Military Commanders Wary of Increase in Troops

President Bush is expected to outline a new Iraq strategy in an address to the nation Wednesday night. The plan is likely to include an increase in troops. Some Army and Marine commanders are worried that their forces may be stretched to the limit.

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President Bush tonight will lay out a plan to reshape U.S. strategy in Iraq. He's expected to call for increased economic aid and new initiatives to help bring political stability there. The president also is expected to send more troops to stem sectarian violence.

NPR's Guy Raz takes us through the math and the logistics of deploying 20,000 more troops.

GUY RAZ: Here's the amazing thing about troop levels in Iraq: since the invasion in 2003, the U.S. force level has fluctuated widely. So consider this: in January, 2004, a little more than 100,000 total U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq. And then exactly a year later - January, 2005 - 160,000 troops on the ground. Right now the number of boots on the ground - and these are American forces only - in Iraq, stands at a little more than 130,000.

Now a couple more numbers here: overall, there are 1.2 million men and women in uniform in the U.S. Armed Forces. Only China has more. So you might ask what's the big deal about sending a few thousand more to Iraq? Well actually a very big deal, says retired Major General Bob Scales.

Major General BOB SCALES (U.S. Army; Retired): While there may be 1.2 million active duty serving in the military, there are only something like 65 to 70,000 close-combat soldiers.

RAZ: And close-combat soldiers are what you could call, for simplicity here, trigger pullers - the guys, and they are all guys in this case - who are trained to do the fighting.

Now, most men and women who serve, don't actually fight. They make up the majority of what's called the Institutional Military. And that's why the Army and Marine officials say it's such a logistical nightmare to increase the size of U.S. ground forces in Iraq. Here's military strategist Stephen Biddle to explain it a bit better.

Mr. STEPHEN BIDDLE (Military Strategist): If you figure we've got 140,000-odd troops in Iraq, maybe 9,000-odd in the Balkans, 18,000-odd in Afghanistan; when you total up all of the stuff that we've currently got deployed around the world, you end up with something uncomfortably close to half the entire size of the Expeditionary Active Army.

RAZ: The other half of the Active Expeditionary Army, the soldiers who make up more than 80 percent of all fighting troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, are, naturally, at their home bases. And under ideal circumstances they're supposed to serve in Iraq for a year and then go home for at least two years. Well, nothing has worked out ideally in Iraq, so for example, brigades, and that's about 3,500 soldiers, have on average only come back to base for a year. And retired Army Colonel Paul Hughes says that's not enough time for these brigades to recover.

Colonel PAUL HUGHES (U.S. Army; Retired): Regardless of how successful they are in war, they come home with casualties and with broken equipment and such, and they require time to be rebuilt, to be retrained and to be prepared again for deployment.

RAZ: In fact, the cost to repair everything broken in Iraq - tanks, weapons, helicopters - will exceed $70 billion. But it's not just the money, it's the strain on the force itself that worries senior military officials.

Here's retired Major General John Batiste, who commanded a division in Iraq -or 20,000 troops - from 2004 to 2005.

Major General JOHN BATISTE (U.S. Army; Retired): There's only so many brigade combat teams, and they're all on a deployment cycle. What happens if there's a requirement somewhere else in the world, or in the United States - to have to deal with some kind of natural disaster?

RAZ: Right now there are 39 brigade combat teams in the U.S. Army. Each one, as I said, made up of about 3,500 soldiers. And each and every one of them has done at least one rotation in Iraq, and many have done three, even four. And that's why the Army is worried, privately, about a so-called surge, because in the end it could strain the numbers so much that it could leave the Army, in the words of its chief of staff, broken for a long time after the Iraq war is over.

Guy Raz, NPR News, Washington.

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At a Glance: Boosting Troop Levels in Iraq

  • There are 135,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. About half of them are part of brigade combat teams which are made up, largely, of what you might think of as "trigger pullers" or infantry soldiers.
  • Each brigade combat team consists of about 3,500 soldiers.
  • When the Pentagon talks about a troop increase, it thinks in terms of brigade combat teams — not in terms of individual troops.
  • There are 15 brigade combat teams in Iraq right now and one Marine expeditionary unit. For simplicity's sake, a Marine expeditionary unit can be thought of as roughly equivalent in size to an Army brigade combat team.
  • Currently, the entire U.S. Army has 39 brigade combat teams, though the numbers fluctuate. There are 15 combat teams in Iraq now, and three in Afghanistan, which leaves 21 elsewhere. President Bush would increase the long-term size of the U.S. force in Iraq by four or five combat teams. That means under his so-called "surge" plan, there would be as many as 20 combat teams in Iraq.
  • The Army will achieve this boost in troop levels through extensions and accelerations of troop deployments.
  • Once a year (usually around January or March), the Army rotates most combat teams out of Iraq and replaces them with fresh teams coming from the United States or from bases in Germany, South Korea or Japan.
  • But in order to stabilize troop levels in Iraq at 20 combat teams, plus other military personnel (which would amount to about 155,000 or 160,000 troops in total), the U.S. military will have to shift the way troops are currently deployed. That means slowing down departures from and speeding up deployments to Iraq.
  • In theory, soldiers are supposed to serve in Iraq for a year, then return to their home base for at least two years before their next deployment. In practice, many soldiers are getting just a one-year break between deployments to Iraq.

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