Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Is the Army broken? 
No. Not by a long shot, though it's creaking a bit. My very anecdotal sense is more positive than Andrew Krepinovich's, though:

Stretched by frequent troop rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has become a "thin green line" that could snap unless relief comes soon, according to a study for the Pentagon.

Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer who wrote the report under a Pentagon contract, concluded that the Army cannot sustain the pace of troop deployments to Iraq long enough to break the back of the insurgency. He also suggested that the Pentagon's decision, announced in December, to begin reducing the force in Iraq this year was driven in part by a realization that the Army was overextended.

As evidence, Krepinevich points to the Army's 2005 recruiting slump — missing its recruiting goal for the first time since 1999 — and its decision to offer much bigger enlistment bonuses and other incentives.

"You really begin to wonder just how much stress and strain there is on the Army, how much longer it can continue," he said in an interview. He added that the Army is still a highly effective fighting force and is implementing a plan that will expand the number of combat brigades available for rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Here's my take, which I also shared with a couple of radio reporters in an exchange Patrick Lasswell included me in:

Krepinovich, I think is legit, though not infallible. He's the guy who came up with the "oil spot" strategerie a while back, if you recall.

If you look at soldiers as labor--essentially, a commodity, like labor, you can see that demand has been exceeding supply simply by looking at the market price. Pay, benefits, and bonuses have been going up.

But the same was true before the Iraq war, in 1997-1999, when the Army was bleeding captains like a river. Personnel shortages were severe throughout the 1990s. So what else was going on in the 1990s? Well, a strong economy and low unemployment.

I think the Army personnel system is under some strain - particularly in the reserve components. But I wouldn't write us off by a long shot.

If I'm covering this story, here's what I'd do:

Mention the war. Of course it's relevant. The kids seem to want to come in -- they're up for anything. They always have been. My recruiters are telling me, anecdotally, that it's parents who are nixing the deals, not the kids. Parents are naturally protective people. Go figure.

But if the Army's really under strain, it would show up first in spare parts budgets and NCOES and ranger school training slots and ammo budgets for training purposes stateside. To get perspective, talk to some chief warrant officers. I suspect they'd tell you that things are pretty tough. But they appear worse than they are because Congress didn't get its budget out on schedule, and there's a lot of money out there still uncommitted, but programmed against pending orders.

That's not a war issue. That's a bureaucratic and fiscal management issue.

I'd also look at how acute manpower and recruiting shortfalls were in 1996-1999, when the Army had to compete for labor with a screamingly strong job market - much like today. (I remember the New York Times ran at least one story in 2000 or so bemoaning the lack of junior officers in the army-specifically captains.)

That would give you a rough idea as to how much manpower shortage is due to the war and how much may be attributed to the economy. During good years, the economy may only be able to sustain a certain baseline enlistment rate, regardless of whether we're at war or not. In bad years, that rate's going to be higher. In good years with lower unemployment, it's going to be lower. I'd do a background interview with an economist before writing the story. First, it's a neccessary context for understanding the problem. Second, it's probably going to give you several unique angles to play with that will separate you from the pack.


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