End strength

Posted by lex, on December 20, 2006

Give the following all the consideration that it deserves, coming as it does from a benched FA-18 pilot with negligible experience in manpower, but:


Emphasizing that success in the war on terrorism is essential to the security of generations of Americans, (President) Bush said, “We have an obligation to ensure our military is capable of sustaining this war over the long haul and performing the many tasks that we ask of them. I’m inclined to believe that we need to increase . . . the permanent size of both the United States Army and the United States Marines.”

With the opening caveat in place, you can put the rest of this in the category of an interested observer musing aloud  – I wonder if this is truly the right way to go?

Manpower is rather more expensive than is commonly appreciated. Aircraft carriers are hideously expensive pieces of technology, and on top of their acquisition costs, they are subject to recurrent maintenance expenses and equipment upgrades that can, over the course of a full lifecycle, easily reach hundreds of millions of dollars. With all of that in mind, would it surprise you to discover that nearly half of the lifecycle cost attaching to carrier operations is spent on manning?

It surprised me.

The army and Marine Corps are manpower-heavy services, and while reducing end-strength is very nearly as simple as the stroke of a pen, operationalizing an increase in force structure is an expensive proposition, not to mention a long term one. 

Say you want another 100,000 trigger pullers: On top of the salary, incentives and benefits packages that come with realizing that force increase will come a requirement for various degrees of overhead for additional support personnel – the Marines are famously tight in their tooth-to-tail ratio, but other services have different reputations, which isn’t to say that they don’t know their own business.

The ground forces are currently making enlistment quota, while the USAF is actually down-sizing, but I don’t get the impression that we’re turning away hordes of otherwise qualified applicants. Having somehow found enough additional people who are willing to enlist we will have to dedicate additional resources – both in time and money – for the training and equipping of them, not to mention housing them and feeding them and their dependents. But in an era of deficit spending and emergency spending authorizations, put aside the notion of cost for now and focus on the inflexible tyranny of time.

Increasing the force structure of “tomorrow” to remedy the deficiencies of “today” is a project that will take years, time that I don’t think we have. The way I read the tea leaves there are only two likely outcomes over the next two to three years, certainly within a year or so of the next presidential election: The first possibility is that we will have “won” the war in Iraq, meaning that there is in place a functioning government of some sorts – we hold out hope for a democratic republic – capable of defending itself with limited support from US trainers and air power assets. In this case most of the US combat power and support infrastructure currently in Iraq is no longer needed and has redeployed back to garrison.

The second possibility is that we will have “lost” the war, meaning our forces have disengaged from what is likely to be an inter-confessional bloodbath and may be a spreading regional conflict and once again, redeployed back to garrison. Given the concomitant blow to national prestige that such failure would represent, they would probably stay there for the next couple of decades, unless called forth in case of existential need.

Under either exit scenario all of those new divisions will muster, manned, trained and equipped just as the demand signal goes back to GWOT baseline. Think Horn of Africa and the Philippines.

There are a couple of other possibilities: We maintain the current effort in Iraq and Afghanistan at a somewhat reduced level for the foreseeable future meaning that the new force structure eases the rotational burden as it stands up. I just find that notion politically unlikely in the current environment – it would mean committing ourselves to long-term problem solving, and as incoming chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Charlie Rangel is quoted as saying, it’s not in the interest of the new House leadership to help solve a “Republican” problem. Instead, the new guys on the block find that the idea of spending the balance of the Bush administration’s lame duck term quizzing them on pre-war decision making and raking through the muck of Abu Ghraib has so much more to offer. This will no doubt make for many moments of high drama, low oratory and queasy television spectacle, but it’s hard to see how all of that will change anything for the better overseas, and on the topic of “staying the course” the American people’s patience has evidently worn thin.

Another possibility is that in his attempts to transform the army into a lighter and more nimble force, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld might have cut force structure too deeply. But while this is probably true if one’s goal is to place armies of occupation atop restless populations, it seems much less true if the noble idea of re-shaping failed states and tyrannies along more democratic lines has lost its shine. The current force structure has proven more than adequate to the task of nation-breaking, it’s nation-building that is proving so manpower intensive.

There’s another possibility of course – that we expect the demand signal to actually increase in the out-years. I wonder where those new forces would ultimately go?

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1 Comment

Filed under Carroll "Lex" LeFon, GWOT

One response to “End strength

  1. Pingback: Compulsory service | The Lexicans

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