WASHINGTON—The Army is campaigning hard to ensure that it has enough money to keep up the battles in Iraq and Afghanistan and to prepare for potential future conflicts.
Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army's chief of staff, says the service needs $138 billion in 2008 to ensure it can field as many as 19 combat brigades at any given time, as called for by the Pentagon's latest four-year strategy. That figure is about $20 billion more than Congress approved for the Army in the 2007 budget.
The Army has 17 combat brigades deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan—a total of about 136,000 soldiers—but keeping those troops in battle has put unprecedented strain on the Army's funding, despite an estimated $507 billion that Congress has set aside since 2001 to pay for the wars.
But with more boots on the ground than any other service, the Army also has borne the brunt of manpower and equipment losses. More than 2,100 of the 3,100 U.S. troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan have been Army soldiers. The Army plans to spend $17.1 billion this year to replace or repair equipment that's been lost or damaged, including more than 2,000 vehicles awaiting overhaul.
It's against this backdrop that Schoomaker appeared this week at the Army's annual convention in Washington and called for the country to increase defense spending. It was part of a public relations campaign not often seen among top uniformed military officials.
While he didn't name a figure, the general said the Army's continued effectiveness in the war would depend upon a "national commitment" to recruit, train and equip soldiers and support them and their families properly.
"This is a matter of national priorities, not affordability," Schoomaker said.
The call for increased defense spending comes at a time when the United States is spending about 4 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. The White House predicts defense spending will fall in coming years.
Schoomaker said spending 4 percent of GDP on defense is a historic low during a war. The United States spent 38 percent of its GDP on defense during World War II, 14 percent during the Korean War and 10 percent during the Vietnam conflict.
As one seasoned non-commissioned officer put it, professional armies are expensive to maintain and Schoomaker is being straightforward about what it's going to take to support the all-volunteer Army in a time of protracted war.
"The nation has not realized that yet," said the officer, a sergeant major with more than 30 years in uniform who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly. "The recent wars just now are bringing it to light. The (chief) is just saying that we're through pretending that everything is OK."
Army officials have been meeting since June with senior defense officials, the White House and members of Congress to come up with a spending figure for 2008. Schoomaker described it as a "very serious dialogue" designed to agree upon a "common set of facts" about the strategic challenges the Army faces in the future and what kind of resources it will need to meet those challenges.
"We have to increase the base budget just to support the strategy," said an Army official, who wasn't authorized to speak on the record about policy, but who agreed that Schoomaker's speech was designed to send a public message. "That's his main focus. Who was the message directed at? It's directed at Congress. It's directed at the people."
But one problem the Army is facing is that having a successful all-volunteer force has undercut much of the responsibility that the country has traditionally felt for the military, said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, a policy research group in Arlington, Va.
"When you're absolutely certain that you're not going to have to serve in the military, it becomes something that's an afterthought rather than a primary concern," he said. "What he's saying in his speech is that the country needs to recognize the Army's needs and fund those needs, even if it doesn't intend to serve."
Underlying the public appeal for support is a very real fear among the top Army ranks that instead of increasing spending, Congress will take money away from the Army's highest-priority modernization program, the Future Combat System.
The FCS is a $120 billion program designed to build a group of 18 manned and unmanned vehicles linked by satellite communications and a common sensor network. Advocates say it will give soldiers unparalleled situational awareness on the battlefield. The Army hopes to begin fielding the first of elements of the program in 2008.
If squeezed by competing budget pressures, the Army is likely to give priority to the program, even if it means forgoing adding soldiers to the ranks, said Frederick W. Kagan, a military historian and defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington research group.
The active-duty Army currently has about 494,000 soldiers, but Kagan and many other experts believe the service needs tens of thousands more to fight the war and meet other strategic commitments.
"We're in a crisis as far as personnel goes, and FCS should be a much lower priority," Kagan said. "Nevertheless, transformation is very important. The U.S. is entering a period of tremendous crisis in terms of national security, and the armed forces should not have to be making hard choices now—like FCS versus soldiers."
Congress has authorized the Army to grow to 533,000 soldiers.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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