WASHINGTON – As President George W. Bush contemplates a "surge" in U.S. troops in Iraq and an expansion of the nation's armed forces, several former military officers warn that either decision could place an almost fatal strain on an already stressed force and may reduce recruiting standards in a push to meet numerical goals.
Bush is expected to offer his strategy for Iraq sometime before the State of the Union address, which is scheduled for Jan. 23. The president has hinted that he may want to increase the number of U.S. forces around Baghdad or embedded with Iraqi soldiers.
Former military officers who spoke to FOXNews.com said increasing troop levels in Baghdad would mean keeping existing brigades there longer, bringing U.S. troops in from other areas of Iraq and accelerating deployments from home. If any of these were to be done long-term, rules for mobilizing the reserves and National Guard would have to be changed so they could be redeployed more often.
"Surge? Yes, we can," said retired Army Col. Douglas MacGregor, a decorated combat veteran who led armored cavalry in Operation Desert Storm. "It will break the force, which in my estimation is broken already. It will leave you with no strategic reserves."
Retired Army Col. David Hunt, a regular FOX News contributor who recently returned from Iraq, said the prospect of assigning soldiers and Marines in Iraq for longer tours of duty is cause for worry.
"Everyone we met was on a second tour, at least, and many were on their fourth or fifth combat tour in either Iraq or Afghanistan. The soldiers are tired; the families are going nuts. It's not the solution," he said.
The size of the active duty military will no doubt have to grow to keep up, both retired officers said. The president announced in December that he would ask Congress to expand the size of the Army and Marine Corps, but did not say by how much.
Currently, about 507,000 soldiers are on active duty in the U.S Army and 180,000 Marines are in active service. The U.S. military has 520,000 National Guard and reservists. According to reports, all but 90,000 of these part-time soldiers have been mobilized at least once since Sept. 11, 2001, and current guidelines say they cannot be redeployed yet.
Meanwhile, estimates are that the Army would need to expand to as many as 600,000 active duty soldiers to fight a protracted global War on Terror.
"I think you have to increase the size of the military before you can think of increasing the troop levels in Iraq," said retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson, a fellow with the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, who has a son serving in Afghanistan.
If not, "I think it will break both the Guard and the reserves and really hurt the active duty military. We just don't have the troops to try and do everything," he said.
In December, Army Gen. Peter Schoomaker told the Commission on National Guard and Reserves that the Army would have to tap into National Guard and reserves more heavily in the short term to keep up with any increased demand for troops in Iraq or other operations abroad. In the long term, the Army would have to grow.
"Over the last five years, the sustained strategic demand … is placing a strain on the Army's all-volunteer force," said Schoomaker. "At this pace, we will break the active component."
The Pentagon provided no further comment on the current strength of the force.
In a recent report entitled "A Plan for Success in Iraq," Fred Kagan, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, proposed to turn the tide of violence in Iraq by adding five more combat brigades — doubling the 17,500 troops in Baghdad by March and adding 12,500 soldiers on top of that by September.
Kagan predicts that a new operation could take anywhere from 18 to 24 months for success and would be doable by extending tours and accelerating deployments. It would not "break" the Army, he surmised.
"Losing now will certainly break the force," he wrote. "Victory increases the morale of soldiers and officers."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has been a vocal backer of sending more troops in Iraq. The 2008 presidential hopeful made his case during a congressional delegation to Iraq in December.
"I believe there is still a compelling reason to have an increase in troops here in Baghdad and in Anbar province in order to bring the sectarian violence under control," McCain said, adding that additional troops would "allow the political process to proceed."
To offset the burden and to provide "strategic options in many scenarios beyond Iraq," Kagan said it is imperative that Congress authorize at least 30,000 Army soldiers and Marines be added to the active military force each year over the next two years.
Others say this is easier said than done.
"Right now the Army is authorized for 512,000. They haven't been about to fill up to that point," said Winslow Wheeler, a former congressional aide for national security issues who now works at the Center for Defense Information. "To achieve their quotas they have had to go through great lengths ... They've had to lower standards."
