs.
Rebalance the mix of military capabilities for 21st century missions.
Throughout the post-Cold War period, and increasingly since 9/11, the military has experienced a mismatch between the capabilities it inherited from the Cold War and the capabilities it needs to deal with emerging threats. Forces optimized to fight major conventional wars are now being asked to combat terrorism, conduct stability and reconstruction operations, fight counterinsurgency campaigns, and so on. The mix of capabilities resident in the force needs to be fundamentally rebalanced.
First, the U.S. military must convert units that are in low demand in the new security environment into unit types that are in high demand in order to reduce the most acute strains on the force. The Army is already planning to convert more than 100,000 personnel billets from low demand specialties such as air defense and field artillery to high demand specialties as military police and civil affairs. Such conversions should be accelerated and their scope expanded as far as necessary.
Second, the mix of capabilities in the active and reserve components must be rebalanced and more stable and predictable schedules for deployment should be established. Currently, there are a number of “high demand/low density” units in the reserve component that are being used almost as frequently as their active duty counterparts. More of these units need to be created in the active duty military.
Moreover, there are some forces that are almost always needed in the first 30 days of the military’s response to a crisis, yet many currently reside in the reserve component where they are more difficult to access in a timely manner. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is seeking to move these capabilities into the active force. This makes sense, but only to a point. It is imperative that our armed forces remain structured so as to preserve the essential link between the military and the body politic — to ensure that any president must mobilize substantial numbers of “citizen soldiers” in order to go to war. Maintaining this link — and the accountability it brings — was the original intent of the Abrams doctrine in creating the all-volunteer force.
Third, the Pentagon needs to take maximum advantage of technology and services offered by the private sector. There are a number of opportunities where incorporating the latest information technology and working smarter could substantially reduce manpower requirements. This is particularly true in the logistics and support arena where many tasks are still done the old fashioned way.
More broadly, the government needs to build deployable operational capacity in civilian agencies such as the State Department. Such capacity should include a substantial cadre of full-time professionals who are deployable on a non-volunteer basis for rotations of at least a year, as well as a reserve of on-call experts. The United States also needs to encourage the development of greater international capacity to conduct complex missions like stabilization and reconstruction.
Increase the American people’s support for recruiting and retention efforts.
Although President Bush has sent the military to war in Iraq and to fight terrorists around the globe, he has failed to mobilize the American people for either cause. There has been no JFK-like “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” speech — no call to national service. This failure of leadership has only widened the gap between military personnel and the American people they are risking their lives to protect, and contributes to the recruiting crisis.
Congress should continue to give the military services the flexibility they need to tailor and target recruiting and retention incentives to be as effective as possible. The 2006 National Defense Authorization Act includes a wide variety of incentives, from higher cash bonuses to education benefits to down-payment assistance for first homes to referral bonuses for serving soldiers who bring in new recruits.
Policy makers need to think more creatively about diversifying the range of contracts that are offered to young Americans. For starters, they need to make it easier for people to transition back and forth between active duty service and the Guard or reserves. They also need to make it easier for people who leave the military to come back into service and for “middle aged” Americans (30- and 40-somethings) to join the military if they meet all the necessary standards. Finally, it would be a mistake to believe that a draft can solve the current dilemma. The nation needs to broaden its notion of national service beyond military service to take better advantage of two of our greatest strengths — cultural diversity and technological prowess.
The strains on the nation’s ground forces are serious and growing, and the viability of the all-volunteer force is at risk. We must take urgent and concrete steps to safeguard the health of the U.S. military, strengthen national security, and keep faith with the men and women in the military and with the American people.