December 15, 2003
The defense budget has long been seen as a political tool. It's a large chunk of change that can be used for political purposes, even when it is actually spent on troops and equipment (and not just stolen, which still happens in many countries.) This is an ancient problem, but has taken on a new twist in the United States. Democrats in the American Congress are proposing a law that would increase the size (number of people) of the armed forces by eight percent. The Army would go from 482,400 troops to 522,400, the Air Force from 359,300 to 388,000, and Marines from 175,000 to 190,000. This kind of interference is not new, Congress has long insisted that certain weapons be built, or unneeded bases remain open, because it helped legislators get re-elected. And this is what the Democrats are doing with their proposed new law. Seen as "soft on defense," the Democrats feel that the personnel increase is a way to overcome this. There are other political benefits as well, with the larger head count making it easier to argue against base closing. The Democrats are also appealing to many of the reservists who have been called to active duty in the past two years, implying that the extra hundred thousand or so active duty people will reduce reserve call ups.
Yet the brass don't want more people. How can this be? Simple. The generals and admirals want to spend their money on equipping and training the troops they've got. Increasing the head count by eight percent, without increasing the budget as well, will only make it harder to improve the capabilities of the troops already in service.
While Congress just approved one of the highest defense budgets (the seventh largest) in U.S. history, a lot of that was to pay for the extra costs of fighting the war on terror. Equipment (aircraft, armored vehicles, ships and even stuff like boots) is being worn out at an alarming rate and will have to be replaced earlier than planned. Moreover, experience in Afghanistan and Iraq has shown that newly developed gear (from smart bombs to battlefield Internet equipment) has improved the capabilities of our troops enormously. This stuff is expensive, and if it isn't procured, and the troops allowed to train with it, American lives will be lost in the future.
So the last thing the brass want is another hundred thousand troops to train, maintain and pay. Moreover, those extra people won't reduce reserve call ups by much (maybe ten percent or so). But the gesture sure looks good in an election year.