The First Law of Holes

Nov. 1, 2003

It will come as a shock to stressed out US troops to learn there’s no shortage of manpower in the armed forces. According to defense officials, we have enough people in uniform; the problem is that many are in the wrong jobs. What we really need, they say, is personnel reform, outsourcing, and a reshuffling of forces.

That view has been pressed for years by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, who recently claimed anew he is not convinced of a need for more troops to meet growing commitments. He said it would be “the easy way out” to just say, “Fine, let’s increase end strength.” He told Time, “We do have adequate forces.”

This message is not convincing to the Air Force Association, which twice addressed the issue at its recent National Convention in Washington, D.C. AFA’s 2004 Statement of Policy says, “Force structure should be sized to match the requirements.” Its companion Top Issues paper flatly declared, “It is time to increase Air Force end strength to meet actual requirements.”

(AFA’s Statement of Policy begins on p. 64. That document and the Top Issues paper can also be found on our Web site,

This association is sympathetic to Rumsfeld’s drive for more efficient use of today’s 1.4 million US service members. We applaud his call to “respect” public funds.

To us, however, it does not seem plausible that the force can do everything it now needs to do, indefinitely, without more people. It seems (to us, anyway) that DOD, by postponing the inevitable, risks digging the armed forces deeper and deeper into a hole.

All services have been pushed hard, and the one we know best, USAF, has a clear need for personnel. Consider this single fact, cited by USAF’s Human Capital Task Force: Today’s end strength—359,000 airmen—is at least 10 percent below validated need.

This problem dates to the huge force and budget cuts of the 1990s. By late 2000, the consensus was that the armed forces, now busier than ever, were in trouble. At that time, Gen. Michael E. Ryan, Chief of Staff, said the Air Force needed 10,000 more airmen.

Soon, concerns about end strength shot up again. The Sept. 11 attacks brought a Global War on Terrorism, new homeland security tasks, and a looming mission in Iraq, on top of existing obligations.

The Air Force sought 7,000 more troops as a down payment on a larger “steady state” force. This was viewed as a minimum needed to relieve shortages in the most stressed fields.

Surprisingly, Rumsfeld slammed the door on this and other requests. He told the services to cover needs with internal force shifts.

He targeted military support jobs that could be eliminated or given to civilians. This category, it is said, may comprise some 320,000 military spaces. Outsourcing would not, by itself, produce more operational forces, however. The services would have to keep the active duty spaces and shift them to core military tasks—all at high cost. For example, USAF identified 22,000 troops whose jobs could go to civilians. However, it would have to hire 14,000 new civilian employees at a cost of $5 billion through 2009, while still paying for the 22,000 military spaces.

As officials have studied reforms for two years, the shorthanded armed forces continued to suffer from a range of maladies.

  • Operations and personnel tempos, which went through the roof after Sept. 11, declined a bit but have remained at a new, higher plateau.
  • Troops have deployed with great frequency, working hardships not only on families but also on troops who remain on home station and have to work longer days to fill in for those deployed.
  • The Guard and Reserve are being overused to beef up active forces—a practice which must end, Rumsfeld acknowledges.
  • The Pentagon has resorted to Stop-Loss to hold certain troops on active duty long after their commitments have ended.

Gulf War II added weight to the view that the military lacks not just end strength but also sufficient force structure overall.

Gen. John P. Jumper, Chief of Staff, described USAF’s wartime experience in this way: “Eight out of 10 Air Expeditionary Force packages were used. … Our global mobility was stretched to the limit. … Our parts and logistics distribution were certainly stretched. … Our tanker bridge was located both east and west. … Our space assets were constantly in demand. … We had every aspect of our Air Force employed.”

Jumper summed up, “There is a lot of stress out there.” USAF won’t be able to reconstitute and resume 90-day rotations before March 2004.

Rumsfeld’s efficiency measures look good on paper. In proper context, they make sense. However, they promise little short-term relief.

Some lawmakers are restive. Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.), a former Air Force officer and member of the House Armed Services Committee, has called for 150,000 more active duty troops.

Unfortunately, prospects for force expansion aren’t good. The Pentagon chief asserts that, while he has an “open mind,” no one has been able to “make a case” he could accept. He cited the work of a panel headed by Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, examining whether the military is large enough. “The analysis that’s been done … indicates that we’re fine,” Rumsfeld said.

One can only assume that Rumsfeld plans to keep doing what he has been doing. Someone should remind him of what has often been referred to as The First Law of Holes: When you find yourself in one, stop digging.