Grow the US military but do it right, not just fast
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Topping the 2017 agendas for President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump criticizes Justice for restoring McCabe's benefits Biden: Those who defy Jan. 6 subpoenas should be prosecuted Hillicon Valley — Presented by LookingGlass — Hackers are making big money MORE, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Armed Services Committee leadership are plans to grow the military.

They are each glossing over any differences among them on America’s role in the world in pursuit of their mutual objective of rebuilding the force, as spotlighted in the memorandum Trump signed out at the Pentagon last Friday.  After six years under arbitrary and counterproductive budget caps, few in the defense community are eager to scrutinize this consensus.


Their desire to grow the force quickly, however, should not overcome their duty to taxpayers and the troops themselves. They must grow the force with careful intention and a clear goal in mind.


There are real demands for resources across the military, and many personnel and readiness challenges that need fundamental fixes — indeed, these challenges would be masked or even exacerbated by the infusion of more money, people, and platforms.

The political debate is focused on quantity but more uniformed personnel is not a solution in and of itself, and lack of money isn’t the only obstacle to smart growth.

Troop numbers make for easy talking points, but advocates for rebuilding the military must be able to explain why, what choices come first, and how to sustain it over time.  Update to personnel and readiness practice ought to come as part of this investment — otherwise, we could end up with a large force that isn’t formed to tackle America’s real threats, and undercut needed reforms.

Quick growth also comes at the expense of quality growth, a mistake that would haunt DOD for decades to come.

The military should not be grown absent a clear strategic imperative: a determination of national interests, the role of the military in pursuing them, and understanding what the military lacks toward that end. This determines the shape, skills, and size of the necessary force.  

Pundits tend to treat defense needs as a one-size-fits-all shopping list, calling for a larger Army without linking to how such a force should be used or what characteristics it requires.  Ill-defined growth for its own sake does nothing to serve those already in uniform, nor does it increase the security of the United States.

Service leaders have cautioned against trying to grow the force too quickly, as they’ve learned from previous, expensive mistakes.

Growing too quickly has increased costs and lowered standards for recruitment. It has even left the military without requisite resources to train and equip it the new personnel. DOD is already struggling to fulfill its training and readiness requirements with the current force. An influx of new personnel, without appropriate planning and a long-term sustainment commitment, could actually undercut efforts to make our forces ready to fight.

Worse yet, the growth would come after several years of personnel cuts.  Having issued pink slips to thousands of servicemembers, DOD would have to absorb the cost of recreating these efforts with new personnel. To rebalance, they will also have to ensure proper distribution of the force across various ranks and make serious investments in career management.  

The Trump administration and Congress have an obligation to our men and women in uniform to get this right.

A strategic review, confronting the differing ends and ways sought by Trump, Mattis, and the Hill, is a vital first step to determine the necessary means.  It will also be critical to conduct an honest assessment of current readiness challenges and use both funding and reform to address any issues — like antiquated talent management, excess training requirements, or readiness metrics misaligned with today’s strategy — that aren’t generated by a personnel shortfall.  More resources should not be justification to postpone such reforms.  

At the same time, many of the Obama administration’s signature defense personnel proposals — enhancing career flexibility, reforming the up-or-out personnel system, improving data analytics to better understand our present force, and yes, women in combat — would be vital to any sustainable effort to grow a high-performing force.  The Trump administration should not discard these nascent efforts out of hand.

Calls to grow the military are part of being politically “strong on defense,” yet this is a risky solution when undertaken without a strategy for ensuring the growth is sustainable, which rarely makes headlines.

DOD may be tempted to take advantage of the bountiful environment, rapidly expanding first and planning and reforming later. But increasing end strength jeopardizes the military’s ability to effectively man, train, and equip its current forces while also creating personnel management problems for the future.

We as a nation want the best fighting force manned, and this requires strategic growth to be valued over easy headlines.

Loren DeJonge Schulman is the Deputy Director of Studies and Leon E. Panetta Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

Amy Schafer is the Research Associate for the Military, Veterans & Society program at the Center for a New American Security.

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.