DO WE NEED A BIGGER ARMY? Gen. Peter Schoomaker says that we do:

Schoomaker said the Army began the Iraq war “flat-footed” with a $56 billion equipment shortage and 500,000 fewer soldiers than during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. . . .

The burden on the Army’s 507,000 active-duty soldiers — who now spend more time at war than at home — is simply too great, he said. “At this pace, without recurrent access to the reserve components, through remobilization, we will break the active component,” he said, drawing murmurs around the hearing room.

The Army, which had 482,000 soldiers in 2001, plans to grow temporarily to 512,000. But the Army now seeks to make that increase permanent and to continue increasing its ranks by 7,000 or more a year, Schoomaker said. He said the total increase is under discussion.

Back in 2004, in the face of good news about recruitment and retention, I observed: “Nonetheless, I suspect that it’s a good time to be looking at enlarging the military and adjusting the force structure.”

That hasn’t been the plan, and I guess it depends on what we intend to do next. If we’re planning to cut-and-run from Iraq and hunker down, then we don’t need a bigger Army. (The problem isn’t holding onto the troops we’ve got — As Army Secretary Francis Harvey said when we interviewed him, recruitment and retention are going well. That’s a separate question from the one of how big an Army we need, but I’m afraid that if we stress the troops we’ve got too much, retention will slide, something we discuss in that interview; Harvey was sanguine, me not quite so much.) My own preference would be for a bigger Army than we’ve got, so that the stress on the troops will be lower, and we’ll have more capacity in case we need it in Iran or Saudi Arabia. The Administration hasn’t seemed to feel that way. I’m a lot less of an expert than the people running the Pentagon (I hope!) but it seems to me that returning the Army to its pre-Clinton Administration size isn’t such a bad idea.

There’s also this problem:

Compounding the problem, the Pentagon has restricted repeated involuntary call-ups, leading to deeper and deeper holes in Army Guard and reserve units. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, hundreds of thousands of reserve soldiers have been mobilized for Iraq and Afghanistan. So when a unit is called to deploy, the only soldiers who can go are volunteers and new soldiers. The remainder are often drawn from dozens of units across the United States.

Short of a very large increase in Army size, this problem won’t go away entirely — certainly an extra 30 or 50 thousand soldiers won’t make a big difference, and returning to the pre-Clinton size Army isn’t going to happen in less than several years. I had something about these issues back in 2001, in the context of Afghanistan — see this, too — but it indicates that force structure and rotation methodology matter as well as total Army size. I’m certainly not prepared to second-guess the Army on this, as repeated involuntary callups raise issues of their own, but obviously people have to weigh the costs and benefits. Are they weighing them properly? Beats me. I would have expected — in fact, I did expect — more problems with recruitment and retention than we’ve seen over such a long period of hostilities, so that suggests that they know more than I do. As they should!

UPDATE: This question — how big should the Army be — is only loosely related to the question of whether we should, as John McCain wants, send 35,000 more troops to Iraq, except insofar as this wouldn’t be such a big issue if we had a bigger Army to begin with. Whether 35,000 more troops will make a difference or not is unclear to me, and it’s a matter on which the generals themselves seem to be divided. But if we had a bigger Army, such questions would be purely a matter of utility, and not so much of institutional strain.

ANOTHER UPDATE: A reader emails:

Interesting that you would post this today.

Tonight my husband and I had “the” talk – and I can assure you that the spouse or loved one of any member of our military who has deployed, knows exactly what “talk” I mean.

My husband is past active duty Army, and is currently a member of the Army National Guard with one deployment under his belt. He has recently volunteered for another deployment. He’ll mobilize in the next few weeks.

Tonight we had the “If I don’t come home” discussion. We’ve had this discussion before, and knowing my husband, I’m sure we’ll have it again.

We’ve been married for 17 years, I know this man as well as I know myself. I know if I threw a hissy fit, he wouldn’t volunteer. He’d wait until his entire company was activated again…

But I can’t do that.

In his own words. “I’m a soldier, it’s who I am, it’s what I do”

Who would I be to ask him to be something that he’s not?

In our civilian life, we’re comfortable. We own our own business, we have two great kids, our home is ours, free and clear..I love our life..

But being a soldier is who he is.

Don’t ever underestimate our military. Sure, it would be great to have more troops, I’d be thrilled if he never had to deploy again. But my husband isn’t the exception, he’s much closer to being the rule. I’ve seen it over and over again, and these soldiers never cease to amaze me.

They’ll do whatever it takes – the question is – will the rest of the country?

Just some Grunts’ wife.

I’m sure they will, but it’s wrong for the rest of the country to presume on that. Meanwhile, though I linked it before, this post by Porphyrogenitus is worth noting, too. And Major Dave Lange notes another problem:

One more problem with increasing the size of the Army: where do you put all those troops? A good number of the bases where troops were stationed during the Cold War simply aren’t there anymore. Ft. Ord, CA, the former home of the 7th Infantry Division, for example, is now part of the Cal State University system. And the bases in Germany that once housed elements of 5 divisions are, or soon will be, gone, with a just a couple of exceptions.

Even going halfway back to the roughly million-man Army we had during the Cold War would mean adding another 250,000 troops, requiring another 5-10 major installations. Not sure where you’re going to find that-and when you do expect enviro-socialists to protest turning the habitat of the southern tigerspotted swamp tree newt into a tank range. And people who don’t want to live next to the sounds of gunfire and artillery, or low flying helicopters.

Like our other problems, this is not insoluble — but it requires people to work on solving it.