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The Price of Bush's Military Transformation

October 11, 2007

Over just the past 24 hours, a flurry of stories have highlighted the growing and evolving burden facing the overstretched United States military. In Washington, Defense Secretary Robert Gates stressed the need to transform the American military to address the "fundamentally political nature" of its current and future conflicts. While the Marine Corps has proposed shifting its forces from Iraq to take over frontline duties in Afghanistan, the Army is offering bonuses of up to $35,000 to retain specialists from its rapidly shrinking officer corps. Meanwhile, responding to the uproar surrounding recent incidents involving Blackwater, the State Department may phase out its use of private security firms in Iraq.
Collectively, these related tales of our overwhelmed military paint a picture of strategic failure dating back to the inception of the Bush administration. Beginning with Donald Rumsfeld's myopic military transformation, the seeds of today's overburdened, exhausted, mercenary-laden American national security posture were sown.
First, a little background. From the end of World War II through the early 1970, the United States containment strategy assumed a "two and a half war" scenario. That is, the United States would have to prepare to fight full-scale wars against the Soviet Union in Europe, against China in Southeast Asia, as well as fighting regional communist proxies in Africa, Asia or Latin America. This set of geo-strategic threats led to a network of far flung American bases, with trip-wire forces in Berlin and the Korean peninsula, all backed by the prospect of massive American nuclear retaliation.
With the growing Sino-Soviet rivalry in the late 1960's and the thawing of U.S. relations with China, American war planning entered a new, "one and a half" conflict phase. This posture persisted through the end of the Cold War, when the demise of the USSR ushered in a third era of "two regional conflicts" through the Bush 41, Clinton and early Bush 43 administrations. For defense planners, the likeliest two regional conflicts involved Iraq and North Korea. As late as 1990, the American military had 2.1 servicemen and women under arms, with 16 active Army divisions.
But by August 2001, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was advocating a smaller, quicker and more mobile American military for this new vision, with only 8 active Army divisions. Only weeks before the September 11 attacks by Al Qaeda, Rumsfeld was planning for a new United States force posture that was already obsolete. (The title of the Washington Post's August 9, 2001 story is particularly telling: "Rumsfeld Mulls Two Options: Status Quo or 10% Military Cut.")
Even before the struggles in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States had already learned painful lessons and the limits of its current force composition in the 1990's. First, the 1991 Gulf War consumed virtually the entire active American Army, raising serious questions about the viability of the "two regional conflict" model. Second, large, extended and dangerous American peacekeeping missions in Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo highlighted the lack of military police or gendarmerie forces within the U.S. military. Last, the growing threat from non-state terrorist actors would require a dramatic expansion of highly skilled, quick strike American Special Forces.
As a result, Donald Rumsfeld's vaunted "10-30-30" American war fighting timetable was from its conception pure fantasy. His formula, 10 days to overthrow a rogue regime, 30 days to restore order and 30 days to redeploy for the next adventure, has not only been shattered by the Iraq experience. Even for much smaller operations, current American force levels and growing global commitments make 10-30-30 impossible, both politically and militarily.
Which brings to today's "Rob Peter to Pay Paul" conundrum for the American military. Its too few fighting units are overcommitted and exhausted. National Guard and reservists (and their families) are overtaxed. Precious intelligence assets and Special Forces are siphoned off from the hunt for Al Qaeda to maintaining the surge against civil war and sectarian strife in Iraq. All the while, the United States deepens its dependence on mercenaries like Blackwater for basic security operations, only to earn another black eye among global Muslim opinion.
That's the context for today's torrent of stories. Speaking to the speaking to the annual convention of the Association of the United States Army, Gates cautioned his Army against longing for a return to the days of "high intensity" conventional combat, instead arguing its future will closely resemble its present in Iraq:

"Success will be less a matter of imposing one's will and more a function of shaping behavior of friends, adversaries, and most importantly, the people in between."

That's a future the Marine Corps would best leave to others. At a meeting of the Senior Leadership Conference convened by Secretary Gates just hours after Admiral Mike Mullen was sworn in as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. James T. Conway, the Marine Corps commandant, proposed shifting the 25,000 Marines in Iraq to Afghanistan. There, they would constitute the bulks of NATO's ground forces in the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Gates downplayed that news, "I have heard that they were beginning to think about that and that's all that I've heard," adding, "I've seen no plan, no one's come to me with any proposals about it."
Meanwhile, the military's manpower problems only get worse. The burden of repeated deployments and the potential lure of much more highly compensated private security work is draining the Army's officer corps of experienced specialists in intelligence, infantry and aviation roles. With its planned addition of 65,000 new troops by 2010, the Army faces a shortfall of 3,000 captains and majors by 2013. With attrition rates for captains of averaging 12.2 % but topping 20% for some specialties, the Army has responded with its most aggressive program of signing bonuses to date. 6,000 have already accepted bonuses ranging from $25,000 to $35,000 for new three year stints.
And so it goes. Six years after 9/11 and in year five of the occupation of Iraq, the Bush administration shuffles the deck chairs on the Titanic that is the broken, battered American military. And for that sad state of affairs, President Bush and his team of deciders like Donald Rumsfeld deserve the blame.
UPDATE 1: As ThinkProgress just reported, Dick Cheney disagreed with Donald Rumsfeld's outser last November and continues to believe "Don was the right guy to continue to lead the Department of Defense."
UPDATE 2: The AP is now reporting that the Pentagon has been paying bonuses of $150,000 to retain Navy Seals, Army Special Forces and other elite commandos. Implying the impact of overdeployments and the lure of private firms like Blackwater, Rear Adm. Michael LeFever, director of the Navy's military personnel plans and policy division, said, "Back in 2005, we saw quite a few exits. What we're seeing lately is just the opposite. We've become very aggressive."

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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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