When More Is Less

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From conservative House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (search) to liberal military pundit Michael O’Hanlon (search) at the Brookings Institution, the ranks of those calling for additional Army divisions are swelling faster than the military itself ever could.

The trouble with the “more-troops” boosters, though, is that they fail to point out that the additional soldiers wouldn’t be useable until two years from now.

And if at that time the U.S. military still finds itself overextended in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’ll be facing a far bigger problem than a bunch of fresh-faced GIs could ever hope to solve.

What the U.S. needs are quick, effective measures to deal with the fact that the Army is stretched thin right now, with 21 of its 33 active-duty combat brigades doing tours overseas. (Sixteen are in Iraq, two in Afghanistan, two in South Korea, and one is in the Balkans.) A far more sane -- and sustainable -- ratio would be 8 to 11 of the 33 overseas.

Here’s how to get there. First and foremost, the U.S. has to solve what Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz has called the “somewhat messy” situation in Iraq. Particularly in the Sunni Triangle (search), far too many soldiers continue to be killed by rogue Iraqis, leaving the place too unsafe for anyone but the professional U.S. and British troops. This -- and the fact that there isn’t yet an Iraqi military ready to do its nation’s work -- is the real problem straining U.S. forces.

If the security picture could be improved, then more of the U.S. Army soldiers could be relieved by other, more lightly armed forces. But in the near term, while things remain unsafe, there are nonetheless a few things the U.S. could do to relieve the soldiers’ burden:

Rely on U.S.-allied troops: Britain is leading a division of 12,000 international troops and Poland is preparing to lead by September a division of 9,000 international troops in Iraq. They’ll include soldiers from countries that have volunteered their forces without nitpicking about U.N. involvement, and include Italy, Hungary, Japan, South Korea, Spain and Ukraine.

India was to lead a third division, and along with Germany and Turkey had said it would share the burden of stabilizing post-Saddam Iraq. But these countries continue to hide from their commitment behind the argument that the U.N. -- parent of many a post-war reconstruction disaster -- must lead the multinational effort.

Shift the roles of existing Army troops: To get as many cops on the beat as possible in Iraq, the Army is already making good headway turning as many of its non-infantry soldiers as possible into infantrymen. But this ad hoc solution should be applied more permanently.

Consider that for every three combat-ready brigades in a division, the U.S. has another two brigades that specialize in artillery, armor, or logistics and support functions. While this ratio remains essential for some brigades, it is a holdover from a time when the U.S. worried about fighting the Soviets and…Iraq. It’s possible to retrain a good number of those troops for combat roles -- not just for post-war Iraq but for the longer term. And when the U.S. Army plans out its recruiting and training for future years, it will do well to channel fewer soldiers toward heavy forces and more toward light, rapid forces.

Send in the Marines: The Department of Defense could decide to put a few regiments of some 3,000 Marines into a rotation with Army troops, in order to free up still more Army soldiers. The Marines -- who, since performing excellently in the Afghan and Iraq wars, have returned to the relative comfort of their naval vessels -- could take over the stability operations in Afghanistan, for instance. This would free up to 10,000 Army troops for service in Iraq.

Six months from now or more, when Iraq has become, one hopes and trusts, safer, there will be a few other steps the Pentagon can take to make the Army’s load lighter. Most are already under consideration. The Pentagon could:

Hire private security forces: Employing retired military personnel to perform military tasks for a country other than their own is hardly new. U.S. companies such as Brown and Root (search) supported U.S. military personnel and did policing in the Balkans (search). And U.S. defense contractor DynCorp has worked with Colombia’s military as part of U.S. government aid there.

Similarly, British companies have provided military security in Angola and Sierra Leone, according to a British government green paper on the subject. Both British and U.S. officials have shown some interest in employing such contractors to do security in Iraq, and more than one strategist has made the parallel between the United States’ current position and that of Imperial Britain, which put local soldiers such as the Ghurkas (search) under British command. Whether private soldiers would be hired in sufficient numbers to make a dent in the U.S. Army’s problem is another matter, though.

Substitute civilian personnel: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said he can free up more uniform personnel by shifting 300,000 civilians into their jobs. While this is good thinking for the longer term, many would not be that useful as fighters in Iraq or Afghanistan in the near term. That’s because they specialize in administrative and other non-combat tasks. That said, perhaps there are 10-50,000 good soldiers who could be freed from their current jobs to assist forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Activate two divisions temporarily, from among National Guardsmen: The U.S. already has tens of thousands of reservists and national guardsmen on duty. Given our state of emergency, the U.S. government could add still more, albeit with a lot of strain to the guard population and their families. It could activate two divisions of 15,000 National Guardsmen each--  say, for two years. The U.S. could assign them to duty in areas of relative safety. This would free up active duty Army troops for the harder duty in less safe areas.

Let the Iraqis help themselves: In the end, “Iraq for Iraqis” is the best solution for U.S. troops. The U.S. plans to train up an Iraqi military of some 40,000 soldiers. The faster these soldiers and additional police can be trained and put to work keeping the peace in their own country, the better for the Americans there and for their families back home.

No doubt a bit of each of these solutions is needed to fix the situation described by outgoing Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki as “pursuing a 12-division strategy with 10 divisions.” Certainly, each of these solutions will go farther than would a costly and ill-conceived move, unprecedented in U.S. history, to expand the Army after a war.