Confront the Looming U.S. Military Crisis

J.David Galland dissects the problems that face our military forces, now, and surely into future planning and operations in “Confront The Looming Military Crisis”

Every day a haunting quote from a former Army general emerges to the forefront of my thoughts and conscionable beliefs: “Beware the 12-division strategy for a 10-division Army,” warned former Army chief of staff Gen. Eric Shinseki. 

Shortly thereafter, Shinseki reported, toes on the line with bag and baggage, for his, “freedom bird” flight home to his native Hawaii and virtual obscurity in retirement. He had just been “shown the side door” by the Pentagon’s current one-two knockout punch team of Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.

The problem, of course, was that the general was factually correct, but ideologically incorrect.

We begin 2004 with the U.S. armed forces so disbursed on a global platform of nation democratizing that for the first time since the early days of the Korean War, the United States has lost its superpower capability of global projection and the necessary capacity to sustain forces and operations worldwide.

This did not happen overnight. An entire decade of erosion in America's standing military force is just now becoming obvious. There is plenty of blame to go around and plenty of people who deserve it. The prime suspects are the Clinton administration, for its proverbial gutting of the standing force, and the senior uniformed leaders of that era who went along to get along. Not completely without blame is the current Bush administration which has launched multiple wars and other commitments that constitute a heavy yoke that is dragging our military to its knees.

So just what is the order of demand on our forces? Today, 300,000 of the 480,000 soldiers in the Army are deployed. They are scattered around the world in 120 countries, primarily Iraq, Afghanistan and forward bases in Europe and northeast Asia. Of the approximate 180,000 troops who are not forward deployed, scores are non-deployable, many man crucial positions at installations and bases within the continental United States, and by the nature of some specialized skills, some will never be deployed.

In short, our forces have been stretched far too thin. What will we do if the North Koreans begin marching south with bayonets fixed? How loud will we beat our chests if the Taiwan Straits become a missile impact zone between mainland China and Taiwan? And let’s not forget the simmering “arc of instability” that includes the India-Pakistani nuclear standoff and a number of failing states from the Horn of Africa to Southeast Asia that are breeding grounds for al Qaeda and other terrorist networks.

The bottom line is that the U.S. military has simply been given too many missions.  Our troops have been tasked to step up to the plate and be prepared to fight a broad spectrum of operations from nuclear war to peacekeeping duties, and everything in between.
The in-between may range from trying to eradicate a polio outbreak, building schools in the former Yugoslavia, or the traditional task of a pedagogue and motivator as an Army Drill Sergeant charged with instructing an uncoordinated former civilian how to march and to make an Army bunk.

The argument can be made that the United States has an endless pool of reserve forces. However, this is inaccurate. During the mobilization for Operation Iraqi Freedom a year ago, the Pentagon called up 56,700 reservists and National Guardsmen. By May 2003, a total of 291,500 reserve component personnel were on active duty, and it has only shrunk a little, with 183,700 reservists still serving fulltime.

In terms of logistics, the deployments are also putting far more wear and tear on military equipment from boots to individual weapons and right up to transport aircraft and combat vehicles. Military infrastructure is wearing out faster than anticipated, and threatens to become a major budget crisis by itself as the replacement costs become known.

Without significant defense budget increases to recapitalize the force, the U.S. military over the near term may be confronted with the feared “defense train wreck” – a systemic collapse of military capabilities due to worn-out systems and exhausted personnel.

Today's operational requirements are robbing the Pentagon’s financial foundation designed to sustain and ultimately improve U. S. military power to meet future threats. How long will the American taxpayer be comfortable with the necessary outlay in order to avoid the ripple-effect erosion of our force? This remains to be seen, but if the national will to pay any price …. to bear any burden” – in President Kennedy's words – is lost, then the U.S. military will pay the harsh penalty of unfounded global mandates.

With this year's presidential election now underway in earnest, it is likely that the state of the military will become a major issue.

When Congress reconvenes later this month, many anticipate that a possible expansion of the military will be a point of discussion and debate. While necessary, such a debate will have little impact on the life of a 20-year-old father of two who has been deployed overseas for 24 out of the last 30 months.

No matter who is elected to lead this country on Nov. 2, he will be confronted by the same reality that exists today: There are only so many soldiers and so much equipment, and they are both very tired. 

A big job lies ahead for everyone – Democrats and Republicans, elected officials and ordinary Americans – the U.S. military is reaching a point of dangerous crisis, and we must not shirk from confronting that reality.

J. David Galland is Deputy Editor of DefenseWatch