Aug. 1, 2002

On a recent visit to Scott AFB, Ill., Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld shot down the idea that he might expand the US military. He was “very reluctant” to add more troops, the Pentagon chief declared.

It would be “enormously expensive,” he said. “Would we be better off increasing manpower or increasing capability and lethality?”

As for gaps in the force, they probably could be fixed by shifting troops internally. One result of this, he indicated, would be to make the US “stop using military people for nonmilitary functions.”

Rumsfeld’s view permeates the Bush Administration. All signs in late summer were that there would be no growth for the struggling, 1.4-million-member US military. There might even be further cuts, according to press reports. All requests faced scrutiny. “If you hear some squealing, you’ll know it’s my fault,” joshed Rumsfeld.

The services had hoped for better. In various forums this year, top leaders talked in terms of adding 20,000 or so active troops, with more to come later. Prominent unofficial figures were 7,000 for the Air Force, 8,000 for the Army, 4,000 for the Navy, and 2,500 for the Marine Corps. They sought modest growth in the reserve components.

The services viewed the steps as the minimum needed to relieve shortages in security forces, firefighters, intelligence workers, medical specialists, and the like.

Rumsfeld changed the subject. He cut off talk of increases and instructed the services to work harder to make do with the troops they had. The goal: a “net of zero,” said DOD manpower chief David Chu.

It would be a surprise if the matter is resolved so easily.

The Cold War force peaked at 2,174,000 troops. In 1993, the military was drawing down to a “Base Force” of 1,653,000, but the Clinton Administration abruptly levied new budget cuts and staged its notorious Bottom-Up Review to retroactively justify the reductions. Soon, force-cutters crashed through the Base Force “floor” and slashed 290,000 more troops.

Radical force cuts and surging overseas operations proved toxic. US troops soon faced a grueling routine of long duty shifts and serial deployments. By the late 1990s, the situation stirred fears of a 1970s-style “hollow force.” Presidential candidate George W. Bush, in his Sept. 23, 1999, speech at the Citadel, worried publicly about an “overstretched military.”

If the military had concerns about end strength (and force structure) back then, they were nothing compared to today’s.

The Sept. 11 attacks touched off a global war on terror, massive new homeland security duties, and the need to prepare for war with Iraq, all on top of existing obligations.

The smallish US active forces had to call up large numbers of reservists. Roughly 85,000 reservists are still on active duty. Some have been there since initial call-ups.

“I don’t think we can sustain … this kind of demand on the Guard and Reserve forces,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He believes reserve recruiting, retention, and employer support will “suffer enormously.”

The problem was especially acute for USAF, with its heavy taskings in both Noble Eagle and Enduring Freedom. The 359,000-member Air Force met its requirements with a huge call-up of Air Guardsmen and Reservists and stop-loss actions to prevent active duty and reserve troops from leaving service at the end of their normal commitments. Almost a year later, USAF maintained a steady-state mobilization of 37,000 ANG and AFRC members.

The problem is widespread. In March, Adm. Dennis C. Blair of US Pacific Command and Gen. Joseph W. Ralston of US European Command warned that their forces were not adequate for all missions.

This is not mere overextension of the force, warns Sen. Max Cleland, the Georgia Democrat who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee’s personnel panel. It is, he says, “hyperextension.”

“We simply cannot continue to increase our military commitments without increasing the end strength of our armed forces,” Cleland said. “They are already stretched too thin. … We cannot fight a war on the cheap, and we cannot fight a war without people.”

The House this year endorsed a first-step increase of 12,650 active duty personnel in its defense bill. The Senate did not, and the fate of the move awaits negotiation this fall.

The problem now is that the need for more people has been cast into competition with other defense needs, the most prominent of which is force transformation. Transformation is expensive, and as Rumsfeld said to the troops at Scott, “Resources are always finite.”

DOD is banking heavily on no-cost or low-cost alternatives such as realigning forces, cutting overseas commitments, contracting out military functions to civilians, and the like.

Perhaps some or all of these steps will work. However, it seems to us that this is exactly the sort of approach that created the problem in the first place. It should be obvious now that the US military simply has been cut too much. It is time to reverse mistakes of the past and rebuild the force to a larger and more-sustainable size.

Rumsfeld himself, in a secret March 13 memo published in Newsweek, said this: “The entire force is facing the adverse results of the high-paced optempo and perstempo. We are past the point where the department can, without an unbelievably compelling reason, make any additional commitments.”

Can that mean anything other than the military is too small