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We Can Put More
Forces in Iraq . . .

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. . . and they would make a difference.

Dec 4, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 12 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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It's important to parse these numbers more closely, since soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen are not interchangeable parts. The active Army today has about 350,000 deployable combat troops, including combat and support (logistics) troops. The combat troops are organized into about 43 brigades, numbering around 170,000 soldiers. Marine combat forces usable in Iraq are organized into nine active and three reserve regiments (the Marine equivalent of the Army's brigades) totaling around 36,000 troops. The Army National Guard, currently undergoing a significant reorganization, has a combat force of 60,000-80,000 soldiers. In sum, counting only deployable units, there are at least 64 combat brigades available in the ground forces, of which around 15 are now in Iraq and another 3 in Afghanistan. Adding a further 10 brigades (40,000 combat troops with perhaps another 10,000 logistical troops) is definitely a realistic undertaking.

Sophisticated critics will argue that the devil is in the details. Almost all of the Army units not deployed or deploying to Iraq are rated not-combat ready. They would have to be trained before deploying. Many would have to be sent to Iraq less than a year after leaving the combat zone, violating the Army's current policy of requiring at least a year between deployments. Soldiers now in Iraq would have to stay there--many for considerably more than their expected one-year deployment. And the National Guard would have to be used more heavily than current plans call for. All of these facts would lead, it is asserted, to a significant fall in morale in the ground forces and to recruiting and retention problems. Such a "surge" would break up the planned rotational schedule for these forces, making it impossible to relieve them in a year if the situation still required a large-scale ground forces presence in Iraq. It is, some senior officers say (usually off the record), an unsustainable plan and would impose too much pain on the military.

These criticisms warrant serious consideration. As for training, it is certainly true that only the 20,000 or so troops now programmed to deploy to Iraq in the spring are ready to go. Others could be made ready only in months, and would require accelerated training schedules. Two solutions: Send forces that are not as well trained as one would like, or conduct the surge itself in phases, accelerating the deployment of the troops preparing to go in in the spring and sending a follow-on wave behind them. There are a number of ways of mitigating the resulting difficulties in Iraq. The most unsatisfactory would probably be to delay the beginning of the major security operations until the second wave was nearly ready. Another would be to proceed more slowly, spacing the clear-and-hold phases further apart to gain time. Still another would be to accept greater risk in areas outside the capital such as al Anbar province or the north in order to concentrate forces in the capital now, counting on the arrival of reinforcements in a number of weeks or months to repair any damage done in those areas by the temporary withdrawal. A variant of this approach would be to deploy U.S. forces at slightly lower levels of readiness into the more pacified areas of the country where they could complete their training in situ while also providing a basic military presence. This, incidentally, was what was done following Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, when many Army units completed essential training in Saudi Arabia (not in combat conditions but under sporadic missile attack) before launching the ground attack in February 1991. All such approaches carry risk; none is impossible or inconceivable.

The problem of sustaining the surge deployment is also real, but there is a solution. Almost every major defense analyst, many retired generals, congressmen, senators, and even the New York Times now believe the size of the U.S. military--especially ground forces--should be expanded. Recruiting and training more volunteers and forming them into units will take time. But if we started right now, we could have new soldiers coming on line within a year, with more on the way behind them. Simply starting the process of expanding the force would go a long way to addressing the basic issue eating at the morale of the ground forces today: the sense that no help is on the way. Combining the promise of relief from repeated deployments with clear efforts to win in Iraq might well offset soldiers' frustrations with extended tours and reduced time home.

There are, indeed, certain mysteries about why the military is having such a hard time managing the current deployment anyway. A force of 15 combat brigades requires, in principle, a base of 45 brigades to sustain a one-year-in-three deployment cycle. The Army is now using a one-in-two cycle, which should require only 30 combat brigades. Going up to a 25-brigade deployment should require a base of only 50 or 75 deployable brigades, depending on the frequency of deployment. Even counting the ground forces elements in Afghanistan, the necessary base shouldn't climb higher than 60 or 80 brigades at the most. There are more than 50 brigades in the active Army and Marines right now, not counting the National Guard and Reserves. It would be worth examining what impediments are preventing us from making full use of currently available resources. That might be a worthy first challenge for the new secretary of defense.

This brief examination shows two things. First, that a surge of on the order of 50,000 soldiers into Iraq is highly likely to be meaningful if it supports a changed strategy. Second, that such a surge is doable with the forces currently available. There is risk in any military operation, and it might prove to be the case that securing Baghdad or Iraq is impossible or would require more force than this. It is also true that deploying more forces to Iraq would require accepting greater risk elsewhere. These concerns are worth discussing. Any surge, moreover, should be accompanied with a massive effort at reconstruction, political undertakings, possibly even regional negotiations. Risks and costs of all kinds must be weighed before a decision is made. I have argued elsewhere that the situation in Iraq today both requires and justifies taking such risks and accepting such costs, but that is not the point here. The point is that a surge of forces accompanying a change in strategy is possible and offers the promise of being very helpful. The ultimate decision must be taken on the basis of that reality.

Frederick W. Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Finding the Target: The Transformation of the American Military (Encounter).