WASHINGTON – If things had gone according to the Bush administration’s expectations in Iraq, no U.S. troops would be there today, says former Army Secretary Thomas White.

“The working assumption that we were budgeting against back in 2003 was that within 90 days of the completion of military operations, you could pull the first 50,000 soldiers out of there, and within six months, everybody would be gone,” White recalled. “We expected to be home by now.”

Instead, the Army is scrambling to provide its share of 140,000 service members to shore up the new interim Iraqi government against an insurgency whose virulence took Pentagon planners by surprise. And that’s fueling a debate over whether the nation needs a larger Army for the long term.

David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel, told a House committee earlier this month that the Army’s recent moves were not “last resort” measures but part of an effort “to ensure that the burden of service in Iran and Afghanistan is shared equitably.”

But Gen. Peter Schoomaker, Army chief of staff, told reporters recently that the Iraq deployment was “stretching the Army. I don’t think that’s a secret.”

With the interim Iraqi government in power, U.S. strategy calls for American troops to gradually hand over primary responsibility for security to Iraqi police, national guard and army forces.

But for the moment, Iraqi forces remain inadequate in number, training and armament to do the job. So the Pentagon anticipates keeping 130,000 to 140,000 troops in Iraq at least an additional 18 months – and has contingency plans to send up to 25,000 more, according to recent testimony.

Sustaining such troop levels will require active-duty, Reserve and National Guard soldiers who have already served in Iraq to return – a prospect that leads experts such as White to warn of impending disaster.

“I do not think that the current operational tempo of the United States Army is sustainable,” said White, whom Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld fired last year. Media accounts said the two clashed over the secretary’s plans for modernizing the military.

“If you think that you must sustain this level of operational tempo for the foreseeable future, then you had better start immediately to make the Army larger.”

Various members of Congress agree. This year’s House and Senate versions of the defense authorization bill contain provisions that would boost the Army’s size by 30,000 and 20,000 troops, respectively.

The Bush administration has opposed permanently increasing the Army’s size, arguing that the current strain is a spike in demand for soldiers.

But Rumsfeld has used emergency authority to expand the force by imposing “stop loss” orders, which keep soldiers on duty after their contracts have expired. So while the Army’s congressionally required “end strength” – or size limit – is 484,500, as of June 15 the service had about 496,000 soldiers.

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“There is no disagreement between the (Defense) Department and the committee about the intermediate-term strength level of the active Army,” Chu told the House Armed Services Committee. “We all agree, approximately 30,000 above the fiscal 2004 end-strength – permanent end-strength – set by the Congress.”

Where the administration disagrees with Congress is on “how it’s going to be financed and whether that increase is permanent or not,” he said.

Schoomaker said he preferred getting more soldiers without permanently expanding the service because Congress might fail in the future to approve the $3.6 billion a year that a 30,000-troop increase would cost.

If that were to happen, he said, the Army would have no choice but to pay for the additional troops by cutting investments in hardware, readiness and other vital parts of its budget.

“Congress can only fund it one year at a time,” Schoomaker said. “They can, however, encumber us forever.”

Expanding quickly isn’t feasible anyway, the general added, because of the time required to train soldiers and the money required to equip them.

“I can’t grow the Army 50,000 or 60,000 people today,” Schoomaker said.

But the service is recruiting 6,000 more soldiers this year than last and retaining 5,000 more under stop-loss orders than would be required to hold end-strength to 484,500.

“So we’re growing at about 10,000 a year, actual growth,” he said. “That’s about what the training systems will allow us to do.”

The Army also is boosting its combat power by shifting soldiers from service to combat jobs.

Counting the Army Reserves (at about 205,000) and Army National Guard (with about 350,000), “We’ve got over a million people in our Army, and it’s inconceivable that we can’t field more capability out of a million people than we’re currently fielding,” Schoomaker said.

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The good news for the administration is that, so far, recruiting and retention numbers for all the services remain healthy. So repeated combat deployments aren’t driving many people out of the military or scaring away an inordinate number of new recruits.

Through the second quarter of the fiscal year, the most recent figures available, the Army had recruited 34,594 enlisted personnel – slightly more than its 34,227 goal.

The service also did well in re-enlistments, generally meeting its goals. But it fell 292 short of its goal of re-enlisting 10,162 mid career enlisted personnel, many of whom are junior noncommissioned officers, such as corporals and sergeants. And that could be a bad sign, some experts say.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a former 82nd Airborne Division officer and a primary sponsor of the Senate amendment to increase the size of the Army, said repeated deployments to combat zones could lead midcareer personnel to get out in increasing numbers, undermining the Army’s future.

And during the House hearing earlier this month, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said the administration should rethink its position before more ominous problems arise.

“You are using people pretty hard right now,” Cole told Chu.



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