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Keep a Leaner Military

June 11, 2004

Nobody likes to see soldiers who have risked their lives in Iraq and endured long separation from their families being forced to extend their tours of duty. Or to hear that service members who have put in their time and want to rejoin civilian life are being forced to stay in the military. So Congress, as well as Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, have responded with calls to recruit thousands more troops.

It's a bad idea. The military has undeniably been stressed by Iraq and other deployments overseas, including having 11,000 troops in Afghanistan and 3,300 in the Balkans. But the Bush administration's plans to redeploy up to 12,500 troops from South Korea while temporarily boosting current forces by extending tours and delaying retirement are more sensible than ill-considered proposals for permanently bulking up the military or reinstating the draft.

Iraq aside, the best thing that has happened to the armed forces since the Vietnam War has been downsizing. An active-duty force of more than 1 million in 1971 was reduced to slightly more than 500,000, now the best-trained force in U.S. history. Creating new divisions would be extremely costly; the Army says that each 10,000-person increase costs $1.2 billion a year.

It's true, as critics point out, that since the 1990s the Pentagon has relied excessively on reserves at hot spots like the Balkans; National Guard and Army Reserve units make up around one-third of military personnel in Iraq.

The strain on the reserves has become excessive, but it can be eased by redeploying troops from South Korea and elsewhere. The Pentagon is also considering moving troops and support personnel in the 1st Armored Division and 1st Infantry Division from Germany back to the United States in 2005.

Not surprisingly, politicians from both parties have rushed in during an election year with grandiose ideas.

Kerry has called for 40,000 more troops. A group of House Democrats led by Ellen O. Tauscher of Alamo, Calif., are calling for 83,700 new troops. GOP lawmakers are restive as well: California Rep. Duncan Hunter of El Cajon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, wants to add two Army divisions, which would require additional support personnel.

But the training of these troops would take too long to have any real effect on the Iraq occupation.

If lawmakers want to help soldiers and reservists, they can do so by cutting wasteful programs like ballistic missile defense, which soaks up more than $10 billion a year. That money could be used to extend programs like Tricare, the Pentagon's heath insurance program, to reservists and guardsmen. Small steps to improve the lives of soldiers may not garner as much publicity as grand plans for more troops or a draft, but they will prove more beneficial.

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