WASHINGTON – With commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, no one disputes that the Army has a lot on its plate. But the consensus collapses when it comes to easing the military's charge.
To meet its commitments, the Army has had to delay soldiers' retirement from the service and has temporarily expanded its ranks by 33,000 men. But when it comes to more permanent solutions, the Defense Department (search) and some military experts say that much can be accomplished by improving efficiencies within the service.
Changing soldiers' specializations, using more technology and making better use of the Reserve are among changes that could help transform the force, they say. Others argue that adding Military Police and civil affairs units instead of Cold War-style artillery and armor units would provide more capabilities to fight wars like the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"We can feed the hungry, clothe the naked, bathe the unwashed, but we only do the minimum that we have to because there are other parts of our society that can do that," Brig. Gen. David Fastabend said at a recent Heritage Foundation event. By farming out these and other nonp-combat duties, the Army would free up more soldiers who could be in the field, he said.
Another example Fastabend cited is to coordinate niche capabilities, like helicopter units, that are specific to the National Guard and Reservists in each state. While state governors like having these capabilities, it does not benefit the overall force structure.
"We're not going to tolerate that anymore," Fastabend said.
Congress has passed the Defense Department funding bill for next fiscal year starting Oct. 1, but before the Pentagon can spend the money, Congress must pass the National Defense Authorization Act (search), which prescribes personnel strengths for each branch of the Armed Services.
Edward Bruner, a retired colonel and a defense specialist at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (search), said Congress must consider several questions before it considers new priorities.
"What is the cost of not enlarging the Army? ... Are we wearing out the force? Are we breaking the force?" he asked, adding that the impact of changes on U.S. influence in world events should also be considered.
Those are some of the same questions the presidential candidates are debating. For months, Kerry has said that he would permanently expand the active-duty Army by 40,000 troops, including doubling the Special Forces (search). The fiscal year 2004 authorized strength of the Army is 482,400.
National Guard and Reserve "units are being pushed to the limit," Kerry said on August 18 at the Veterans of Foreign Wars annual convention, explaining why he would grow the active duty force.
Kerry says he would cover the expense, estimated at $3 to $4 billion, by cutting back on funds for a national missile defense (search) system, which he called "the wrong priority" at a time when America faces different threats. Kerry's expansion proposal would be accompanied by continuing transformation plans that include increasing technology investment and improving counterproliferation capabilities.
Kerry is not the only one calling for a larger Army. Last November, a bipartisan group of 128 members of the House of Representatives, including 54 of the 61 members on the House Armed Services Committee asked the Bush administration to propose funding in the fiscal year 2005 budget request for two additional divisions, which would amount to 30,000 or more additional soldiers.
But Bush has said a permanent expansion of the Army is unnecessary and the money would be better spent elsewhere.
"It is no longer relevant to measure America's war-fighting capability by the number of troops and equipment in a particular country or region," the Bush campaign's national security fact sheet states. "Now, one high-tech ship or tank or aircraft can deliver the same combat power that once required ten ships or tanks or aircraft."
Bush is in favor of gaining efficiencies rather than adding soldiers. In this way, defense dollars can be used on technology and equipment like missile defense rather than more men, he has said.
While the Army's transformation effort has earned praise from retired Lt. Gen. Theodore Stroup, Stroup says more troops are needed.
The Army is underfunded and overburdened compared to the other services, and needs a bigger slice of the defense budget.
"The other service departments are going to have to give up some percentage points because today you have a strategy/resources mismatch," Stroup said, adding, "I can say it because I am retired."
Stroup said the Army should be expanded by 40,000 to 50,000 men. He cautioned that this expansion should only take place if the money is available to avoid putting too much strain on the force and pulling money from elsewhere. He said the Army does not have enough soldiers to handle current missions, citing the inability to devote enough forces to Haiti as one example.
Offering a contrarian view, Charles Pena, director of defense policy studies at the CATO Institute (search), said he doubts enough efficiencies can be implemented by the Army to enable it to meet all of its commitments. However, his prescription was not for a bigger Army, but for a smaller one to be accompanied by fewer commitments.
President Bush is "correct that we need to have a smaller, lighter, more readily deployed Army than what we've had in the past," Pena said, adding praise for the administration's plans to move some troops out of Europe and Asia. He suggested that even more troops should be withdrawn because these rich countries should be able to defend themselves.
He said that if the Army is cut, some of the money saved could be spent on tools for the War on Terror like unmanned aerial vehicles and more Special Forces. "Special Forces are going to be the backbone of how we deal with the Al Qaeda (search) threat," Pena said.