Asked whether expanding the military in anticipation of a "surge" in troops to Iraq could be accomplished under present circumstances, one Pentagon policy official who did not want to be named said it could be done but at a substantial cost.
"It's an admirable goal, but at some point we're going to face a trade-off between quality and quantity," the official said. Rather than just adding warm bodies, the War on Terror is in need of highly trained soldiers with specializations, he said.
"We're going to need very skilled warriors with cultural acumen, with language skills. You don't just mass produce these people," the official said.
Reports have been circulating that military recruiters have been overlooking minor criminal backgrounds and drug and mental health issues to make quotas. In October, the Associated Press sifted through Army recruitment statistics for 2006 and found that about 17 percent of first-time recruits, or about 13,000 soldiers, were accepted under waivers allowing for recruits with medical, moral or criminal issues, including drug and alcohol problems and drunk driving arrests.
That number was up slightly over the year before. The Army also was accepting more recruits with low aptitude scores. Officials say the waivers are the exception, not the rule. The Army announced in October that its active-duty recruitment exceeded its goal of 80,000 new soldiers in fiscal year 2006 after falling nearly 7,000 short the year before.
Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y, has been raising the specter of reinstituting the draft to resolve recruitment issues. He has promised to sponsor another bill this year to start conscripting soldiers for the first time since the Vietnam War, when the active duty Army ranks were just below 1.6 million.
Rangel argues that if the draft were in effect, the administration would never have invaded Iraq because it would not have had the support of Congress or other elite Americans whose kids may have been placed in harm's way.
Similar bills previously proposed by Rangel failed due to a general lack of support from either side of the political aisle. Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said voting on a new proposal is not high on her priority list.
According to the Department of Defense, all branches of services either met or came very close to their recruiting goals for fiscal year 2006. Re-enlistments also are exceeding goals.
"The Army National Guard is really coming off a banner recruiting year," said John Goheen, president of the National Guard Association of the United States, which added 13,000 to its ranks in 2006, to just below its goal of 350,000 total Guardsmen.
"That's really counterintuitive to peoples' ideas of how recruiting should be in the middle of a war. Steps have been taken and incentives have been quite good," Goheen said.
As part of its effort, the military is paying more to draw volunteers — double- to triple-figure bonuses depending on rank. According to Wheeler, Special Forces are getting anywhere from $140,000 to $160,000 to re-enlist.
Retired Marine Col. Thomas X. Hammes, an Iraq war veteran and author of "The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century," said the current goals are fine, if "you believe this is the most important thing we are going to do in a generation." But at some point, the bank is going to break as other challenges to U.S. security emerge.
"I think it's important we hold the quality high so we have to pay significantly more," Hammes said. "I think the key question is, what are the costs, and who is going to pay for it: by cutting other programs or raising taxes?"
Estimates have ranged from $1.2 billion for every 10,000 men and women added to the ranks.
"That sounds cheap to me," Wheeler said.
Another issue the military will face is the upgrade and supply of more equipment, particularly armored vehicles and body armor, said Hammes. "You have got to get serious about equipping the U.S. forces and the Iraqis," he said. "We're still using peacetime procurement."
Goheen said the National Guard has about one-third of the equipment it needs. It also needs authorization to recruit more men and women rather than straining the existing forces they have.
"We've never been funded at more than 75 percent," said Maj. Gen. Roger Lempke, head of the Nebraska National Guard and president of the Adjutants General Association of the United States. "We've had to pull from other units to fill units, we had to obviously pull equipment from other sources to send units over.
"All that said, the intention of the adjutant general is to work as hard as we can to support the Army, but it has to be under the terms we need for a healthy Guard to move forward," he said.
Lempke added that a rule change allowing deployments for the Guard and reserves for more than 18 months in any five-year period would be disaster without new equipment and fresh recruits.
"They just can't call us back like we were draftees and throw us back into the fight," said Lempke. "The Army is in a tough position. They are stretched; we are also stretched. We can help them, but not with the immediacy that they think they need."