In his State of the Union message, President Bush, echoing previous comments from Defense Secretary Robert Gates, announced he will ask Congress for authority to increase the U.S. armed forces by 92,000 people over the next five years — 65,000 additional soldiers for the Army, bringing the total to 547,000, and 27,000 additional Marines, bringing the total to 202,000.
Since a number of Democrats have also called for increasing the size of the military in light of difficulties in Iraq, there is unlikely to be much resistance to this plan. But it deserves serious questioning on several levels.
Figuring out how large a military the United States needed was relatively simple during the Cold War. The United States had a reasonably accurate idea of how many troops the Soviet-backed Warsaw Pact numbered, and how many U.S. troops would be needed (in addition to Western European troops) to prevent a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Other conflicts and commitments complicated the calculation, but it was reasonably safe to assume that planning mostly for conventional warfare was sufficient.
The threats America faces in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are more diffuse, and a military response is not always appropriate. The questions that need to be asked before deciding how big the military should be are seldom considered.
What is U.S. foreign policy going to be once the Iraq war winds down — or is the United States planning to have 100,000-plus troops in Iraq for years to come? Will the United States consider it a duty to intervene wherever there is a potentially destabilizing conflict or the threat of one? Are U.S. leaders contemplating military action against Iran? Does the United States plan to be the policeman of the world or just the sheriff?
Are commitments made a half-century ago or more still binding — meaning, does the United States still need to keep 30,000 or more troops in South Korea, 10,000 in Japan and Okinawa and about 100,000 in Europe? Will America revert to a more “humble” foreign policy as candidate George W. Bush suggested was appropriate when he first ran for office? Will the United States want to send troops to such places as Darfur if they are available?
Until such questions are debated fully it is impossible to think intelligently about an appropriate size for the U.S. military.
Increasing the size of the military, even over the next five years, will not be easy, especially if the United States wants to maintain high quality in the current force. As Charles Pena, a military analyst and senior fellow with the Independent Institute, said, “The military is already having a hard time just keeping the current force in place.” The Army and Marines met their recruiting goals for 2006-2007. But in fiscal 2006 nearly 4 percent of Army recruits — the maximum allowed under current guidelines — scored below certain levels on aptitude tests and were classified as Category 4.
According to the Army, every additional 10,000 troops costs about $1.2 billion a year. Will that kind of money really buy us more security, and can the taxpayers afford it?
Until such questions are thoroughly debated, it would be wise to hold off on increasing the size of the military.