Building tomorrow’s U.S. armed forces

A new Army division would not be expensive. It would save dollars and lives in the long run.

Before the deaths of Staff Sgt. David Day, 1st Lt. Jason Timmerman and Sgt. Jesse Lhotka last week, Minnesota National Guard recruiters told potential recruits the state had yet to lose a guardsman in Iraq. Now, as Minnesota mourns the loss of three citizen-soldiers, the Guard is losing its image as a viable option for men and women with active civilian lives.

The National Guard, like the rest of the armed forces, is already feeling the recruiting pinch. As casualties in Iraq inch upward and more part-time soldiers find themselves on active duty in a war zone, enlistment rates continue their downward trajectory. That spells trouble for the armed forces of tomorrow.

A fresh approach to staffing the nation’s armed forces is needed if the concept of an all-volunteer military is to survive.

With 150,000 soldiers in Iraq and other sizable contingents spread around the world, the professional military is clearly stretched thin. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has not shied away from using National Guard and Army Reserve to meet short-term needs. The Pentagon has also instituted a stop-loss policy, unilaterally extending tours of duty in the name of national emergency. At any given time, several thousands of soldiers are serving past their enlistment requirements.

These might seem wise measures when the Iraqi insurgency shows no sign of abating and critics continue their calls for more troops. But the Pentagon’s strategies are wreaking havoc on the Guard and Reserves. More importantly, the measures are undercutting our ability to raise volunteer forces for the future.

The Pentagon may legally extend tours in times of national emergency. Federal judges have sided with the government on a number of legal suits challenging the stop-loss policy. Likewise, the Reserves and the National Guard must always be ready for active duty. But military planners should consider future enlistment needs when confronting current shortfalls.

Rather than relying on unpopular measures likely to reduce future enlistment rates, the Pentagon should prod Congress to raise another army division. That will not be cheap, but ultimately it’s far less costly than imposing stop-loss provisions and staffing the Iraqi occupation with part-time soldiers.