Another Take on the Troop “Surge” Numbers

An email from a Pentagon correspondent makes us reconsider ...

On Monday, I wrote a piece calling for reporters covering the Pentagon and military affairs to start talking about a new Congressional Budget Office report that stipulated that the troop “surge” of 21,000 troops to Iraq would probably be closer to 35,000 to 48,000 troops, once support troops are factored in.

Smarter folks than me on matters of military import, like Defense Tech and the Army Times echoed similar concerns about the CBO report, sending off alarm bells over the possibility that the Bush administration was fudging the troop numbers.

But then I received an email from a veteran Pentagon reporter who explained why he — and possibly his colleagues — weren’t making more of the CBO report:

Your piece today on troop numbers is a fair critique, but I wanted to point out the reason I, at least, haven’t been making a bigger deal of the CBO report. Gen. Pete Schoomaker testified a week or two ago before the [House Armed Services Committee] that he didn’t think there would be many additional support troops needed for the new brigades going to Iraq, since much of the support is now built into the brigades themselves. If you look at the actual CBO report, its methodology is a little shoddy, too: they basically take past ratios of combat to support troops, and use that as a model for what the numbers will be in the future. But that logic is silly on its face, if you think about it.

There is already a huge infrastructure of people running logistics in Iraq which will largely stay the same no matter if combat forces go up or go down … There may be more supplies flowing through that infrastructure (which could require more cargo flights and resupply missions), but it really won’t require a huge additional number of non-combat forces. Certainly not 35,000, as the CBO speculated.

That’s a fair enough brushback, and much less alarmist than some other analysts have made the coming increase out to be. Still, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. Adding an additional 21,000 combat troops to the theater of operations will require a huge influx of supplies in order to house, feed and equip them. It’s very possible that the people currently on the ground can handle the new load, and no major influx of additional support troops will be needed. But then again, we’ve been burned — disastrously — by faulty Pentagon troop assessments before, so it remains critically important that the press stay on this one, and watch closely as the troops, and the money to fund them, heads overseas.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.