We can't afford more troops
Edwin Dorn, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS
Saturday, August 30, 2008
As the presidential campaign enters the final stretch, neither John McCain nor Barack Obama is likely to reveal how he plans to deal with the record-setting $490 billion budget deficit that President Bush will leave behind. Once the election is over, however, the winner will need to figure out how to bring his campaign promises into line with fiscal realities. One place to start is the Bush administration's decision to expand the Army and Marine Corps by 92,000 active duty personnel.
McCain and Obama both have endorsed the increase. After the election, the winner should consider three questions: Can we afford a bigger military? Do we need it? What kind of signal are we sending to the rest of the world?
Each soldier and Marine costs about $100,000 per year in pay, housing, health care and other benefits. Adding 65,000 people to the Army and 27,000 to the Marine Corps will add about $9 billion annually to the Defense Department's personnel costs. And that doesn't include the costs of training and equipping those troops.
The personnel buildup comes as the Army is experiencing a huge backlog in its equipment modernization accounts — more than $50 billion, according to Larry Korb of the Center for American Progress. Pentagon experts also are concerned about this imbalance. David Chu, under secretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, recently argued that the Defense Department's growing personnel costs are squeezing out modernization in all of the services.
If enlarging the force were essential, then the United States could go deeper into debt to pay for it. Five years ago, most independent defense experts believed that we needed to enlarge our ground forces to occupy and stabilize Iraq. However, the likelihood of our keeping a large force in Iraq for another three or four years is very low, no matter who wins the election. So by the time the military services reach the ceilings that Congress authorized — 547,000 for the Army and 202,000 for the Marine Corps — those troops won't be needed in Iraq.
We do need to increase the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. There, however, we do not need the huge footprint of an occupying army, but a number of small units capable of advising, equipping and training Afghan security forces. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said as much in his National Defense Strategy.
Of course, the next president will have to think about security issues beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. He must consider the full spectrum of circumstances under which military power may be needed, from humanitarian relief operations to regional conflicts to full-scale war with a global adversary, and he has to consider the likelihood that these crises could happen simultaneously. The next president also will know that our ground forces are not large enough to mount even one sustained major regional conflict — at least, not if we go it alone.
This is where the signal sending comes in. The Defense Department's budget request for fiscal year 2009 is $515 billion, and that does not include tens of billions in "emergency" funding that the department has requested for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Total U.S. defense spending exceeds the combined spending of our likely adversaries and dwarfs the spending of our principal allies.
The message we're sending is clear: We would prefer to go it alone than to work on the hard, complex diplomacy needed to build and sustain alliances. Ironically, the more we spend on military capability, the more we will need to spend, because we lose the ability to bring other resources to bear on international problems.
Is this the trajectory our country should continue to follow? Given recent tensions with Russia and instability in Pakistan, should we not show our allies that their support is essential and that their advice will be taken seriously?
It is not likely that McCain or Obama will back off his campaign commitments. However, the next president will have to dig this nation out of the deep hole that his predecessor has left behind. By scaling back on plans to enlarge the military, the next president can take one small step toward restoring fiscal sanity — without sacrificing security. He also will send an important signal: The United States wants to engage with the rest of the world, not bully it.
Dorn, a professor of public policy, was under secretary of Defense for personnel and readiness during the Clinton administration.