Thursday, April 12, 2007

A queston of endurance

I've been a reader of Bill Arkin's blog for a few years now. I was initially very impressed with the quality of his work and his uncanny ability to dig up some of the defense establishment's dirty little secrets. His reporting on the U.S. military posture towards Iran has been particularly solid and serves as a strong counterpoint to Seymour Hersh's overly credulous reporting.

His work has declined some in recent months and today's post is a perfect example:

We have 2.2 million men and women under arms in the active military and reserves and yet we have had a hard time sustaining 150,000 troops in Iraq, and are struggling to increase that force by just 20,000?

The political message these days is that with defense spending as a share of the gross domestic product at near record lows, the American people have somehow failed to contribute enough.


I say we just aren't getting enough bang for our bucks, and a huge part of the problem is a military institution that is so bloated with support and dominated by a new industrial contractor class that it is increasingly challenged to produce combat power.

By the end of the "surge" next month, the total number of U.S. military forces in Iraq will peak at some 170,000 men and women, a ten percent increase over the 150,000 or so troops that the United States has sustained in country since 2003.

The number of U.S. troops in Iraq previously peaked in November 2005 at 161,000, according to Pentagon documents. Before the announcement of the surge in January, U.S. forces had declined to some 130,000.

With 2.2 million men and women in the active armed forces, reserves, and National Guard, plus some 650,000 civilians working directly for the Defense Department, how it that we are barely able to sustain one-tenth of the number of those in uniform in Iraq?


Overall in the Defense Department, supporting "defense agencies" already get more than 16 percent of the defense budget. And, of course, with the services, various "supporting" functions, from bands to applicative war colleges to research and development eat up the lion's share of the money.

I don't mean to demean any of those people, but you have to wonder when the technologies needed to fight - such as counter-IED technologies or basic personnel protection gear - doesn't flow readily into the theater despite all the brains, the dollars, and the effort.

In the end then, if the forces on the front lines - the army brigades, the Marine Corps expeditionary units, the air wings, even the navy ships - are increasingly deemed lower on the readiness scale and stretched too thin, it is because of the overall organization of military and the fact that those who actually do the fighting are themselves spread too thin in an otherwise overfed organization.

How could he miss a blatantly obvious point: Wars occur over time.

Considering the way the the Department of Defense planned for wars prior to 2003, this issue shouldn't be all too surprising. Going all the way back to Les Aspin's Bottom-Up Review, the U.S. military has only planned to fight brief, decisive, high-intensity wars. The force sizing model that persisted throughout the 1990's was infamous "two major regional conflicts" model.

It held that the U.S. could wage two major regional conflicts (about the size of the first Persian Gulf War) with fewer than 1,000,000 active duty soldiers. The model basically implies that the military could win a decisive military campaign in either the Near East or on the Korean peninsula then build up to fight another Persian Gulf-sized war in the other region in about a month.

The problem with this model is that it is narrowly focused on winning a decisive campaign against a conventional military. It leaves no room for operational error (i.e. an indecisive victory). It also leaves the Army without a capacity for persistent, manpower-intensive operations.

The problem in Iraq is that Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) is entering its fifth year of persistent, manpower-intensive operations. Even though the Army has about 500,000 active duty troops and 500,000 reserve/National Guard troops, it can only muster approximately 150,000 active and reserve soldiers at a time. This is because soldiers can only operate for about a year before they need to reset and retrain.

For every year active duty units spend on the battlefield, the Army gives them about two years to reset and retrain. Reservists and National Guard troops are typically given somewhere between five and six years of downtime after a year of deployment.

The DoD may be a bloated bureaucracy (can anyone name an example of a lean bureaucracy?), but their manpower limitations are structural -- not the result of inefficiency or the domination of an "industrial contractor class."


yathrib said...

The decision, or lack thereof, to leave the armed services at their existing size post-9/11 led to these structural problems.

5+ years later now, would we be in the same position if forces were expanded then?

(Side-stepping the decision to choose warfighting in a way that leads to "indecisive victory".)

Isn't there a trade-off between paying for snazzy future fighting systems and real, live humans?

(I know not from whence I speak, I only seek elucidation.)

Robot Economist said...

In terms of budgeting and programming, there is a direct trade-off between spending on personnel (which comes out of the Operations account) and weapons development (which comes out of the RDT&E account).

This does not always translate into direct substitutions on the battlefield though. The introduction of GPS-guided munitions has allowed for a significant reduction in Air Force manpower simply because it now takes fewer sorties to complete a mission. In fact, where you used to send multiple bombers after a single target, you now have a single bomber assigned to multiple targets.

yathrib said...

Thanks, that's a good example of a tradeoff. I imagine guided drones are also such an example (deeper penetration, less risk to soldiers).

But given what we're seeing (lots fewer GPS-guided bombings, need for more manpower), I think it's clear the military has strayed from its "core competency".