Thanks to a fragile but real improvement in the security situation in Iraq, it has become possible to imagine the United States and its allies achieving what could plausibly be described as a win. But a win how defined, and with what implications? We asked a diverse group of observers to ponder these questions.
One important question about the aftermath of the Iraq war is what imprint the experience will leave on U.S. ground forces in terms of equipment and of personnel cohorts, and how both the literal terms and perceptions of a U.S. withdrawal might affect the morale and doctrine of the Army and Marine Corps. The picture, as with most such pictures, is mixed.
When it comes to equipment, things are looking up. War budgets in recent years have included substantial funds to repair and replace equipment used in Iraq. Generous funding for reset means that Army and Marine Corps equipment will be more modern, more plentiful and in better condition after the war than before. Much of the equipment the services are purchasing is more advanced than that being replaced. For example, modern trucks are replacing stocks from the older generation, and new mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs) will replace many Humvees. The pace of upgrades for existing items has also accelerated.
The Congressional Research Service (CRS) estimates that both services are front-loading their reset requirements by at least a year. Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) finds that the wartime supplemental appropriations for Army purchases between 2004 and 2007 come to nearly ten times the value of the equipment irreparably damaged during that period. The CBO calculates that the Army’s prewar equipment shortfalls will be substantially reduced as items already funded are produced.
The personnel outlook is less rosy, at least for the Army. Crucial problems for the officer corps and the enlisted force have already been set in motion largely, though not exclusively, on account of the pressures of the Iraq war, and they will persist regardless of what happens in Iraq. Nevertheless, a perceived win in Iraq could boost morale, retention and recruitment.
The active-duty Army today is short about 2,700 captains, majors and lieutenant colonels. The CRS finds that a shortage of about 6 percent is likely to persist until at least 2013. To compensate, the Army has increased promotion rates for every rank from captain to colonel. The usual rate of promotion from captain to major is 80 percent; in 2005, that rate climbed to 98 percent. The normal chance of being promoted from major to lieutenant colonel is 70 percent, and those who do not make the mark must leave the Army after completing twenty years of service. In 2005, the chance of making lieutenant colonel shot up to 89 percent.
Officers promoted to lieutenant colonel are likely to stay in the force for another decade or more. Thus, the 19 percent of majors who under normal circumstances would have been forced to retire at that rank after twenty years of service will instead be promoted. They will likely continue for years as higher-ranking supervisors and mentors of the lieutenants, captains and majors who serve in subordinate positions. Lowered quality in the Army officer corps will thus persist for decades.
An equally disturbing trend is the recent dropout rate for graduates of West Point—now at a 25-year high. Nearly half of the Military Academy’s class of 2001 left active duty during 2006. The normal five-year departure rate is between 10 percent and 30 percent. The Army relies heavily on its West Point graduates for leadership. Most of today’s top Army leaders are the Academy graduates of thirty years ago. High West Pointer attrition bodes poorly for the Army leadership of the future. Unfortunately, it may also be a signal of fundamental leadership problems already caused by frequent deployments, persistent officer shortages and blanket promotions.
The enlisted force has also suffered. In response to the difficult recruiting environment of recent years, the Army deliberately traded recruit quality for quantity. As the chart below shows, enlisted recruit cohorts of the past two years made the lowest scores in decades in the Army’s traditional measures of entrant quality. The Department of Defense gauges the quality of its enlisted recruits using three measures: the fraction of recruits who hold high school diplomas; the fraction who score in the top half on the Department’s entrance test of cognitive aptitude, the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT); and the fraction who score below the 30th percentile on the AFQT. Experience shows that recruits who graduate from high school are more likely to complete their initial service contracts. Those who score well on the AFQT are easier to train and perform better at military tasks.
The Defense Department’s benchmark standard calls for at least 90 percent of new troops to be high school graduates, at least 60 percent to score in the top half on the AFQT, and no more than 4 percent to score below the 30th percentile. Meeting those benchmarks has been a hallmark of the all-volunteer military since the end of conscription in 1973. Today, however, the Army’s educational advantage over the civilian population has disappeared, and the advantage in cognitive aptitude has narrowed significantly. In FY 2007, only 79 percent were high school graduates, a slide from 92 percent in 2003. Four percent of Army enlistees—the maximum allowed by law—scored among the bottom 30 percent on the AFQT, compared with a tiny fraction in 2003. Only about 60 percent scored in the top half, eroding the quality edge that for two decades distinguished the all-volunteer force.
