April 12, 2007

Tour length isn't the problem

This appeared on the MSNBC Hardball Hardblogger

Adjusting combat tour length doesn’t solve the problem

Secretary of Defense of Gates announced Wednesday that he is extending the combat tour length for active duty U.S. Army soldiers from the standard 12 months to 15 months, with the commitment that the period between combat rotations will be 12 months. This announcement does not affect the reserve components of the Army – the Reserves and National Guard – nor does it affect the length of deployment for the U.S. Marines, currently seven months.

While that sounds like it will provide more troops for the commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, in reality many of the troops are extended for that extra three months anyway. In the past, that was the most effective way to plus up the number of troops: maintain the inbound schedule but retain units about to rotate home an extra three months. In effect, this formalizes the longer tour length that has been imposed on many of the soldiers who have served and are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The objective is to provide soldiers at least 12 months between combat tours, and at the same time provide higher levels of troops in the region. It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul. It will work in the short term, but at some point, you run out of soldiers.

The problem is not the tour length; it’s the fact that we do not have a sufficient number of soldiers – or Marines for that matter – to maintain the scale and pace of operations, the “ops tempo,” currently assigned to the armed forces.

Let’s be clear about our armed forces. Plain and simple, the all-volunteer force works. We have fielded the best-trained and best-equipped military in our history. At the end of the Cold War, we drew our forces down to what are now unacceptable levels. The problem is that there are not enough of them.

There are proposals to increase the size of the land component, the Army and Marines, by as much as 100,000 troops to supplement the existing 500,000 plus troops. That’s the minimum that is required if we are going to maintain presence in the world’s hot spots – right now that is Iraq and Afghanistan – and be prepared to defend our interests around the world wherever challenged. That challenge might come elsewhere in the Middle East – Iran comes to mind – or in Korea, Taiwan, or the Horn of Africa. We must be ready to act when needed, not worry about raising the required numbers after the crisis presents itself. When we decide that a deployment of U.S. forces is required, we need to send them in numbers that indicate we mean business.

We can’t do that now. On at least one occasion in the last year, the Pentagon was forced to deploy the 82nd Airborne Division’s “ready brigade” to Iraq. This is the unit that is supposed to be on call to respond to a crisis anywhere on a moment’s notice. It’s hard to do that when deployed to Iraq.

The interests of a nation of 300 million people can hardly be defended by one half of one percent of the population. We spend about four percent of GDP on defense. In today’s world, that’s not enough.