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The Size of the U.S. Army

January 13, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: Street sounds from a boom box lend authenticity to a mock Iraqi village constructed deep in the piney woods inside the U.S. Army’s airborne training center, Ft. Bragg in North Carolina. In this exercise, a National Guard unit, activated and training for deployment to Iraq, works its way into town to root out terrorists and seize an arms cache.

SOLDIER: All right, they’re coming in. Let’s go.

KWAME HOLMAN: They’re trained to contend with anti-U.S. Locals eager for a fight, or a frantic husband whose wife is about to deliver a baby. Afterwards, the guardsmen get a critique from Army trainers.

SOLDIER: If you’re isolated, you’re well-positioned, just wait until they mark the building or the building is clear.

KWAME HOLMAN: Elsewhere inside sprawling Ft. Bragg, regular Army troops from the 82nd Airborne drill for combat, using live ammunition. ( Gun shots fired ) Many of these soldiers recently toured in Afghanistan, some have left for Iraq, others soon will. Mustering regular Army and reservists for Iraq and other duties has raised with new intensity in the Pentagon and Congress the debate about how big the nation’s principal fighting force, the Army, should be.

Currently, there are 499,000 active duty Army troops, backed up by 700,000 National Guard and Army reservists. That’s a third less than when the U.S. fought its last big war in the Persian Gulf, in 1991; 130,000 Army troops are in Iraq. Pentagon officials had hoped to reduce that number, but the ongoing insurgency prevented it; 9,000 Army troops are in Afghanistan; 3,000 help keep the peace in Bosnia, as do 37,000 in South Korea.

LT. GEN. JOHN VINES, U.S. Army: So currently, we are stretched extraordinarily thin.

KWAME HOLMAN: Lt. Gen. John Vines commands the Army’s 85,000-member 18th corps, headquartered at Ft. Bragg. He recently returned from a 14-month tour in Afghanistan.

LT. GEN. JOHN VINES, U.S. Army: Many of our forces have been deployed for a year; some are on their second deployment. And so, right now, the demands on the individual soldier are enormous.

KWAME HOLMAN: And so are the demands on Army families.

MARTHA BROWN, Army Community Service: So with those family members, they did have a Social Security number?

KWAME HOLMAN: Martha Brown, a civilian Army employee, assists the families of Ft. Bragg soldiers deployed overseas.

MARTHA BROWN: Service members are coming home, staying home for a couple of months, and then they’re out again. And that’s been difficult for family members, for the spouses that are left behind.

KWAME HOLMAN: Last week, the Army again acknowledged it could not afford to have any more troops leave the service. It issued its sixth so-called “stop/loss” order in three-and-a-half years. The order prohibits soldiers from retiring or resigning during a combat deployment, or for 90 days after returning home.

The new pressures on the Army recently led a bipartisan group of 128 members of the house to call on President Bush to increase the Army’s overall size, called end strength, and to reduce the time reservists must spend on active duty. Republican Heather Wilson of New Mexico is a leader of the effort.

REP. HEATHER WILSON, R-N.M.: I think all of us are concerned that we’re going to see back-to-back combat deployments for American military personnel. And you can’t sustain that for very long without acknowledging forthrightly that we need to increase the end strength of our active duty people in order to meet the needs of the continuing war on terrorism.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Pentagon’s top leaders agree the Army is busy, but say that doesn’t mean its size should be increased. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers.

GEN. RICHARD MYERS, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff: One of the most expensive things you can do in the department of defense is hire somebody. Sixty percent of our budget is in the personnel line. So with health care, all that … all those pieces, it’s a very expensive solution, and it’s not a solution that comes on line right away.

You can authorize it, even provide the money for it, but it takes you time to recruit, train, and so forth. So it’s not an immediate solution to any of the issues that people want to raise right now.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Army estimates that each 10,000-soldier increase costs $1.2 billion a year. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says he’s open to growing the Army, but last month he said he wasn’t convinced of the need.

DONALD RUMSFELD: If at any moment there was an analysis that suggested one of the services was too small, obviously we would recommend an increase in it. We just don’t have that kind of analysis at the present time.

KWAME HOLMAN: Retired Army Gen. Theodore Stroup has done his own analysis, and has a different conclusion.

LT. GEN. THEODORE STROUP, U.S. Army (Ret.): I believe — and I have maintained for a number of years — that the Army is too small to do its current missions.

KWAME HOLMAN: A former Army deputy chief of staff for personnel, Stroup now works for the nonprofit Association of the United States Army, an organization serving Army members and veterans.

LT. GEN. THEODORE STROUP: You really don’t have the resiliency to provide either strategic balance — what you need if some other thing flares up — or to be able to give a respite as the troops rotate back from overseas areas where they’ve been in combat. And so, a notional figure that I’ve maintained is about 520,000 is about the right size.

KWAME HOLMAN: It was President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq without the help of a broad international force that stretched the Army thin, says Lawrence Korb. He was a Defense Department personnel specialist during the Reagan administration, and now works for a progressive public policy group.

