Thursday, September 21, 2006

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (9/21/06)


On Tuesday, February 25, 2003, Eric K. Shinseki, serving his last few months as the Army's top general, appeared at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. It was a scene freighted with high drama. During the course of the general's tenure as Chief of Staff, press reports had circulated describing the tension between him and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The preemptive war against Iraq was less than a month away.

Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, senior Democrat on the committee, asked, "General Shinseki, could you give us some idea about the magnitude of the Army's force requirement for an occupation of Iraq following a successful completion of the war?" Keenly aware of military protocol, the bemedalled general, who had lost a portion of one foot to a land mine in Vietnam, responded that he couldn't give specific numbers of the size of the occupation force but would rely on the recommendation of the commanders.

"How about a range?" suggested Levin, his eyeglasses characteristically perched low on his nose. "I would say that what's been mobilized to this point--something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers--are probably a figure that would be required," was the general's response. "We're talking about post-hostilities control over a piece of geography that's fairly significant, with the kinds of ethnic tensions that could lead to other problems. And so it takes a significant ground-force presence to maintain a safe and secure environment, to ensure that people are fed, that water is distributed--all the normal responsibilities that go along with administering a situation like this." After the Senate hearing, Levin called Shinseki's estimate of an occupation force of several hundred thousand soldiers "very sobering."

Visibly angry with the general's numbers, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, both pooh-poohed Shinseki's force estimate. Wolfowitz said it was "hard to believe" more troops would be required for post-war Iraq than would be needed to remove Saddam Hussein from power. In 2001, when Rumsfeld became Defense Secretary once again (he had held the post under Gerald Ford), he became enamored of "transformation," a concept that had been kicking around the Pentagon since the 1990s. Its basic premise was that a differently constituted army emphasizing technology, super-accurate munitions and maneuver warfare would need fewer soldiers.

Shinseki successfully staved off suggestions by Rumsfeld that the Army be reduced in size. According to one source, he came close to insubordination, but he prevailed. Rumsfeld had argued that the high-tech weapons planned for the new Army a smaller force. Of course, as it turned out, Rumsfeld's transformed army with its Buck Rogers weapons was not up to the task. What was needed to avoid the bungled occupation was Gen. Shinseki's plain old-fashioned "boots on the ground"--and plenty of them.

Fast forward now the three and a half years during which the neocons in the Bush administration predicted victory momentarily, insisting repeatedly that our forces in Iraq were more than adequate for the task. In a recent op-ed piece in The Washington Post, two administration cheerleaders, William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, and Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, called for "substantially more troops" to be sent to Iraq. How characteristic of those who never served in the military to be ready with advice about how to run a war. How typical of them to blithely put other people's children in harm's way. Unfortunately, the administration has been hiding from the public the sad state of our military. This time the cupboard's bare and the well's gone dry.

From the beginning, the military had grudgingly acknowledged the small initial force was large enough to carry on the war with a few rotations, but a larger force would be needed to carry on a longer war. The stress of the prolonged fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has now taken its toll. Every available active-duty combat brigade has served at least one tour of duty in Iraq, and some units are on their second and third tours there. With less than a year back home between tours, this crazy-quilt pattern of combat service has made life especially difficult for National Guard and Reserve units and their families. Rotating additional troops for further tours in Iraq at this time could literally break our volunteer Army and threaten national security.

The only source for such troops would be the regular Army, one-third of which is already deployed. An official report released in July revealed that two-thirds of the Army was classified as "not ready for combat." The Army has almost no combat-ready brigades that could be deployed to Iraq. Moreover, harsh battlefield conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan have caused vehicles, weapons and equipment to wear out at a rate between four and nine times the normal peacetime rate.

As a result, the military is cannibalizing stocks of equipment, and running out of spare parts and supplies. Both the Army and Marines have had to dip into equipment and supplies of nondeployed stateside National Guard and Reserve units. And as much as 70 percent the equipment stocks pre-positioned at strategic locations in Europe and the Pacific intended to be available for the next crisis has been drawn down. The Marine Corps has been hard hit in heavy-lift helicopter availability, particularly the workhorse CH-53E Sea Stallion helicopters. Introduced in 1981, the inventory of 160 planes has been sharply reduced. Attrition of these machines, costing better than $26 million each, has been high because of overuse.

As hard as the Iraq War has been on machines and equipment, it has been even harder on manpower, significantly lowering the quality of our Army. After failing to meet its manpower quota in 2005, the Army raised the maximum age for enlistment from 35 to 40 in January of this year and to 42 in June. In addition, basic training has been made less rigorous. In the first six months of 2006, only 7.6 percent of recruits failed basic training; the year before that the number was 18.1 percent. Quadrupling of enlistment bonuses since 2003 has not been sufficient to induce enough qualified men and women to enlist.

Recruitment standards have also been lowered. The number of recruits scoring below average on aptitude tests doubled in 2005. The Army is now enlisting twice the number of non-high school graduates, even though its own studies have shown that better-educated recruits make better soldiers and are less dangerous to themselves and their comrades. And while the Army has made it easier for recruiters to find recruits, albeit with lower qualifications, violations of the rules have been rife. In May of thus year, one recruiter signed up an autistic man to be trained as a cavalry scout.

The impact of this unpopular war on officers has been equally bleak, and the Army has been compelled to offer significant inducements to retain officers. Last year, 97 percent of captains were promoted to major; the historical average has been between 70 and 80 percent. Traditionally, this step marked the beginning of the winnowing process to push low-performing officers out of the military. One high-ranking Pentagon officer who spoke on condition of anonymity was quoted as saying, "The problem here is that you're not knocking off the bottom 20 percent. Basically, if you haven't been court-martialed, you're going to be promoted to major." Similarly, 86 percent of eligible majors were promoted to lieutenant colonel; the historical average has been between 65 and 75 percent.

In part, the increase in promotions stems directly from the large number of officers who are leaving the Army. Retired Army General Barry R, McCaffrey, who toured military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan to survey the state of readiness of our military in those countries, has said, "We don't want to come out of such wars and lose what we lost after Vietnam." What he was referring to was the "hollow force" that followed that misadventure. Only three solutions are possible in this dilemma: (1) Stop the saber-rattling; potential enemies know the scabbard is empty; (2) increase the authorized strength of the regular Army; (3) adequately fund its weapons and equipment needs.


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