With generals warning that long deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan are stretching the Army to a breaking point, President Bush is asking for plans to expand the military for a long war against terrorism, a senior administration official said Tuesday.
The growth would reverse the course pursued by Donald H. Rumsfeld, who six years ago set out to restructure the nation's military forces and advocated cutting two divisions, or about 40,000 soldiers, from the Army.
Bush asked Robert M. Gates, who replaced Rumsfeld as Defense secretary Monday, to prepare plans for a more muscular military, with the idea of incorporating the expansion in the 2008 budget request that the administration plans to send to Congress in early February. The president did not set specific troop numbers or costs for the expansion, said the official, who requested anonymity when discussing administration planning.
Countering any talk that a beefed-up force would necessitate a draft, Army officials have said they believe at least an extra 20,000 soldiers a year could be recruited through pay incentives.
"The president is inclined to believe we need to increase the overall size of the Army and the Marines," said the official, adding that "how big and how soon" would be up to Gates. "The genesis is his long-held belief the global war on terror is going to be a long one and we're going to need a military capable of sustaining our effort to keep the country safe."
The president revealed his plans for the military in an interview Tuesday with the Washington Post. "I want to share one thought I had with you, and I'm inclined to believe that we do need to increase our troops, the Army, the Marines," Bush said in an opening statement. The newspaper posted a partial transcript of the president's comments on its website Tuesday afternoon.
The president's order that Gates consider increasing the size of the Army and Marine Corps occurs as Bush and his national security team are in the throes of preparing a new approach to the war in Iraq.
White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said Tuesday that one of the courses Bush was considering is a "surge" in troops there. The temporary boost could last several months, with the additional numbers coming from an extension of current deployments and an early deployment of troops scheduled to serve there, putting further stress on the military.
About 140,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq. The surge could increase that total by 30,000, with troops sent to Baghdad and other hotspots of insurgent and sectarian violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
Snow has said Bush will disclose his Iraq plans early next year.
The president said he was waiting to hear Gates' recommendations after the Defense secretary visits Iraq.
"Gates wanted to get there and kick the tires, so to speak, before he made a recommendation to the president," said the senior administration official.
Advocates of sending more troops to Iraq have said that such a strategy must be paired with an overall increase in the Army and Marine Corps.
Adding more soldiers in Iraq next spring and summer would reduce the troops available in 2008 and 2009. But expanding the size of the military would allow newly created units to take the place of the additional units sent to Iraq in 2007 and would allow the military to maintain its force levels over the longer term.
On Thursday, Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, called for an increase in the size of the Army. Without expanding the active-duty military or relaxing restrictions on calling up reserves, Schoomaker said, the Army would have difficulty continuing its current overseas deployments.
Congress has allowed the Army to temporarily grow by 30,000 soldiers beyond its active-duty cap of 482,000. It is about 5,000 troops short of that goal. Army officials want the temporary increase to be permanent, and many favor a still larger increase.
Schoomaker said that the Army could accommodate an annual increase of up to 7,000 troops.
Military experts have said that increasing the size of the Marine Corps, which has had fewer recruiting problems than the Army, would be easier than expanding the Army. Gen. James Conway, the Marines' new commandant, favors increasing the force, currently at 181,000. Officials say an increase of up to 5,000 is being considered.
"More troops would get us in deeper and is a military response to a political problem," said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan.
Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) said: "I don't know what the military mission would be.... Is there something to go after that we don't know? I don't think it will change a thing."
Skelton, a longtime supporter of the military who is now calling for a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, said a boost in troops there could be counterproductive. "It could exacerbate the situation further," he said.
He added: "The time for a troop increase, larger troop increase, was about 3 1/2 years ago, when we initially went into Iraq.... If we had done that, I don't think we would be in the situation we are today."
Although sentiment in Congress and the public has been growing for months for a drawdown of troops, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.), several other members of Congress and former soldiers have embraced the idea of increasing the troop numbers in Iraq.
Suggesting a split among some Democrats, however, Harry Reid of Nevada, who is about to become the Senate majority leader, expressed some support for the idea. "If the commanders on the ground said this is just for a short period of time, we'll go along with that," Reid said Sunday on ABC's "This Week."
Other senior Senate Democrats, including Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Jack Reed of Rhode Island have criticized the proposal.
Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes contributed to this report.
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U.S. troop totals
Active duty military personnel levels for fiscal years, with president in office at that time:
*--* Year, president Total forces 1970, Richard M. Nixon 3,064,760 1980, Jimmy Carter 2,050,627 1990, George H.W. Bush 2,043,705 2000, Bill Clinton 1,384,338 2006*, George W. Bush 1,381,965
* As of October
Source: Department of Defense