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Democrats and Republicans calling for more active-duty troops

WASHINGTON—The Bush administration is facing new calls from Democrats and Republicans, including some of its staunchest allies, to expand the size of the Army and Marines by tens of thousands of active-duty troops over the next several years.

The bipartisan calls reflect burgeoning concerns that the Iraq conflict has so strained U.S. ground forces that the United States could find itself short of forces in the event of an unexpected crisis in the near future.

Some Democrats and Republicans are also worried that the unprecedented mobilization rates for Army Reserves and National Guard, who constitute more than 40 percent of the 150,000-strong U.S. force in Iraq, are starting to severely hurt recruiting. What's more, the best trained Reserve and Guard combat troops already have been sent into war.

"In the post-9/11 world, we need a bigger military," said William Kristol, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine who's close to the White House and was a strong supporter of the March 2003 invasion.

Kristol plans to send late this week a letter to congressional leaders signed by about 30 leading non-government national security experts from both parties calling for the addition of 25,000 ground troops a year for the next several years beginning in 2006.

The letter comes two weeks after 21 Democratic senators wrote to President Bush urging that he set aside resources to expand U.S. forces by an unspecified level beyond the 20,000 new Army troops and 3,000 Marines authorized by Congress last year over the objections of Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said it would be premature to comment on the question of additional troops while the 2006 defense budget is being developed.

Rumsfeld and other senior defense officials have opposed increasing U.S. ground forces, arguing that doing so would hobble the Army's efforts to restructure and re-arm with new technologies and weapons to meet future threats.

There are currently 495,000 active-duty Army troops and more than 175,000 Marines.

The Department of Defense is also under serious financial stress from the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Earlier this week, the Bush administration announced that it's preparing to ask Congress for $80 billion in new spending for those operations on top of the $25 billion already approved for this year, pushing the total since 2002 to around $300 billion.

The start-up costs alone of manning and equipping two new divisions—about 34,000 soldiers—as favored by some lawmakers, would run as high as $19 billion, according to a September 2003 study by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

That amount is roughly the equivalent of 20 percent of the annual budget of the Army, which currently has 10 divisions.

It would take up to five years to train and equip the new divisions, which would cost about $6 billion per year to maintain, according to the CBO study.

Steve Kosiak, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, an independent policy institute, said the Bush administration would be hard-pressed to find such sums.

The money would have to come in full or in part from other Pentagon programs, federal non-defense spending, increased taxes or by borrowing money, which would add to the federal deficit, which the Bush administration projected on Tuesday at a record $427 billion for 2005.

"The danger is that you get these additional personnel and then by the time they actually come on line, you no longer really need them because you are no longer in Iraq," Kosiak said.

Advocates say that failing to expand U.S. ground forces could seriously jeopardize national security.

"Success in modern war requires sufficient boots on the ground," the Democratic lawmakers said in their letter. "With nearly 150,000 troops and Marines in Iraq, nearly 20,000 in Afghanistan, and tens of thousands more in Korea and elsewhere, we are left to conclude that the American military is too small, not simply for the challenges we face today, but also as an appropriate hedge against future dangers."

Kristol said lawmakers of both parties with whom he had spoken "are very sympathetic to this."

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Drew Brown contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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