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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Even as the military grows, however, top officials are warning that the Pentagon will need still more troops. Ford recently said that the Army will need an additional 30,000 soldiers to fulfill its duties, not only in Iraq and Afghanistan but around the world. Others have noted that U.S. military commands in the North and in Korea are also clamoring for more soldiers. So, too, is the new U.S. Africa Command. Then there are the demands of cyberwarfare, which will need more staff, say officials, after some recent crippling cyberattacks on U.S. computer systems at the Pentagon and at U.S. bases abroad.

As if all these challenges were not enough, the Pentagon instituted new training requirements in December that will require troops to receive instruction in how to do "full spectrum combat." This means, in military parlance, drills in a host of old-school battle scenarios such as, for example, traditional tank wars. Soldiers have spent the last few years focused on counterinsurgency operations, much to the consternation of some who warn that America might one day be drawn into a land battle with another world power. But it already looks like the implementation of that new doctrine will have to be tabled for the next three years, say top military officials, because it will be at least that long before troops have 18 to 24 months between tours, the amount of time required for such training.

The news for military manning isn't all bad, however. The outlook for recruiting is growing steadily sunnier in the wake of the implosion of the U.S. economy, which has been a boon for military recruiters. "We do benefit when things look less positive in civil society," said David Chu, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. Fiscal year 2008, which ended in September, was the best in five years for the Department of Defense. Top officials remain only cautiously optimistic, however. "Military recruiting is always a challenge," says Curt Gilroy, accession policy director for Defense, "regardless of what the unemployment rate is."

  • Read more about whether Iraq is ready for the U.S. military to start leaving.
  • Read about a small U.S. force guarding the gates to Kabul .

  • 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.