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U.S. Military Dangerously Small

U.S. soldiers with the 1st Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade scan rooftops looking for a sniper in Baghdad's Haifa street, March 19, 2007.
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
This column was written by the editors of National Review Online.
Last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that the Pentagon was extending the tours of most active-duty Army units in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Our forces are stretched, there's no question about that," he said. No kidding. More than five years after September 11, the United States is still fighting wars with a military little changed from September 10.

The extensions were necessary in order to give troops a full year between combat tours. But the military should not have confronted a choice between extending tours and giving troops less than a year at home. President Bush has had half a decade to bring troop numbers to adequate levels. He hasn't, and Gen. Barry McCaffrey offered a distressing summary of the consequences in his latest assessment of the security conditions in Iraq: "The U.S. Armed Forces cannot sustain the current deployment rate. We will leave [the U.S.] at risk to other threats from new hostile actors if we shatter the capabilities of our undersized and under-resourced Army, Marine, and special operations forces…If we do not aggressively rebuild[,] the capability of the force actually deployed in Iraq will also degrade[,] and we are likely to encounter a disaster." Blame cannot be pinned entirely on Bush. Bill Clinton, lucky inheritor of the Cold War victory his predecessors won, took an eight-year holiday from reality. Not only did he drastically reduce the manpower of the armed forces, he also neglected the procurement of new weapons, ships, planes, and vehicles. Today's diminished military reflects this dereliction.

And it is diminished. From 1974 to 1989, the Army had 770,000 to 780,000 active troops (all of them volunteers). Today, we have around 508,000. The Navy had 568 ships in the late 1980s; today it has 276, and its manpower is so reduced that it often has to helicopter sailors from homebound ships to outbound ones in order to keep them staffed. The Air Force's number of tactical air wings has shrunk from 37 to 20, and the average age of its aircraft is 24 years (as compared with nine years in 1973).

There is disagreement about whether the armed forces should be restored to their Cold War size, but there is consensus among military analysts across the political spectrum that they are too small. Today's strategic environment requires them to be able to engage in multiple regional wars and peacekeeping operations simultaneously, and still have enough resources left over to deter threats and respond to unforeseen dangers. Suppose, for example, that Kim Jong Il's regime collapsed tomorrow. The stabilization of the Korean Peninsula — and the attempt to orient it toward Washington rather than Beijing — would probably require the deployment of a large U.S. peacekeeping force. But this would be impossible, given the ongoing commitments in the Middle East that we already struggle to sustain. These commitments will sooner or later end, but the War on Terror will last much longer. Meanwhile, China's ability to threaten the U.S. will only increase — and so must our ability to deter it.

To Bush's credit, the Defense Department added 30,000 troops to the Army between 2000 and 2006, and it proposes adding 30,000 more over the next five years. This is a good start, but only that. And it does not even begin to address the procurement crisis. As former senator Jim Talent recently argued in National Review, the military cannot maintain its readiness without raising the procurement budget by at least $30 billion per year over the current level.

What's lamentable is that President Bush didn't move immediately after 9/11 to rebuild the military. Now, with Democrats in the majority and his approval ratings at a nadir, it's much harder politically. In all likelihood, the task will fall on the shoulders of the next president. Mitt Romney has called for adding 100,000 soldiers and boosting defense spending to four percent of GDP. These are sensible proposals, and we hope the other GOP candidates make similar ones.

The Left will raise its usual objection — that the U.S. spends more on defense than countries such-and-such combined (an argument countered easily enough by noting that law enforcement spends more than criminals so-and-so combined). And the increase in defense spending under Bush — which has gone primarily toward operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has done almost nothing to boost the military's size and capability — will give the Left an opening to say, "You need even more?"

The answer is yes. History has an annoying tendency not to end, and the world today is an exceptionally dangerous place. There is no excuse for remaining unprepared.
By the editors of National Review Online
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online