U.S. Military Will Need Post-Iraq Rebuilding

It’s time to start thinking about what America’s military will look like after Iraq.

Soon, Iraqis, not GIs, will be policing streets in Tikrit. We need to prepare. If we don’t repeat the mistakes of Vietnam (search) -- when a capricious Congress cut off support, leaving the south to face tanks without ammunition, parts or airpower -- then we can expect to see the new, legitimate Iraqi government outlast the terrorists.

However, what goes on in Baghdad after the election may be less critical for us than what happens in Washington.

After Vietnam, Congress moved quickly to downsize the military and cut funding. The Army became a “hollow force” with inadequate troops, training and equipment. By the end of the decade, Army Chief of Staff Edward “Shy” Meyer told President Carter that only four of the service’s 16 active divisions stood ready for battle.

The Reserves were even worse off. Recruiting plummeted after the war. Nearly one out of every two volunteers for the new post-draft “all-volunteer force” was a high-school dropout or scored in the lowest category on the Army’s intelligence test.

I was a lieutenant in the hollow force. When I was commissioned from West Point (search), our class was told, “It’s an OK Army.” In a way, this was correct. There was no money to modernize weapons and equipment. That task had been deferred to pay for the war, and units didn’t have enough people to train on the equipment, anyway. Even if they had the people to fill the ranks, there wasn’t enough money to pay for training and maintenance. It was all OK -- as long as we didn’t actually have to fight anybody.

In the 1980s, an adrenalin shot of funding from the Reagan administration saved the services. Some parts of the force, such as the National Guard (search), still never got the resources they needed, but by the end of the Cold War, after a decade of investment, it again was an Army to be proud of. In 1991, as the operations officer of an artillery battalion in Germany, I sent part of my unit to support Operation Desert Storm (search). I never worried about them for a minute. They were terrific kids, well-trained and well-armed.

The post-Cold War (search) drawdown took its toll on the military. Defense spending as a percentage of GDP sank to its lowest levels since the outbreak of World War II. The Clinton administration took a prolonged procurement holiday and cut the force to the razor-thin minimum needed to get by.

One presidential term, particularly with all the demand for military forces in the war on terror, wasn’t enough to get us the military we needed for the 21st century. And Iraq is making transforming even tougher. Operations are straining the force. Helicopters are wearing out at five times their anticipated rate. Trucks are going into overhaul five times faster than anticipated. America’s military is serving the nation well, but it’s becoming a tired warhorse.

After Iraq, it’ll be 1973 all over again. There’ll be pressure to balance the budget on the back of defense cuts. Pentagon proposals for trimming spending are already floating around Washington like inauguration-parade confetti.

Putting away the checkbook before resetting the military for its next mission is a bad idea. The military has been stretched, and it shows. The National Guard alone has had to transfer more than 74,000 soldiers from one command to another just to fill the ranks deploying overseas. Since 9/11, the Army has transferred more than 35,000 pieces of equipment from non-deploying units to forces in Iraq, leaving the stay-behind commands lacking more than a third of their critical equipment.

Getting the military back in shape will cost big time. Until the drawdown in Iraq begins, Congress must provide timely supplemental funding. After Iraq, robust annual defense budgets should be axiomatic. Keeping spending at about 4 percent of GDP (only half Cold War spending levels, but about 25 percent higher than the Clinton years) isn’t a bad goal.

If Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld decides he needs to cut bases or programs because they don’t fit the military’s future requirements, great. Any cuts or money saved from inefficiencies should be reinvested in the military. The Pentagon should use these funds to build the military America needs: an all-volunteer force of active and reserve soldiers -- one that provides adequate compensation, support and opportunity for all its troops, the right equipment, professional first-class leadership and training, and organizations designed to meet today’s challenges.

That’s the best way to truly exorcise the ghost of Vietnam.

James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for defense and homeland security at The Heritage Foundation.

James Jay Carafano is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies  The Heritage Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @JJCarafano.