The Dwindling Strategic Reserve of US Ground Forces

President Obama is about to decide whether to send an additional 40,000 troops to Afghanistan, which Gen. Stanley McChrystal has reportedly requested.  The US Army is already stretched thin, and more deployments to Afghanistan would stretch it to the limit.

The Army currently has a total of 44 combat brigades; 19 are already deployed overseas and 13 others are already scheduled to be shipped out, and the men and women they replace in combat zones will need time to rest and regroup before they are redeployment.  That leaves 12 brigades that are being held in strategic reserve.  But if 40,000 more soldiers are sent to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban, the US would have at most two brigades left to deal with unanticipated contingencies. 

How long such a state would last is uncertain.  Right now there are 120,000 American troops in Iraq.  The administration hopes that that number will be reduced to 50,000 by August 2010.  But that drawdown may not occur on time if the situation in Iraq deteriorates.  Even if the withdrawal goes according to schedule, tens of thousands more troops (beyond the 40,000 that President Obama might soon send) may be needed to combat the escalating Taliban insurgency, which means America’s strategic reserve could remain dangerously low for a long time.

One hotspot where an unexpected war might break out is East Asia.  North Korea could try to invade South Korea or China could attack Taiwan.  In either case, the US would almost certainly rely on the Navy and Air Force to support its allies even if America had a large ground force in reserve, so a lack of extra troops would not really be a significant issue.

The Middle East is another potential flashpoint, especially as concerns about Iran’s nuclear program are mounting.  The US already has a large presence in Iraq, but additional soldiers might be needed if the region is further destabilized.

By definition, it is difficult to foresee other potential crises.  But if there is an emergency in the near-to-medium term the US might not have sufficient resources on hand to deal with it effectively, especially if the conflict in Afghanistan continues to eat up America’s strategic reserve.

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