In a July, 2015 file photo, retired Army Gen. Carter Ham, chairman of the National Commission on the Future of the Army, asks a question about reserve component training at Fort Meade, Md.

In a July, 2015 file photo, retired Army Gen. Carter Ham, chairman of the National Commission on the Future of the Army, asks a question about reserve component training at Fort Meade, Md. (Jacob Boyer/DOD)

WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump should take a hard look at the troop caps that President Barack Obama has placed on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, a retired Army general told lawmakers Thursday on Capitol Hill.

The number of troops needed in war zones should reflect the military power necessary for the United States to achieve the desired outcome, retired Gen. Carter Ham told the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee after Republican committee members accused Obama of placing arbitrary troop caps on operations.

“When activities are driven by a number rather than by a mission, then I think we have got things out of whack and out of priority,” said Ham, who retired in 2013 as commander of U.S. Africa Command after commanding in Iraq.

Managing troop numbers have been used throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and dates back to the Vietnam War, but Obama’s force management levels are much less than previous presidents have permitted in past conflicts.

Obama has authorized 5,262 troops to serve in Iraq, while the cap is set to shrink to 8,400 servicemembers by Jan. 20 in Afghanistan. The Obama administration has defended force levels, contending less troops reflect the missions in both conflicts, which are primarily to train and advise local security forces.

However, the military has relied heavily on the use of civilian contractors and troops deployed on temporary duty of up to 90 days to get around force limits. It is not clear how many troops on temporary duty are in either war zone, nor is it clear how many civilian contractors are employed by the military in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The subcommittee’s chairwoman, Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., said Thursday that she has asked the Pentagon for those figures and their cost to taxpayers, but she has not received them. The Government Accountability Office has not asked specifically for them, said Cary Russell, GAO’s director of military operations and warfighter support.

Hartzler cited the use of contractors for aircraft maintenance in Iraq and Afghanistan as an example of an area where greater force levels would be helpful. The Army has relied on civilian contractors for much of the maintenance responsibilities for its helicopters in Iraq and Afghanistan. Maintenance troops are normally an organic part of an aviation unit. But because of the troop limits, the Pentagon has been deploying only partial aviation units — just servicemembers needed to operate the aircraft. Unit maintainers, meanwhile, have been forced to stay at their home stations, Hartzler said.

Ham said deploying only partial units can hurt morale and limits the maintainers ability to train.

“I don’t’ believe it is the intent of the force management levels to simply substitute a contractor for uniformed military personnel,” he said. “In the case of uniformed maintainers, we’ve paid for them, we have trained them, we’ve paid for their equipment and yet we are using contractors for their jobs.”

Retired Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik, who is now a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War, estimated it costs the military nearly $100 million a year to use contractors to maintain enough helicopters to support a brigade.

“We are paying multiple ways through this scenario,” Hartzler said.

Troop caps have additionally placed an added burden on U.S. airpower and special operators, Russell said.

With less military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has increasingly relied on its warplanes to attack the enemy or aid partner security forces. Since August 2014, the U.S.-led Operation Inherent Resolve coalition has dropped more than 57,000 bombs on the Islamic State group. Russell said the airstrikes have led to a depleted stock of GPS- and laser-guided munitions.

The U.S. military’s reliance on special operators to train and, in some cases, accompany local forces on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan has “resulted in a high pace of deployments, which can affect readiness, retention and morale,” he said.

Ham and Dubik said troop caps were generally necessary, but the next administration should consider all the options that its military planners provide before deciding how many troops should be in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

“There is utility in force management levels,” Ham said. “If you start the planning process with a force management level, I think that leads you to a flawed planning process and would preclude military planners from offering civilian authorities the full range of capabilities and options that they ought to consider.” Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

author picture
Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now