Talent on the Military

Regarding my earlier post on whether we should increase the size of the military, Jim Talent writes in:

Ross Douthat ... disagrees with my claim (in the March 5, 2007, National Review) that the Army should be larger. He asserts that the Army would be adequately sized already if not for the nation building exercise in Iraq, which he does not support. I don’t begrudge him or anyone their discontent with the Iraqi operation but I would point out the following:

1. The National Military Strategy (NMS) is the government’s official evaluation of our military requirements. The current NMS, dating back to the Clinton years, requires a military capable of defending the homeland, sustaining four peacekeeping engagements, and fighting two large-scale regional conflicts at approximately the same time.

As far as I know, no one has questioned the validity of these requirements. Given the potential flashpoints in North Korea, Taiwan, and the Middle East, the global war on terror, the situation in Darfur, and the ethnic and regional rivalries around the world, America could easily face two substantial combat operations at almost the same time. In addition, the military must perform various peacekeeping obligations, as well as the day-to-day homeland defenses, intelligence and patrol obligations of the military. In my judgment, the NMS should be updated to include nation building and anti-guerrilla responsibilities because -- regardless of the wisdom of the current operation in Iraq -- those are capabilities which experience shows we need in the post cold war world. America built a democracy and fought guerrillas in Bosnia. The mission in Afghanistan requires both capabilities. If Saddam Hussein had actually possessed an active nuclear program, there would presumably be a consensus that the war in Iraq was the right thing to do -- 77 Senators voted for the war on precisely that assumption -- yet the Army would be having many of the same problems it is having now, because it did not possess the right organic capabilities from the beginning.

2. My larger point was that, even under the current NMS -- even assuming America should never build a democracy or fight guerrillas anywhere -- the Army is too small. A 10-division Army is not capable of fighting two major regional wars like Desert Storm at the same time, much less fight two such wars while carrying on the other missions called for in the NMS.

Washington has known the Army is undersized since 1993. In House Armed Services Subcommittee Hearings that year, recently retired Army Chiefs of Staffs tore to shreds the idea that a 10-division force was adequate. I was on that Subcommittee, and the man who chaired it -- Ike Skelton -- currently chairs the full House Armed Services Committee. Representative Skelton agreed with the things the Chiefs said.

Mr. Douthat, like all Americans, is entitled to ask how official Washington, under two Presidents and several Congresses controlled by both Parties, could have gotten such vital issues so wrong for so many years. The answer is that, once the Cold War ended, budgetary considerations were consistently allowed to trump the clear needs of national security. That is why so many defense experts are now calling for substantial increases in the Army and the defense budget and also for a requirement that at least four percent of the GDP be devoted to the national defense for the foreseeable future. Those changes won’t affect the operation in Iraq, but they could well be vital to the success of American foreign policy -- whatever it is and whoever is running it -- for decades to come.

I appreciate the former Senator's response. Regardless of the merits of the two regional-wars posture, though, I remain skeptical that it's even possible to maintain such a posture with an all-volunteer military, given the recruitment and training challenges we face already. Recall that Desert Storm, which Talent cites as an example of a "regional" conflict, involved 500,000 U.S. troops; he's right that we couldn't fight two Gulf Wars at once with the current Army, but it seems to me unlikely that recruitment alone with enable us to make up the difference. It's true that the Army was larger in the Reagan era than today, but that Army was recruiting in peacetime; today's recruits, by contrast, know that they're signing up for war, and there are fewer of them as a result. As I suggested in my earlier post, I think that advocates of the "two regional wars" posture haven't grappled sufficiently with this quandary, and I think the logic of their position suggests that what America needs now is a draft.