LAWRENCE KORB, Former Assistant Secretary of Defense: If the United States is going to, basically, unilaterally try and control large parts of the world, General Stroup is right, you’re going to need more troops because you can’t, again, just send young men and young women over there and leave them there forever.

You need to really be working on cooperative security with other nations, because these terrorists are not just after the United States, they’re after the rest of the world. And you need to work with the rest of the world to deal with this problem. If you do that, then your military size is fine.

KWAME HOLMAN: But others say, regardless of its size, the Army is badly structured to make the best use of the people it has.

COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR, U.S. Army: We have a lot of people in a lot of places in a lot of bureaucracies where they really aren’t needed anymore.

SPOKESMAN: …Coming in.

KWAME HOLMAN: Army Col. Douglas Macgregor wrote two books, “Breaking the Phalanx” and “Transformation Under Fire: Revolutionizing How America Fights,” both focused on overhauling the Army’s structure.

COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR: In terms of sheer numbers, you may have enough, but you probably don’t have people in the right places, and you may not have the right kind of soldier, in many cases, that you need. And you’re living today with an Army that has evolved for decades to fight a specific kind of war, a war that requires the mobilization of millions of soldiers to fight an enemy much like the Soviet state.

KWAME HOLMAN: Macgregor says today’s Army has multiple bloated echelons of command, and is based on an outdated model on how armies fight.

COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR: Now, this is the old structure, and as you can see, the old structure has a lot of headquarters in it, because it was designed to be spread across the European continent. Seven echelons of command, seven levels in order to make the fellow that’s out there actually doing the killing effective.

KWAME HOLMAN: Macgregor says restructuring is essential because America’s potential opponents today, in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, don’t line up along fronts. Instead, they battle in clusters, with forces fighting and regrouping across a fluid, 360-degree battlefield. Macgregor would flatten the command pyramid, and reorganize fighting forces into smaller, more mobile units tailored to the combat needs of a specific situation. But he predicts change may be slow to come.

COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR: Bureaucratic structures do not voluntarily reform and reorganized themselves very well. Their principal concern is survival. And you’ve got to keep in mind that the environment in Washington is one in which risk-taking is not generally rewarded.

KWAME HOLMAN: Colonel Macgregor’s outspoken advocacy of reshaping the Army has generated interest among mid-level officers. He says it’s won him fewer friends among the traditionally conservative senior leadership. But Macgregor now may have a sympathetic ear at the top. Last year, Gen. Peter Schoomaker was selected by Secretary Rumsfeld to be the Army’s new chief of staff.

Schoomaker immediately said he recognizes the need to reform the Army, and has ordered that Macgregor’s concepts be explored. Still, there’s caution about Macgregor’s approach. Ft. Bragg’s Lt. Gen. Vines says redundancies in the Army’s command structure are there for a reason. He says cutting too many levels could lead to disastrous consequences on the battlefield.

LT. GEN. JOHN VINES: The command structure has been developed over a period of time based on some fairly hard truths, and if a headquarters, forward deployed in a combat zone, happens to have a rocket land in the middle of it, and it is non-capable, there has to be a redundant capability somewhere that can assume that mission.

KWAME HOLMAN: The mission of the National Guard also is under review in Washington. Some of these reservists, training for deployment to Iraq, have been called to active duty two or three times. They are being relied on heavily to supplement regular Army troops.

Many jobs, such as military police and civil affairs, now essential to the low-intensity conflict in Iraq, reside in the guard and reserve. Former Pentagon official Korb says a better mix of active and reserve forces could be a key to improving the Army without increasing its size.

LAWRENCE KORB: What we need to do if we’re going to continue to wage wars the way we have, is put more of these so-called stabilization or peacekeeping forces on active duty, since we use them so much, and maybe take some of the forces on active duty that you really don’t use as much and put them into the guard and reserve.

KWAME HOLMAN: Brig. Gen. Dan Hickman, commander of the National Guard unit at Ft. Bragg, says there are distinct advantages to having reservists serving in places such as Iraq.

BRIG. GEN. DAN HICKMAN: I think the strength of this brigade, though, is that every soldier brings a second skill set. He comes, he’s an electrician, a banker, works on a city council, or something that will apply — that we can apply in where we’re going in Iraq, because a lot of what we’re doing in Iraq is nation-building, is working with communities, working with local governments, trying to reinvent themselves.

KWAME HOLMAN: Despite the current stresses, officials say regular Army re-enlistments are holding steady this fiscal year. But reserve re-enlistments are down almost 7 percent, largely due to an exodus of longtime reservists. And there’s concern departures could increase when stop/loss orders are lifted, and when soldiers complete their tours a year from now. The Army chief of staff is expected to release his plans for reform and restructuring soon.

JIM LEHRER: Today, Secretary Rumsfeld acknowledged the Army is stretched thin because of Iraq. But again, he said a permanently bigger Army may not be the answer to a temporary problem. Rumsfeld said the costs of a permanent troop increase would force cuts in other defense programs.