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Senate OKs Expanding Army by 20,000

Chamber joins House in mandating an increase to lighten the burden on the military. Officials maintain that troop strength is sufficient.

June 18, 2004|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Thursday to increase the size of the Army by 20,000 soldiers in an effort to ease the strain on a military with commitments across the globe.

"Our Army is overstretched," said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a former Army officer who sponsored the measure, an amendment to the $447-billion defense authorization bill for fiscal year 2005.

"Our commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the world are going to require a substantially larger Army for an indefinite period of time," Reed added.

Top Army officials say that the current size of the force is sufficient, and they have expressed concern that a congressionally ordered permanent increase in the number of soldiers could drain billions of dollars from critical Pentagon programs.

But Congress appears to be headed toward approving a permanent increase, whether the Pentagon has requested it or not.

The vote on Reed's amendment was 93-4. California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, both Democrats, voted in favor of the proposal.

In its version of the defense authorization bill, the House last month overwhelmingly approved an increase of 30,000 soldiers and 9,000 Marines by 2007.

Rep. John M. McHugh (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Armed Services total force subcommittee, said in an interview, "I think we need to send a symbolic message to our troops that we get it, and we understand they're stressed, and we're acting on it."

The legislative action is partly a response to political heat from the families of battle-weary National Guard and reserve troops who have spent months in Iraq. "I regret that we're here having to force an increase in the size of the Army," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), another sponsor of the measure, complaining that some of the problems the U.S. is facing in Iraq stem from having "too few boots on the ground."

"Why were they so reluctant to send additional troops?" McCain asked. "The dirty little secret is they didn't have them."

In recent months, the Army has added about 13,000 troops to its congressionally mandated force of about 482,000. The increase is largely the result of reenlistment incentives and the use of "stop-loss" orders, which prohibit soldiers from leaving or retiring if their units are within 90 days of deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan.

The vote followed Senate action reaffirming support for a missile defense system, one of President Bush's priorities, and defeating a Democratic-sponsored effort to require independent testing of the interceptors before they are deployed. The defense bill authorizes spending $10 billion in the 2005 fiscal year for deploying the system at Ft. Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County.

The drive to increase the force's size comes amid the continuing turmoil in Iraq, which has forced the Pentagon to increase, rather than reduce, troop strength there and extend tours for thousands of soldiers. The U.S. expects to keep about 138,000 troops in Iraq through 2005, and the Pentagon recently announced plans to transfer at least 3,500 troops from South Korea to Iraq.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has used emergency powers to temporarily increase the size of the Army by about 30,000 soldiers over four years, but many in Congress want to make the troop increase permanent.

The $2.4 billion required for the 20,000-troop increase would cover only fiscal year 2005, and there was no indication of how the cost would be funded in the following years. For 2005, it would come from $25 billion included in the defense authorization bill for war-related operations or from additional funds expected to be provided next year for military activities in Iraq.

Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, who has made a campaign issue out of Bush's management of the war and called for expanding the military by 40,000 troops, was absent for the vote.

Kerry, who was campaigning in Detroit, supports the increase in troop strength, said spokesman Andy Davis.

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