You Can't Always Get What You Want

You Can't Always Get What You Want

A variety of overseas operations are burdening the U.S. military and hindering its effectiveness. It’s time to bring our commitments in line with our capabilities.

As the Iraq debate rages, both the administration's supporters and its most vocal critics share one basic assumption: The United States has the military means to choose policy options other than progressive disengagement. This is not the case. The Army and the Marines are overstretched to the point that repeated, prolonged deployments, without adequate time to refit and retrain, are grinding down the units. As structured and staffed today, the armed forces are not in a position to achieve the current strategic direction of planning for both traditional war and full-spectrum stability operations.

U.S. military leaders are fully aware of the problem. At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee in late September of this year, Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of U.S. Joint Forces Command, acknowledged that the overstretch of current missions may compromise the continued development and implementation of "jointness" and transformation across the U.S. military. As Mattis bluntly put it, we need to "recognize sometimes we simply don't have the forces to do something." Earlier the same month, General David Petraeus spoke indirectly to the issue of the overtaxed military in the recommendations appended to his Congressional testimony. Carefully separating operational considerations from strategic ones, he argued that the surge has achieved most of its objectives at the military level, but that at the strategic level, political progress built around sufficient security is the key to U.S. success in Iraq. Then he addressed the current state of the military, saying that "long-term U.S. ground force viability will benefit from force reductions as the surge runs its course." In plain English, a reduction in forces deployed to Iraq is needed to begin rebuilding the U.S. military, notwithstanding the debate over the timetable for the draw-down. It is not the question of if, but of when and how; to argue otherwise is to try to present a necessity as a policy choice. 

Every serious review of U.S. military options in Iraq must factor in one basic fact: The Army and the Marine Corps are too small to implement the strategy with which they have been tasked. At the heart of the problem lies the critical shortage of deployable infantry; by some estimates, the U.S. presently has a margin of only about 40,000 troops it can deploy on short notice in addition to the forces already committed. The continuing crisis with Iran and a possible Islamist explosion in Pakistan should put this reality in stark relief. Would the United States have the option to respond militarily to a sudden escalation in the Middle East or in Asia if its national interest compelled it to do so? 

The crunch is the result of a growing disconnect between strategy and available forces that dates from the Clinton administration, accelerating in the aftermath of 9/11 and Iraq. As successive post-Cold War U.S. administrations expanded the area of our security commitments by enlarging NATO and by focusing on full-spectrum stability operations, the military was being reduced in size. Between 1989 and 1996 the Army shed over a quarter million active duty personnel, decreasing from approximately 780,000 to fewer than 500,000. The current solution, based on the so-called Gates Plan and proposed by President Bush in 2007, calls for growing the military. Under this plan, to be implemented by 2012, small annual increases will result in an Army and Marine Corps of 547,00 and 202,000 members, respectively. This would amount to a total increase of 65,000 soldiers and 27,000 Marines.1 But though the planned increase will relieve some of the immediate pressure on the military, it is simply not enough, especially considering the scope of our current missions and potential contingencies.

The shortage of deployable infantry for full-spectrum stability operations is not just a U.S. problem, and it's affecting our ability to deal with Afghanistan. It is a NATO-wide issue; all Western armies struggle to generate sufficient numbers of deployable, usable forces. The British have been forced to cut their forces in Iraq to buttress their presence in Afghanistan and the Germans can only deploy fewer than 14,000 troops. France has about 30,000 available soldiers, but their focus remains in Africa. To appreciate the current U.S. and European shortage of deployable troops one should keep in mind that sustainability rests on the "rule of three." For each deployed soldier two more should be available-one resting and refitting, another training for the upcoming rotation. Since the September 2006 NATO decision to take over security for Afghanistan, allied forces have struggled to maintain a semblance of stability there with only 40,000 soldiers. To make matters worse, NATO has been shackled by a myriad of national caveats that prevent many soldiers from engaging in combat.


While President Bush has called for NATO to maintain its commitment to Afghanistan and argued for a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq similar to the South Korean model, the policy is written on sand unless we double the size of the U.S. armed forces. If the United States is to continue on its current path of planning for conventional war in key areas as well as for what can be called "wars of protracted presence" aimed at fostering regional stability, the troop numbers projected for 2012 will be insufficient. But since U.S. defense spending is fast approaching $2 billion per day, doubling the armed forces seems unrealistic-short of allowing the national debt to escalate out of control, increasing taxes or cutting spending, or reintroducing the draft.

The U.S. military posture after the Cold War, and especially after 9/11, has been based on a grand strategy that is no longer sustainable militarily or politically. Current U.S. force posture and basing decisions reflect thinking that is wedded to the current short-term threat, without factoring in longer-term challenges and force requirements, especially in Asia. The current focus on terrorism is too narrow: It fails to consider emerging geostrategic threats and power shifts. It is debatable whether the U.S. is in fact capable of delivering sufficient forces where needed, especially considering our new area of security commitments due to NATO expansion, our new base footprint in Central Asia, the Middle East and increasingly in Africa, and the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. U.S. deployments in Europe are also becoming harder to maintain given troop shortages.

If a dramatic increase in the size of the military to match our expansive grand strategy is not in the cards, we must consider reducing the scope of the country's global security commitments and jettisoning post-Cold War assumptions about the need to accelerate transitions to democracy in critical regions of the world. American resources should be refocused on a lower-cost security strategy based on support for regime legitimacy as the path to regional stability, irrespective of whether legitimacy is based on democratic franchise, nationalism, or simply a regime's ability to control its territory. Moving away from "democratic universalism" in favor of a national interest-driven realist paradigm is the best way to limit the scope of our global military commitments and to make them sustainable.



Andrew A. Michta is professor of national security studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security in Germany. He will expand on this topic in a forthcoming issue of The National Interest. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


1 The projected 2012 troop numbers are based in part on those given by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates while speaking at a joint press conference with Secretary Condoleezza Rice and General Peter Pace at the White House Conference Center Briefing Room, Washington, D.C., January 11, 2007.