The quality problem among enlistees has been exacerbated by a decision to allow almost every recruit to complete basic training and enter service. As late as spring 2006, 18 percent of Army recruits washed out of boot camp. By the end of FY 2007, boot camp attrition was only 7 percent. Thus, even the weakest members of an already weak class of recruits were passed forward into advanced training and on to operational units. Weaker soldiers may also find their way disproportionately into the noncommissioned officer ranks, propelled by widespread, open cheating on the online exams by which junior soldiers gain points toward promotion to sergeant.
Recruiting is likely to improve if the war in Iraq ends, particularly if the public perceives that the Army did its best there. Unfortunately, however, opportunities outside the Army will be the most plentiful for soldiers with the most to offer. The lower-quality troops who entered in recent years may find fewer reasons to leave of their own accord. The quality problem in the enlisted force could thus persist for years or even decades.
Despite the long-term problems already set in motion, the declared and perceived terms of U.S. withdrawal may make a difference to the future condition of personnel cohorts. This is because the services’ future recruiting prospects are tied in complex ways to the Iraq war and how it ends. A lack of public support for the war, worsening public attitudes toward the Bush Administration and plentiful opportunities for employment outside the military all contributed to the tough environment for Army recruiters in recent years. If the war ends, or even if it continues at a level that takes Iraq out of the news, the strain on recruiting may diminish regardless of whether we “win.”
Public perception of victory, however, could improve prospects for recruiters. Obviously, young people and their parents are more likely to be drawn to a winning organization than a losing one. On the other hand, if young people or those who influence their decisions see a declaration of victory as evidence of more Iraqs to come, then recruiting problems may persist.
If soldiers and marines perceive that conditions in Iraq are better after they leave than before they arrived, and that the U.S. public is grateful for the role they played, their morale will benefit. Good morale in turn may translate into strong individual and unit motivation, which will help the Army overcome some of the difficulties posed by the blanket promotions of officers and lowered recruit quality. Good morale may also translate into favorable rates of retention. It may even inspire the best officers and enlisted personnel to remain in service, offsetting the outside opportunities that sometimes attract the best away from the services. If instead those soldiers and marines see Iraq still mired in political disarray and sectarian violence, the consequences for morale are likely to harm their motivation and erode retention.
Regardless of the outcome of the war, ground force missions and doctrine are likely to remain split between conventional warfare and what the Pentagon now calls “irregular operations”, including counterinsurgency, stability operations and reconstruction. The likely ambiguity stands in stark contrast to the situation after the Vietnam War.
After Vietnam, the Army’s sense of defeat exacerbated the damaged morale and personnel problems that had accumulated during the war. Determined to avoid any future Vietnams, Army leaders and civilian policymakers united around a single, unambiguous, difficult mission: preparing to defend against a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. For the Army, that meant abandoning counterinsurgency doctrine, training and equipment in favor of a new combined arms doctrine for fighting a large-scale conventional war, with an emphasis on armored equipment.
It seems unlikely that civilian policymakers and uniformed leaders will coalesce around any single-focus mission for U.S. ground forces in the wake of the Iraq war, win or lose. While there is little sentiment for a repeat of the Iraq experience on either the Left or the Right, presidential candidates on both sides of the political aisle see irregular operations as important continuing roles for the U.S. military. Within the Army, leaders seem split, with some embracing irregular operations as the missions of the future, while others still hope the service can return to a focus on conventional wars once Iraq is over. Win, lose or draw, it seems unlikely that the counterinsurgency manual will be thrown overboard, but it is also unlikely to be canonized as holy writ.
One change in mission seems very likely to persist well beyond Iraq, however: the fundamental transformation of the role of the National Guard and Reserves. Uniformed and civilian leaders alike now view the Guard and the Reserves as an operational reserve, to be called upon routinely to supplement the active force rather than be held back in strategic reserve. All else equal, that will probably make recruiting to the Guard and the Reserves a continuing challenge.