View Full Version : Confronting the ‘Over-Stretch’ Crisis

03-29-04, 06:38 AM

Confronting the ‘Over-Stretch’ Crisis

By William F. Sauerwein

Many so-called “experts” today seem astounded that the U.S. armed forces are “over-stretched,” and unable to meet all of their missions.

A common complaint is that the war in Iraq “distracted” resources from the war in Afghanistan. Another is that we did not go into Iraq “strong enough,” which contributes to the problems there today.

This phenomenon comes as no surprise, because it is the direct result of deliberate strategies that the White House and Pentagon adopted following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Throughout the 1990s, the priority was to reduce military spending and to transfer this “peace dividend” to “vital” social programs. Absent a tangible threat from any other major nation, we complacently languished in our role as the sole superpower. We relaxed our guard and in many cases allowed the United Nations to assume a leadership role (albeit with predominantly American troops carrying the weight).

in a general sense, this relaxation was understandable – after all, the United States had invested a lot of time, money and effort in defending the Free World. For almost fifty years, American forces were deployed around the world both in deterrence and combat roles. This leadership required American forces to be trained and equipped for all levels of warfare from counterinsurgency to nuclear strikes. Troops also had to be prepared for rapid deployment on a 24/7 basis to all types of climates.

The 1992 election brought people to power, who longed to slash and burn our military forces. Few of these people had served in the military, and many of them looked down on those serving as “extremists.” These “experts” began using the military as a convenient laboratory for all types of “social engineering.” Political correctness had priority over combat readiness and troop morale, ruthlessly “purging” those with differing views.

American post-Cold War strategy was built on the premise that no nation would foolishly challenge us. We ignored any existing threats as irrelevant, and suborned military preparedness to domestic political agendas. Those supporting deep cuts in the military ridiculed anyone voicing caution against these reductions.

Unfortunately, rogue states previously dependent on Soviet support, not only lost their patron, but found themselves unrestrained. With America’s stabilizing influence diminished or absent, new power vacuums emerged all around the world.

Still, our global commitments did not reduce at a level corresponding to the force cuts. Pentagon strategy remained planned around the scenario of fighting “two almost simultaneous regional conflicts,” virtually the same as during the Cold War. And it quickly became obvious that we would no longer have the force structure, or logistics, for this scenario.

Since large-scale combat on the plains of Europe was deemed irrelevant, that we did not “need” a large Army, the service’s personnel strength was reduced from over 772,000 to 489,000, and from 18 combat divisions to 10. Pentagon leaders believed new technology would serve as a “force multiplier” to compensate for the smaller number of combat and support units.

In the event of an unforeseen emergency, the Pentagon would mobilize National Guard and Reserve units. (The plan for these units included a 90 day post-mobilization train-up before deploying, which raised the question, “Suppose the enemy does not cooperate and attacks before these units are deployed?”)

The dirty little secret is that while this strategy looked good in theory, it was never supposed to be implemented.

As Iraq replaced Europe as the new primary theater of operations and Central Command wrote and refined its contingency plans, it became apparent that at current Army strength, a major combat expedition would require almost all CONUS-based divisions, leaving other global hotspots vulnerable. The strategy also relied on Saddam to wait until we deployed all of our units to Southwest Asia.

The strategy was symbolism over substance, designed for short-term ground combat operations based on Operation Desert Storm. It had no depth for providing a follow-on force to protect rear areas and relieve units that had been in sustained combat.

In the meantime, U.S. military strength was steadily declining from 2.1 million to 1.2 million personnel even as operational tempo was rising to 300 percent of the Cold War levels. The negative impact from mostly U.N.-sponsored humanitarian missions was severe.

As the number of missions increased, the Pentagon soon realized the need for a troop rotation plan, since most of these commitments were long-term and “personnel intensive.” Long before the current strains on the force from the Iraq occupation, the “meals on wheels” missions of the 1990s created havoc on readiness and troop morale. Years before Operation Iraqi Freedom, units returning from one deployment would immediately have to begin preparing for another. This caused many unhappy soldiers to “vote with their feet” and leave active duty.

As the active force became over-committed, DoD began calling more on the reserve force to fill the gaps. Soon, part-time soldiers were deploying for six-month rotations that created the same dilemma afflicting the active force, with the added burden of being separated from their civilian jobs, the primary support for their families.

Furthermore, the 1990s strategy quickly confirmed that short-term deployments were mostly illusions based on wishful thinking. We also learned that troops cannot remain deployed indefinitely, and an effective rotation system required significantly more personnel than were available.

In a six-month rotation cycle you effectively have the current deployed unit; the relieved unit undergoing rest and refit; and the unit preparing for the rotation. Besides these three units, you have the “support tail,” which traces from the “home base” to the theater of operations.

On 9/11 we added the war against terrorism to the list of global missions requiring our limited military resources. We also had a new dimension to this war, homeland security, as the terrorists viewed civilians as a “military target.” DoD activated Guard and Reserve troops for filling the void in homeland security, creating an even worse manpower problem for combat operations.

Critics who claim that the war in Iraq “distracts” the military from the war in Afghanistan are inadvertently indicting their own decade-long effort to cut the size of the force.

While in the short term we have been successful in conducting major operations against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and against the Iraqi military in Iraq, the question remains how our exhausted troops can sustain this effort at current levels.

The war against terrorism is an open-ended commitment. We cannot continue waging war using a strategy and force structure that did not even work during the false peacetime of the 1990s. It is time to consider investing in a military that is large enough and structured properly enough to handle the security requirements of a very dangerous world.

William F. Sauerwein is a Contributing Editor of DefenseWatch. He can be reached at mono@gtec.com. Please send Feedback responses to dwfeedback@yahoo.com.