Pentagon to boost Army by 22,000

Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Monday announced a temporary increase in the size of the Army, boosting the military with 22,000 additional recruits.

Gates said at a Pentagon news conference that the temporary increase is intended to cope with the strain from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The increase would raise the total number of soldiers to 569,000 through fiscal 2012, which begins Oct. 1, 2011.

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“Much has changed over the last two years, causing us to reassess whether we are properly sized to support current operational needs,” Gates said at the briefing.

Gates’s decision to boost the number of active-duty Army troops would add greatly to the Pentagon budget. It comes at a time when President Obama is seeking to cut military spending in the midst of an economic crisis and advance big-ticket social priorities.

The Pentagon will have to spend billions more over the next three fiscal years to support the additional personnel — the highest cost by far for the Department of Defense.

Gates said the temporary increase will cost about $100 million for the remaining months of this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, and about $1 billion in fiscal 2010. However, he offered no cost estimates for fiscal 2011 or 2012. Higher costs will likely be reflected in subsequent budget requests to Congress.

Gates also warned that the boost in troop numbers would mean harder choices at the Pentagon down the line, potentially affecting costly weapons systems and the investments the Pentagon will make over the next three years.

“I am mindful that during this period of financial crisis, this decision will result in additional tough choices for the department,” Gates said. Gates is in a tug-of-war with Congress over programs such as the F-22 Raptor and a second engine for the Joint Strike Fighter, which he wants to end but lawmakers so far have decided to fund.

This is the second time since 2007 that the Army boosted its forces to deal with multiple conflicts. Gates and the Bush administration had already increased the size of the Army to 547,000 soldiers. That expansion was recently completed.

Gates said that the circumstances leading to a temporary increase in the active-duty Army included the boost of forces in Afghanistan even as U.S. troops are being removed from Iraq.

Apart from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Army has had to deal with a controversial policy known as stop-loss.

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The decision to put an end to the unpopular practice, which keeps soldiers beyond their original enlistment dates, is also causing a shortage in the number of Army soldiers available to deploy.

“The Army has reached a point of diminishing returns … The Army faces a period where its ability to continue to deploy combat units at acceptable fill rates is at risk,” Gates said.

However, Gates stressed that “these additional forces will be used to ensure that our deploying units are properly manned and not to create new combat formations.”

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to add comment to Gates’s announcement. At press time, some congressional sources intimated that a bigger Army could also leave the door open for larger numbers of troops being deployed to Afghanistan down the line.

“This announcement is unrelated to any future considerations for additional troops in Afghanistan. This is strictly about the fact that the Army is under considerable stress as it is now,” Geoff Morrell, Gates’s spokesman told The Hill.

The new commander in Afghanistan is conducting a review of the situation there “and he has the latitude right now to request more troops,” Morrell said. “That would be given careful consideration but the bottom line is we do not impose arbitrary troop caps on our commanders.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) appeared supportive of the temporary increase.

“Sen. Reid has been supportive of past efforts to increase the size of the military to ease the burden of multiple deployments on our troops and their families,” said Reid’s spokeswoman, Regan Lachapelle. “He commends Secretary Gates for keeping these concerns in mind as we step up our efforts in Afghanistan.”

The office of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did not respond to requests for comment.

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Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, applauded Gates’s decision, as did Rep. Buck McKeon (Calif.), the ranking Republican on the committee.

“I commend Secretary Gates for accelerating plans to increase the size of the Army,” Skelton said in a statement. “This important step will help reduce the strain on the overall force and help address readiness concerns more quickly than we had anticipated. It is the right thing to do.”

Gates’s Monday announcement can also boost the case for an amendment to the 2010 defense authorization bill currently being debated in the Senate.

The plan to temporarily boost the Army by 22,000 troops is smaller than a plan by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) to add 30,000 troops to the Army starting in 2010. Lieberman, a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, introduced his amendment to the 2010 defense authorization bill.

“I commend Secretary Gates for making this decision, which will provide much-needed relief to our brave soldiers and their families,” Lieberman said in a statement. “I have already introduced an amendment to give Secretary Gates the new authority he will need to add up to 30,000 additional soldiers, and I call upon my colleagues to vote to support our troops this week.”

Lieberman has several co-sponsors to his amendment: Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), John Thune (R-S.D.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) rated the cost of Lieberman’s amendment — that of funding 30,000 more soldiers — at $2 billion for 2010 and $2 billion for 2011.