Obama to Confront Limits of America's Overstretched Military

After years of tough deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military struggles to retain soldiers.

U.S. soldiers walk past Iraqi women during a routine patrol in the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Fadhil in Baghdad.

U.S. soldiers walk past Iraqi women during a routine patrol in the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Fadhil in Baghdad.

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With progress in Iraq still precarious and the war in Afghanistan growing ever more violent, the American military remains overburdened and, U.S. officials repeatedly point out, dangerously overstretched. Troops are also exhausted, after back-to-back tours that are leaving a growing number of military families in shambles.

It's hardly an alluring recruiting scenario. But top U.S. military leaders warn that if the Pentagon is to continue to meet its responsibilities around the world, it will need more troops.

"You can't do what we've been asked to do with the number of people we have," Undersecretary of the Army Nelson Ford noted in a recent interview, driving home what has long been conventional wisdom within the halls of the Pentagon: Shortages in the military ranks will be one of the chief national security challenges of the Barack Obama administration.

Indeed, those demands will likely only grow greater under Obama's watch, particularly after his anticipated approval of plans to send 30,000 additional forces to Afghanistan. There, troops will not only be called upon to fight hard against increasingly sophisticated Taliban forces, but they will also need to put expert-level logisticians in place to figure out how to supply this influx of soldiers and marines—what amounts to a doubling of current U.S. force levels.

And even as troops leave Iraq for Afghanistan on the heels of greater stability in Baghdad, the U.S. military will need considerable forces to support the Iraqi military, including supply specialists, aviators, and intelligence officers. "As the [brigade combat teams] draw down, it means you have more people spread thin," Ford noted. "You need more logistics, more aviation, controls, and communication.

"You can see a point," he added, "where it's going to be very difficult to cope."

This comes as little surprise to the Pentagon, which is well underway with a plan to grow the ranks of the Army by 65,000 soldiers by next year, bringing active duty forces to a total of 547,000. The Marine Corps plans to add 27,000 to its ranks, growing to 202,000 by 2011. It's worth noting that the Pentagon recently accelerated those plans—originally the increase was slated to be complete by 2012, rather than the current goal of 2010—in the face of dire demand.

Such growth is expensive. Last year, the Pentagon asked for $15 billion to add 7,000 soldiers and $5 billion to add 5,000 marines to the ranks of the Corps. Separately, the Department of Defense requested an additional $11 billion to cover the costs of retaining, training, and recruiting its forces.

The area of retention is perhaps the greatest staffing concern of top military officials. Troops are tired. Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank, noted in a recent article that 27 percent of soldiers who had completed three or four tours in Iraq showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a 2008 survey, versus 12 percent after one tour and 18 percent after two. The figures could be aided by more rest time between toursat least 18 to 24 months—but it will likely be at least three years, according to top military officials, before troops get more than a year to rest between deployments.

Recruiting, too, has been a considerable challenge for the all-volunteer military engaged in two tough wars. When the Army fell short of its recruiting goals in 2005, it raised the maximum recruiting age to 42 years old, and added sign-up bonuses as high as $40,000. It also began enlisting more recruits with general equivalency degrees rather than high school diplomas. Just over 70 percent of new recruits had high school diplomas in 2007, for example, a 25-year low. Moral waivers for new recruits with criminal histories are also on the rise, nearly doubling from 860 waivers for marines and soldiers convicted of felonies in 2007, up by 400 from 2006. The Pentagon argues that these are modest figures relative to the size of the force, and that 97 percent of Marine Corps recruits in 2008 had high school diplomas.

Corrected on 1/21/09: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the official who called for 30,000 additional troops to be added to the U.S. Army beyond current Pentagon plans. It was Army Undersecretary Nelson Ford, not Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey.