War Stories

How Bush Wrecked the Army

Another general revolts.

The generals’ revolt has spread inside the Pentagon, and the point of the spear is one of Donald Rumsfeld’s most favored officers, Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff.

This new phase of rebellion isn’t aimed at the war in Iraq directly, as was the protest by six retired generals that made headlines last spring. But in some ways, it’s more potent, and not just because Schoomaker is very much on active duty. His challenge is dramatic because he’s questioning one of the war’s consequences—its threat to the Army’s ability to keep functioning.

The trumpet sounded last month, when Schoomaker refused to give Rumsfeld a detailed Army budget proposal for fiscal year 2008. The Air Force and Navy met the Aug. 15 deadline for submitting their program requests. But Schoomaker—in an unprecedented move—said he preferred not to.

Rumsfeld had limited the Army’s budget for 2008 to $114 billion. Schoomaker told him that the sum wasn’t enough to maintain the Army’s present commitments. Simply to repair the tanks, radios, and other equipment damaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, he would need at least another $17 billion. If he didn’t get it, he said, there was no point drawing up a budget at all.

Today’s Los Angeles Times reported on Schoomaker’s revolt, but there have been stirrings of a ruffle since the summer. At an Aug. 23 Leadership Breakfast at the National Press Club, Schoomaker publicly threw down the gauntlet: “There is no sense in us submitting a budget that we cannot execute … a broken budget.”*

A month earlier, Government Executivereported that Schoomaker had told a group of congressional staffers about grave backlogs at the Army’s repair depots. Nearly 1,500 Humvees, M2 Bradley fighting vehicles, and other vehicles were awaiting repair at the Red River Army Depot in Texas. The same was true of 500 M1 tanks at the Anniston depot in Alabama. None of the Army’s five largest depots was operating at more than 50 percent capacity—all because of a shortage of money.

It’s not just the repair depots that are overworked. Friday’s New York Times reported that the Army is so bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan that just two or three active-duty combat brigades—7,000 to 10,000 soldiers—are fully ready to deal with a crisis that might erupt elsewhere in the world.

And among the units cycling in and out of Iraq, troubles are brewing. The 3rd Infantry Division, which so quickly roared up the desert to Baghdad at the outset of this war, is scheduled to head back to Iraq soon for its third tour of duty. Yet, according to a story in today’s New York Times, two of the division’s four brigades aren’t ready to go. They have none of their armored vehicles and only half of their troops.

Units throughout the Army are so strained, generals say, that they’re going to have to rely even more on the National Guard and Reserves, which are wildly overwhelmed themselves.

Meanwhile, to meet enlistment targets, the Army has raised the maximum age of recruits to 41, lowered their required aptitude scores, and—in another recent gulp—relaxed moral and disciplinary standards. The Army has always waived these standards to let in a small number of applicants. But since the Iraq war, this number has risen substantially. In 2001, just 10.07 percent of Army recruits were given moral waivers—i.e., were allowed into the Army, even though they had committed misdemeanors or had once-prohibited problems with drugs and alcohol, records of serious misconduct, or disqualifying medical conditions. By 2004, this number had risen to 11.98 percent. But in 2005, it soared to 15.02 percent. And as of April 2006, according to a fact sheet obtained from an Army officer, the number has leapt to 15.49 percent.

This is one reason so many Army officers, active and retired, have been so skeptical of the war all along—not so much because they oppose the war itself (though some do), but because they feared it would wreck the Army.

The Army’s crisis threatens the entire structure of defense spending. Since the late 1960s, the Army, Air Force, and Navy (of which the Marines are a part) have abided by an informal agreement that gives each of them a roughly equal share of the total military budget. No service has ever wavered from its share by more than a percentage point. In this way, the chiefs have avoided the interservice rivalries that tore the military establishments apart throughout the 1940s and ‘50s—and let civilian secretaries of defense, especially Robert McNamara, step in and take control in the early ‘60s, reshaping their missions and slashing their weapons programs.

The Army is clearly in need of a higher share of the budget now. It is the service that’s dominating the fighting, losing most of its troops, and getting most of its equipment chewed up in Iraq and Afghanistan. If Schoomaker gets his demand, the Army would get a significantly higher share—and the Pentagon wars would start in again.

There are ways to treat the Army’s ailments without opening the purse strings. For instance, Schoomaker could cancel or postpone the Army’s Future Combat Systems, a $200 billion confabulation that may be way overdesigned for any realistic scenario of future combat. But the FCS is the Army’s only big-ticket weapon system, and the procurement commanders wouldn’t surrender it unless the Air Force and Navy chiefs junked their big fighter planes and submarines, which isn’t about to happen, either.

Early on in his regime, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld might have had the clout to force such a bargain, but no longer. He has already abdicated his authority, allowing Schoomaker to appeal directly for more money to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. (According to Army Times, this is another unprecedented move: No service secretary has ever dealt directly with the OMB—all such appeals are supposed to be made through the secretary of defense.)

This bureaucratic turbulence only reflects a broader dilemma that higher political authorities will soon have to address, whether they’d like to or not. Schoomaker’s central complaint is that he doesn’t have the money to maintain the Army’s global missions. The president and the Congress can pony up the money (a lot more money) or scale back the missions. To do otherwise—to stay the course with inadequate resources—is to invite defeats and disasters.

Correction, Sept. 29, 2006: Originally, the column stated that Gen. Schoomaker talked about the “broken budget” in a “speech before the National Press Club.” But according to an Army official who was present, the general made the comment during a Leadership Breakfast “conversation,” sponsored by Government Executive magazine, at the National Press Club. Return  to the corrected sentence.