How Much Is Enough?


Oct 14, 2003

This commentary originally appeared in Washington Times on October 14, 2003.

As bipartisan arguments for larger military forces surface among commentators and political leaders, it is important to place these arguments into some meaningful analytical context. It is also wise to hearken back to the 2003 National Defense Authorization Act—and the September 2002 U.S. National Security Strategy that shaped it. In that act, Congress clearly stated that active-duty strengths should be increased over the long term.

The United States may now be running unacceptable risks to its national security if current force size is held constant—i.e., unless known demands and other, unknown demands requiring major applications of military power can be met within current strength limits.

For example, post-conflict operations in Afghanistan currently involve some 10,000 troops. Postwar reconstruction and peacekeeping in Iraq could take as many as 50,000 troops over the long term. Rotation policies announced by the Army July 23 effectively extend at least this level of commitment well into 2005. The number could easily stay two or three times higher than that level over the near term, however, given logistical and force protection requirements for units. Developments since the fall of the Ba'athist regime surely demonstrate the centrality of these arguments—and merit no further elaboration here.

As responsibilities for homeland security evolve, support provided to regional, state and local jurisdictions—largely via the National Guard—may well continue to increase. Prior to September 11, the function received a lower priority from the Department of Defense, which generally concentrated training efforts (and budget) on consequence management and not on homeland defense per se. Support will now have to include the broad areas of WMD domestic preparedness and civil support, continuity of operations and border and coastal defense. The reserve components, in turn, will likely bear the lion's share of these responsibilities. Hence, while activating more reserve units may be the option of first resort to meet demands for more troop strength, this is not the prudent choice for a de facto addition of troop strength.

While adding more manpower for all services may now be essential, current arguments in favor of doing so skip past some crucial preliminary steps. Taking these steps, in turn, would lead to better-grounded estimates of the proper size and structure of the forces necessary to carry out a comprehensive national security strategy. A more complete analysis of the near- and long-term demands of the national security strategy, then—one that allows for "knowns" and hedges against "unknowns," such as those occurring in Iraq today—must be conducted at once.

Arguably, three known demands arise from that strategy, and they all suggest a departure from current force strengths: (1) implementation of a new doctrine of "pre-emption," (2) increases in peacekeeping/nation-building responsibilities, and (3) homeland security missions like domestic preparedness and civil support, continuity of operations, critical infrastructure protection and border and coastal defense.

Adherence to three basic principles in the course of such analysis, in turn, will help assure some modicum of accuracy. These principles are that: (1) goals and objectives of our security strategy be the foundation for judgments regarding needed capabilities; (2) military forces should be structured, equipped and sized so as to meet these—to include analysis of organizations and potential structures as precursors to mere "size"; (3) forces, to include reserve components, must be able to sustain their support of ongoing missions over the long term. (This latter principle can by itself justify larger forces; i.e., not all forces can be fully ready all of the time over the long term.)

A countervailing argument is that if creative policies to generate troop strength out of existing resources can be brought to bear by shedding non-essential functions, troop increases could be moderated to a level of marginal adjustments. In a similar vein, an examination of numbers and types of headquarters could lead to an ability to realize a significant manpower savings as well; the questions, then, become how much and how quickly? While it is difficult to see how technology or machines could effectively substitute for peacekeeping and anti-guerrilla efforts that now consume large numbers of troops, it is possible that military force structures could become less labor-intensive—albeit in certain areas only.

The current debate calls to mind a remark by a columnist some years ago, on the subject of force sizing: "I always hate it when someone starts with 'how much is enough?' ...because I know the answer will surely be wrong." Yet, candid debate and fact-based analyses will surely make the answer less wrong. Such a debate, beginning with a comprehensive "demand analysis" of our strategy, is essential. With over 368,000 Army soldiers deployed in 120 countries (232,759 active-duty troops; 74,551 Army National Guard members; and 61,590 Army reservists), this analysis must not be put off any further.

Ralph Masi, a retired career Army officer, is a senior analyst with the RAND Corporation.

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