The Magazine

The Incredible Shrinking Army

From the May 24, 2004 issue: It's even worse than you think.

May 24, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 35 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Editor's note: In light of further reporting that the Pentagon has sent OPFOR to Iraq, we post Frederick W. Kagan's article of two weeks ago.

FOR MONTHS, it has been obvious that the United States needs more forces in Iraq, and that the Army is not large enough to sustain even the current level of deployment in Iraq. The Pentagon, however, has consistently refused to face reality. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, abetted by the senior military leadership, has instead been playing a shell game with American troops. The decision some weeks ago to keep 135,000 soldiers in Iraq was described as an "increase," because the administration had been planning to send 20,000 of them home. The same Orwellian logic is being applied once again, this time to the Army as a whole.

Bills before Congress now propose "increasing" the Army by "30,000" troops over the next three or four years, but this "increase" is just as ephemeral as the "increase" in American troops in Iraq. The Army's current authorized end-strength equals 482,000 active soldiers. The crisis in Iraq and the war on terror in general have already led Congress to allow the Army to maintain a somewhat higher strength and finish this fiscal year with 501,300 soldiers. The congressional proposals would grant a temporary three-year increase in authorized end-strength to 512,000. It is true that the overall difference in authorized end-strengths is 30,000 soldiers. It is also true that the Army desperately needs congressional approval to fill its ranks even at the current level, since more than 6,000 soldiers are being kept in the Army only because of the "stop-loss" now in place. As soon as that stop-loss is lifted, many of those soldiers will leave. What is not true, however, is that the congressional proposals will increase the number of soldiers now in the army by 30,000. The actual increase will be fewer than 10,700 bodies, gained gradually over the course of several years. This measure is a trivial palliative compared with the Army's actual needs.

Worse yet, rumors are now swirling that one of two maneuver squadrons (battalions) of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment will soon deploy from Fort Irwin, California, to Afghanistan, and two of the three companies of the 1st Battalion of the 509th Infantry Regiment will travel from Fort Polk, Louisiana, to Iraq. These units are the permanent "opposing forces," or OPFOR, at the National Training Center and the Joint Readiness Training Center respectively. Their sole mission is to prepare other Army units for deployment to Iraq, Afghanistan, or wherever the nation needs them. Throughout the year, units from all over the Army go to the NTC and the JRTC and run field exercises trying to defeat the OPFOR in "laser-tag" simulations using real weapons and equipment. The training those units receive is only as good as the OPFOR makes it, since soldiers would learn little fighting an incompetent opponent.

Over the years, these units have performed their job superbly, and they are one of the major reasons for the high quality of Army forces in the field today. Both units have served as OPFORs for more than a decade, and they have become the premier training units in the world. Units replacing them will not be able to match their level of skill and experience for a long time. As a result, the level of training in the Army will be degraded, and Army forces deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan will be less well prepared. This decision is incredibly shortsighted. It mortgages the future to pay for past and present failings. It is symptomatic, however, of the sort of damage the Army is suffering on a day-to-day basis because of the inadequacy of its end-strength.

The question is often asked, Can we really build up the Army now through a volunteer system? Would we not have to restore the draft to increase the force? The answer is that we can certainly recruit more soldiers. Amazingly, recruitment has not suffered significantly from the war or the impositions on soldiers today. But additional troops will not be picked up instantly. It takes time to recruit and train new soldiers. This is why we should make haste. The longer we delay, the longer it will take before any relief comes into sight for our weary and overworked soldiers.

Instead of providing for such relief, congressmen, often claiming to be bold, are proposing budgetary band-aids, while the secretary of defense justifies their claims by steadfastly objecting even to those band-aids. This behavior is difficult to comprehend in an administration that took office promising that help was on the way to a military starved by the Clinton administration. Yet even today, with the Army at the breaking point and Iraq on the edge of catastrophe, there is no help coming from the Bush administration.

Frederick W. Kagan is a military historian and the coauthor of While America Sleeps.