For a while now I've been bothered by an issue that seems to have swung a few blogger votes in the US. Let's call it the 'more boots' argument, which I've seen made by a lot of people I respect, such as Dan Drezner, Andrew Sullivan and Phil Carter. The claim is that the Bush Administration has been culpably incompetent in Iraq by putting insufficient troops on the ground. I'm not sure it washes. Yes, before the invasion US generals were claiming that a much larger occupation force was needed than the 130,000 to 160,000 actually used. That isn't enough by itself to secure the conviction in this case, though.
This article (via Phil Carter) makes it clear that the US military airlift capacity is overstretched. The implication should be clear, but I'll spell it out anyway. A contemporary army, especially the American, is utterly dependent on a continuous and massive flow of equipment, spare parts, specialised supplies of all kinds, fuel (again, of specialised types), etc.
That has to be brought in from somewhere, usually from the US itself. A lot of it could be brought in by sea - but Iraq only has very limited capacity for unloading. A lot has been done to get Umm Qasr and Al Zubayr up and running - this report indicates that dredging at Umm Qasr started a month after Baghdad fell and was finished in four months, which sounds pretty good going to me. But they still require a massive effort before they're working properly. This report indicates one reason why:
'Access to Iraq's two deepwater seaports is blocked... by hundreds of sunken ships that were wrecked in wars over the past 25 years, according to a detailed new report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)... Until most of these vessels are removed, Iraq will not be able to rehabilitate the Persian Gulf seaports that once handled the bulk of its commerce, UN experts said.'
In any case, the seaports are needed to import civilian goods. These are not problems that could be magicked away by the Administration. Hence the criticality of the airlift. There are some especially good quotes in the Air Force Magazine article which bear repeating:
'The airlift operation that has supported US forces in Southwest Asia over the past three years now ranks among the most extensive in history. Taken together, the efforts in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom can be put in the same general class as US airlifts to Berlin (1948-49), Israel (1973), and the Persian Gulf (1990-91). And Air Mobility Command leaders expect no letup for at least another 18 months. At the same time, the Air Force faces an acute airlift shortfall. The capability of the fleet used in the 2003 Iraq War was well short of requirement; the gap was at least 10 million ton miles per day. Today, AMC leaders say, the gap is wider—at least 15 MTM/D, perhaps 22 MTM/D.'
I have no military knowledge beyond what I read, but a 'million ton mile' sounds like a hefty sort of unit to me. The article goes on to get the views of General Handy, chief of US Air Mobility Command, who knows what he's talking about, we may presume:
'It all adds up to an airlift fleet that is too small to carry the load and personnel who cannot maintain a breakneck pace forever... The Air Force relies on commercial passenger and cargo aircraft to handle surge periods—such as when large numbers of Army troops rotate out of theater and are replaced by US-based units—but even the commercial carriers “have been in an incredibly high optempo,” Handy said.'
In other words there's no private-sector slack to compensate for the pressure. And no way to use reservists to compensate either:
'The command has also made exhaustive use of the Air Force’s reserve components and is struggling to find ways to meet Defense Department instructions to pare down the use of Guard and Reserve people and equipment.'
Even with all this extra effort, the field units aren't satisfied:
'Moreover, Handy said his command is constantly engaged in negotiations with field commanders, asking if they can accept a delay of one or two weeks in receiving certain cargo, and also trying to differentiate between genuine needs and nice-to-have, nonessential items.'
And bear in mind that his guys are being shot at occasionally.
'...enemies on the ground continue to take potshots at US aircraft using anti-aircraft artillery, man-portable surface-to-air missiles, rocket-propelled grenades, and small arms... The loss of even a single large aircraft would affect the nation’s ability to provide the airlift demanded by regional commanders.'
Read the whole article. It's not just transports that are under strain: tankers for in-flight refuelling are ancient.
Let's cut to the chase: assume an extra 50,000 men had been put on the ground in Iraq - how could they be supplied? Even light infantry, with only infantry weapons (i.e. no artillery or armoured vehicles) would be demanding enough, needing food, fuel, ammunition etc. Heavy combat units with their monster vehicles would be even worse.
Getting the Europeans on board wouldn't help, because their airlift capacity is feeble. (The new A400M should address that, but note the delivery date envisioned in this article. Hint: it ain't 2004.)
So I don't buy the 'more boots' argument. Maybe the entire Iraq logistics operation is being run by morons. Maybe General Handy's an imbecile. Maybe all those stupid Yanks are dumb. (Adopts Guardian persona.) Well, obviously. (Guardian persona off.) But what's more likely: that Dubya is starving Iraq of troops, imperilling the success of the operation, the security of the US and his own re-election, or that the US can't sustain a significantly larger force than is in Iraq already?
If anyone could explain to me how I'm wrong on this issue, I'd be glad to hear of it. I'm opening the comments box for this one.