The Army We Need

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

ONE IMMEDIATE benefit of Donald H. Rumsfeld's departure as defense secretary has been the loosening of top generals' tongues about the urgent need to replenish and expand the armed forces. Mr. Rumsfeld came into office in 2001 determined to shrink the Army; disastrously, he stuck to that resolution even after the wars in Afghanistan and then Iraq stretched the force to the breaking point. Mr. Rumsfeld accepted a "temporary" increase of 30,000 troops in the active-duty force only after it was imposed by Congress; he insisted that a reorganization of brigades would substitute for a raw increase in manpower. Last week the general he hired to carry out that reorganization, Chief of Staff Peter J. Schoomaker, finally spoke the truth: The force, he said, "will break" under Mr. Rumsfeld's regimen. The continuation of his policies is "not right."

The first step to repair the damage is clear: a steady buildup of active-duty Army and Marine forces in the next few years. Gen. Schoomaker proposed that the Army could grow by 7,000 soldiers a year; he said the total increase was still under discussion. Outside experts have proposed adding as many as 20,000 soldiers a year, and a buildup in overall force strength from the currently authorized 512,000 to at least 535,000; some want 750,000. Luckily there appears to be strong support in Congress for a substantial boost, including from Democratic senators such as Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.). The obstacles will be the expense -- each 10,000 additional soldiers could cost $1.2 billion a year -- and recruitment. As it is the Army has been adding soldiers at the rate of only about 5,000 a year while struggling to meet recruiting goals. A jump to 20,000 a year may not be realistic.

One way to ease the pressure on the active-duty forces while they are growing would be to change the deployment rules for the reserves and the National Guard. The Bush administration is observing a policy that limits reservists to one involuntary mobilization of less than 24 months. After five years of war, only 90,000 of the 522,000 Army National Guard and reserve members are available to be mobilized, The Post's Ann Scott Tyson reported last week. The Pentagon staff is expected to press the new defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, to ease the restrictions. That will be politically more difficult than simply increasing the size of the Army. Nevertheless, it's a step Mr. Gates should take and that Congress should support.

A jump in the size of the Army should take place regardless of the course of the U.S. mission in Iraq. In the post-Sept. 11 world, the Army must be prepared to deploy to multiple theaters, while still guarding against the rise of a strategic threat such as China. Some who favor a bigger force, such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), also want to send tens of thousands more troops to Baghdad and Anbar province; the White House is said to be seriously considering the idea. We share Gen. Schoomaker's evident skepticism about whether such a "surge," which could not be sustained for long, would do any good. Quick military fixes are unlikely to work in Iraq; there, as with the Army, it would be better to focus on fashioning a sustainable long-term strategy.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company