Breaking the Army

President Bush’s ongoing “surge” of some 35,000 troops to add to the 140,000 already deployed in Iraq is highlighting growing concern, particularly among the military brass, that the U.S. army is overstretched and fast becoming “broken”.

An increasing number of senior retired officers, some of whom had previously expressed optimism that the active-duty force of some 500,000 soldiers could handle U.S. commitments in the “global war on terror”, now say the current situation today reminds them of 1980, when the service’s top officer, Gen. Edward Meyer, publicly declared that the country had a “hollow Army”.

“The active army is about broken,” former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who also served as chairman of the Armed Forces Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush 15 years ago, told Time magazine this week, while another highly decorated retired general who just returned from Iraq and Afghanistan described the situation in even more dire terms.

“The truth is, the U.S. Army is in serious trouble and any recovery will be years in the making and, as a result, the country is in a position of strategic peril,” ret. Gen. Barry McCaffrey, former head of the U.S. Southern Command, told the National Journal, elaborating on a much-cited memo he had written for his colleagues at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

“My bottom line is that the Army is unraveling, and if we don’t expend significant national energy to reverse that trend, sometime in the next two years we will break the Army just like we did during Vietnam,” he added.

In an indication of the growing concern, both Time and the more elite-oriented Journal ran cover stories this week. They both concluded that the Army was rapidly approaching or had already reached “the breaking point”.

“Pressed by the demands of two wars, plus mandates to expand, reorganise, and modernise, the Army is nearing its breaking point,” according to the Journal, which also ran a companion article on how much the service has been forced to lower its mental, physical and moral standards to meet recruitment targets.

Some 15 percent of Army recruits last year were granted “waivers” from the Army’s minimum standards — about half of those were “moral waivers”; that is, they were permitted to enter the service despite prior criminal records. Only 82 percent of recruits had a high school diploma or its equivalent, below the Army’s benchmark of 90 percent and the lowest rate since 1981, according to the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

From just over 1.6 million soldiers at the height of the Vietnam War, the Army’s active-duty force fell to a half million troops by the mid-1990s, following the end of the Cold War. Counting reserve and National Guard forces, the Army’s total strength stands at about one million soldiers, of whom less than 400,000 are trained for combat.

While that was considered adequate for conventional conflicts with clear military and political objectives like the first Gulf War, in which the U.S. used overwhelming force to quickly prevail, it has proven far less suitable for the kind of prolonged occupation and unconventional war in which Washington now finds itself engaged in Iraq.

While some in the military brass, like then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, warned the Bush administration even before the 2003 Iraq war that several hundred thousand troops would be required to stabilise the country, Bush’s defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was determined to show that a “transformed” military — one that used advanced technology to make up for numbers — was the wave of the future, repeatedly rejecting appeals by his commanders, Congress and some of his neo-conservative allies to expand the army’s size.

It was not until Rumsfeld was ousted after last November’s elections, nearly four years into the U.S. occupation, that Bush finally agreed. In January, his new defence secretary, Robert Gates, called for an increase in army ranks to nearly 550,000 and in the Marines, from 175,000 to 202,000.

These increases, however, will be phased in over five years, offering little relief to stresses in the existing force, according to defence experts.

In addition to lowered standards for recruitment, the biggest concerns at the moment have to do with readiness and training. As more troops are rotated into Iraq for the “surge”, the amount of time devoted to training has been substantially reduced.

“Given the new policy of having (U.S.) troops (interact more) among the Iraqis,” Lawrence Korb, the Pentagon’s top personnel officer under President Ronald Reagan, told Time, “they should be giving our young soldiers more training, not less.”

Adding to the readiness problem are shortages of equipment, such as tanks and Humvees, on U.S. bases where training takes place. Instead, as units are rotated out of Iraq, they leave their equipment behind for their replacements to use.

“On the equipment side of the equation, the Army is pretty much broken,” Tom McNaugher, an expert at the RAND Corporation, told the Journal.

Just as the Army has been forced to relax its recruitment standards, it has also been forced to shorten intervals between deployments. While the Army’s recommended standard is a two-year interval between deployments that can last up to one year, the average current interval is substantially less; in some cases, as little as seven months.

Those stresses are particularly difficult to manage for mid-level officers, most of whom have families back at home and have already served as many as three and even four tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.

While retention rates for these ranks remain strong, according to the Pentagon, some experts believe its statistics, which lag by several months, do not reflect what is actually taking place.

“Today, anecdotal evidence of collapse is all around,” according to ret. Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, a former Rumsfeld adviser and a regular commentator on CNN, who previously was optimistic about the war and its impact on the Army.

“The Army’s collapse after Vietnam was presaged by a desertion of mid-grade officers (captains) and non-commissioned officers… Most left because they and their families were tired and didn’t want to serve in units unprepared for war.”

“If we lose our sergeants and captains, the Army breaks again. It’s just that simple. That’s why these soldiers are the canaries in the readiness coal mine,” he told the Washington Times last week. “And… if you look closely, you will see that these canaries are fleeing their cages in frightening numbers.”

Indeed, the Army is currently short about 3,000 mid-career officers, a number that will be impossible to make up as the army expands over the next five years — a situation that Scales called “pretty much irreversible”.

According to a report in the Boston Globe Wednesday, graduates from the military’s officer training academy at West Point are choosing to leave active duty at the highest rate in more than three decades — “a sign to many specialists,” the Globe said, “that repeated tours in Iraq are prematurely driving out some of the Army’s top young officers.”

Of the 903 officers commissioned on graduating from West Point in 2001, 54 percent had left the service by January of this year.

Meyer, the general who pronounced the army “hollow” in 1980, agrees that the army appears headed down the same path as after Vietnam.

“I absolutely see similar challenges confronting the Army today as we faced then in terms of stresses being placed on the force,” he told Journal. “I think the Army is stressed at this point more than in all the time I’ve watched it since at least the end of the Cold War.”

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.