Why is it hard for the US Army to keep 200,000 troops in the MidEast?
January 25, 2011 5:59 PM   Subscribe

The US Army has about 560,000 active duty soldiers, plus 550,000 Reserve and National Guard. Why is the Army under such a strain to keep 100,000 troops in Iraq and 100,000 in Afghanistan?

If the US Army has over a million troops, why is it under a strain to keep two hundred thousand troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, only some of which are actually on the front line?

Aside from the 30,000 troops on the North Korean border, where else are US troops engaged in such a way that they can't be drawn down to support the wars in Iraq and Iran?

As a comparison, did the US Army in World War II maintain a similar percentage of troops behind the lines, or does the modern Army require a great deal more R&R?

What am I not understanding?
posted by musofire to Law & Government (14 answers total)
Well, a lot of them do things like staff Womack Army Hospital and train Special Forces people and do paperwork and do personnel work and recruit and etc. etc. Not to mention there are other places these folks go that you won't read about in the paper.

For every soldier on the field, there are others doing things to support that soldier. Many of them do it from here.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:02 PM on January 25, 2011

Oh, and that's not even mentioning the wounded warriors who are still in the military and recovering. Or the ones on leave.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:03 PM on January 25, 2011

I don't have hard data but majority of soldiers in an army are support troops. You need certain number of support troops to field soldiers who actually do the fighting. Even though 200,000 soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan might sounds like a lot but only minority of them are actually infantry on the ground fighting. Plus you have to consider the logistic nightmare of feeding and supplying that many soldiers so far from home.
posted by Carius at 6:05 PM on January 25, 2011

Also, it's two hundred thousand troops in Iraq/Afghanistan at any given time. They regularly cycle out due to injuries, leave, rest, etc. It's not the same 200,000 men and women for all these years straight.
posted by Tomorrowful at 6:21 PM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

In addition to the points made above about support/logistics, it was only last year that the Pentagon began to draw down from the "two-war" doctrine that has characterized US defense policy since the end of WWII. The two-war doctrine (actually the "two-and-a-half" war doctrine) says that the US must be prepared to fight two simultaneous large-scale wars (the half is a "brushfire war"). So, basically, the US has to be prepared for a second full-scale engagement on the level of Iraq/Afghanistan, assuming one takes those to be broadly the same conflict.

So it's not so much that the US has trouble finding 200,000 troops for Iraq and Afghanistan as that the US has a hard time finding enough for that war plus enough for a whole other war plus enough for a smaller war plus enough for standard defense commitments at home and across the globe. As stated, the Pentagon is beginning to deviate from that policy (called during Kennedy's era, amusingly enough, the "flexible response" policy), but the military wasn't really going to be able to break down 60+ years of ingrained strategy inside a year. They've spent the last ten years thinking about maybe changing it (the front page of a Google search for "two war doctrine" lists articles from 2002 about the potential for policy revision), so these things happen slowly.
posted by Errant at 6:25 PM on January 25, 2011

We have troops stationed in over 150 different countries.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:42 PM on January 25, 2011

During the hot portion of the Iraq war, a large part of our ground forces had to be kept idle just in case North Korea decided to invade South Korea. The Second Infantry Division is permenantly stationed in South Korea, and there were a couple of divisions and independent combat brigades kept in the US proper, just in case they were needed.

This was, to some extent, a kind of deterrence. If we had used everything we had in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was thought that there might be a greater chance that the NK's might make their move. But since they knew we had reserve forces remaining, it was thought that they would be less likely to do it.

That was also the case during the first couple of years of the occupation, and that's why the US activated full National Guard divisions for the first time since the Korean War, to use in Iraq, even though there were regular Army units which could have been used. Those regular Army units were being held in reserve in case of trouble in Korea.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:15 PM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do modern armies require more support? Surely we didn't retain 2/3 of our army in the US during World War II?
posted by musofire at 9:06 AM on January 26, 2011

Modern armies require huge support. Over the centuries, the percentagee of uniformed men involved in support has grown and grown. But support people aren't all back in the home country.

They are kind of a chain that connects all the way from home to the front. Some are just behind the line. Some are well back. Some are on the ocean between. Some are back home.

I've seen an estimate that for every front line rifleman in the US military there are 10 men behind the line (somewhere) doing support work.

That was true in WWII, too. For an example, read up on the "Red Ball Express".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:17 AM on January 26, 2011

The above answers cover most of it; one thing I'd also add is *training*. It's not just new recruits who require training (though new recruits will be in training for many months before being deployed to a hot war zone): if you want your army to be a disciplined and effective force, you've got to bring the troops off the front line for lots of time-consuming training drills.

If I remember rightly, the British army reckons on troops being 'on the ground' for nine months out of three years. (This ratio may have deteriorated since 2003.) I assume that's the front-line units, and not, say, the engineers who repair the helicopters. These details are not precise, but I'm pretty sure the main point holds.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 3:12 PM on January 26, 2011

musofire, I'm sure I can't find a cite, but I believe that the US Army has always had the longest tail. Less efficient WRT manpower, but when that's not your limiting condition, it's a nice way to fight.

The German Army (WW2) had far more restrictive manpower availability, and was far more efficient in its operations, on that measure. But they lost.
posted by wilful at 4:31 PM on January 26, 2011

The German Army (WW2) had far more restrictive manpower availability, and was far more efficient in its operations, on that measure.

The German Army wasn't fighting all that far from home. The American supply line was five to ten times as long as the German supply line for most of the war; it's hardly surprising it took fewer men.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:46 PM on January 26, 2011

wilful and Chocolate Pickle, this is essentially begging the question. The US has pretty much for over a century expected every conflict to be over at least a small sea. Of course we need more logistics, but then, it's by extension something we do well and habitually so it's cheap for us. This is something like saying tall guys can dunk more easily.

Do modern armies require more support? Surely we didn't retain 2/3 of our army in the US during World War II?

What "support" is changes over time. In the Civil War you had armies in the field with practically everything they needed, living off the land. By World War II you had to create a massive vehicular logistics operation to keep them fed -- and just as importantly, fueled. Today, we have a lot of efficiencies in terms of modern technology meaning we don't have to put everything we're doing in the actual place we're doing it. At the near ultimate, we have real Ender's Game squadrons of virtual pilots flying missions over hostile territory -- and going home to their families on base housing near, I think, Las Vegas.

Think just of the evolution of command and control. Civil War? Grant operated just outside the smoke of battle. World War II? Ike was at SHAEF in London during D-Day, in Versailles during the push through the Low Countries, and in Frankfurt for the last three months before V-E Day. Today, missile defense is handled by a guy with a briefcase who follows the President wherever he goes, possibly even the bathroom.

In any case, back to the OP's question, the term of art here is deployment tempo. In WWII, you had units rotated between the front and rear regularly so as not to wear them down to a nub. During a theater war, you put units in for a time and bring them home for a time, and there's a rule of thumb something like two down periods for every active duty period. The down period isn't just rest and relaxation, of course, it's repair of equipment and bringing training back up to snuff. Units that have been in Iraq have been sent to training centers in the desert to learn counter-insurgency tactics from troops that have previously been in Iraq just like them. By iterations, the forces get closer to a common doctrine and approach.

There is also a huge difference in expectations for Reserve and National Guard troops. They don't have the same training or even equipment, and their readiness suffers. The more they're in the field, the better they are, but then the less they re-enlist. Managing all of these different issues is a matter of great delicacy and constant debate.
posted by dhartung at 12:34 AM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

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