America’s ground forces—the U.S. Army, Marine Corps, and Special Operations Forces (SOF)—are under severe strain. Sustaining high troop levels in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other operations overseas has required a tempo of repeated deployments that has taken a substantial toll on Army, Marine Corps, and SOF readiness—that is, their ability to deploy and conduct their assigned missions effectively:
• Nearly every non-deployed combat brigade in the active Army is not ready to complete their assigned wartime missions.
• The Army National Guard has only half of the equipment it needs.
• Compressed training time has left Marine Corps units unready to respond to other contingencies should they arise.
• Many active duty soldiers and Marines are on their third or fourth tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a number of National Guard units have been recalled for a second tour of duty.
• Eighty-five percent of SOF forces are deployed to Central Command’s area of responsibility, with little available for operations elsewhere.
Amidst growing concern and deepening debate over the strains on U.S. ground forces, President Bush reversed long-standing administration policy and submitted to Congress a proposal to expand U.S. ground forces by 101,211 personnel, or nearly 8 percent. This is a significant and welcome departure from policies that insisted ground force levels were adequate for any contingency despite unprecedented strain in recent years. The added cost for these end strength increases from 2007 through 2013 is estimated to be $108 billion, with an additional $14 billion per year thereafter. The administration proposal, if fully implemented, would represent a sizeable increase in personnel spending.
Expansion is an Opportunity to Shape U.S. Ground Forces for the Future
The force we build today is the force that will safeguard our national security tomorrow. As disturbing and compelling as current strains on the force may be, they cannot serve as a sound basis for force expansion. Any proposed expansion must be based on an assessment of the future security environment and the types of demands it will likely place on U.S. forces.
Determining whether and how to grow Army, Marine Corps, and Special Operations Forces is a matter of deciding how best to balance risk across a range of competing national security and defense priorities. The key issue is not just how big the force should be, but also what kinds of capabilities the United States will need to meet future challenges. In fact, getting the shape of the force—the mix of capabilities—right is likely to be most important, particularly in a future that is likely dominated by missions that will require capabilities that are often in short supply in today’s military.
Looking to the future, the United States can anticipate facing a broad range of challenges which, taken together, will put a premium on the U.S. military’s ability to excel in a number of missions that have been largely de-emphasized since the Vietnam War. Though U.S. ground forces have made some adjustments to meet challenges in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, it is not certain that they will preserve and build on the best of these adaptations and capabilities. What is required is a more fundamental shift in orientation, from a force that has been optimized to fight large, conventional wars to a future force that is truly “full spectrum”—with greater capacity for irregular operations while retaining the ability to prevail in high-end warfighting against conventional or WMD-armed foes. The increased focus on irregular warfare also requires a rigorous debate on how to develop and leverage the “comparative advantage” of other instruments of national power, not simply the military.
Meeting the full spectrum of future challenges will require growth in U.S. ground forces. More importantly, it will require substantial change in U.S. ground forces’ orientation, training, and mix of capabilities to be better prepared to deal with the demands of irregular operations. Expansion provides an invaluable opportunity to pursue innovative approaches to enhancing U.S. capabilities for the future, such as establishing an Army Corps of Advisors and Military Advisory and Assistance Groups.
The Administration’s Plans Need to be Refined
Opportunities to dramatically strengthen the armed services do not occur often, and when they do, they must be seized. The emerging bipartisan consensus to increase U.S. ground forces presents the chance to reshape them for a future that looks very different from the past for which they were built. While there are a number of laudable changes in the administration’s proposals, the Army, Marine Corps, and U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) are at risk of missing this opportunity. Current expansion proposals are focused primarily on reducing the strains driven by operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. They do not appear to take adequate account of how tomorrow’s demands may differ from today’s. Absent are the sorts of organizational innovations that would signal that a more fundamental shift is afoot.
Both the Army and the Marine Corps should revisit their growth plans and put more resources toward innovative solutions that will dramatically increase their ability to be effective across the full range of future operations, especially irregular operations and building the capacities of partner nations to provide for their own security in the future. The United States should also rebalance its investment in SOF to grow more capacity for “indirect action.” This will likely require still greater growth in areas such as Special Forces, civil affairs, and psychological operations.
Getting Expansion Right: Key Questions
As the services refine and the Congress considers these proposals, four sets of key questions need to be addressed in order to get expansion right:
• Roles and Missions. What is the appropriate division of labor between Special Operations Forces and general purpose forces? Between the Army and the Marine Corps? Among active duty, National Guard, and Reserve forces? Between ground forces and air and naval forces? Between the uniformed military and private contractors? Among the military and civilian agencies?
• Sustainability. Will expansion plans reduce the strains on ground forces by ensuring adequate capacity in capability areas likely to be in high demand?
• Recruitment and Retention. How can the United States recruit and retain the envisioned force without lowering quality standards?
• Costs and Risks. Are the costs of the proposed expansion affordable? And is growing the nation’s ground forces the best way to manage risk given the nature of the challenges the United States will likely face in the future?
How these questions are ultimately answered will either enable or constrain the U.S. military’s performance in future operations, as well as the options available to future presidents. The stakes are high. Congress must ask tough questions and demand compelling answers to ensure that additional investment in our nation’s ground forces yields the capabilities and capacities we need to safeguard American security in the future.
The Bottom Line
The contours of the future security environment suggest that the Army, Marine Corps, and SOF need to grow in size. Exactly how much growth makes sense and what shape that growth takes, however, should be the focus of additional analysis and deliberation.
We recommend a three-track approach. First, the Department of Defense should give top priority to building irregular warfare capabilities.
This will require profound changes in the ways in which U.S. military forces – and particularly U.S. ground forces – are organized, trained, educated, equipped, and employed. Changing the mix of U.S. capabilities on the margins will not be enough. This is likely to be the only major increase in ground force strength for a generation.
Congress must ask the tough questions and demand compelling answers to ensure that additional investment in our nation’s ground forces actually yields the right capabilities in the right quantities for the future. Failing to refine current proposals to strengthen and deepen U.S. capabilities for irregular warfare, while maintaining conventional superiority, will inadequately safeguard American security in the future.
Second, due to the unprecedented strain on the All-Volunteer Force, the Department of Defense must consider new approaches to recruiting and retaining military personnel, and ensuring that they operate at sustainable levels in the future. Congress should support initial steps necessary to begin expanding U.S. ground forces. However, it should insist that the Army, Marine Corps, and USSOCOM provide more in-depth assessments of future demand, how their expansion proposals will enable them to meet that demand, whether and how quality standards can be maintained as growth occurs, and the long-term costs and potential trade-offs of their proposals.
The third track requires holistically assessing all instruments of U.S. power, both civilian and military, and determining what capabilities the nation requires for the future security environment. In the end, shaping the growth of U.S. ground forces will be even more important than getting the size exactly right. Today, America is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan with a military that was optimized for winning conventional wars. In a future dominated by adversaries who will likely use predominantly asymmetric approaches (such as terrorism and WMD), the U.S. military must become a truly “full-spectrum force,” as proficient in irregular operations as it is in conventional warfighting. This report is a scoping effort to provide a framework for thinking about whether and how to expand U.S. ground forces. As such, it raises more questions than it answers. Future CNAS studies will offer more in-depth analysis and possible solutions to many of the questions we raise in this report.