A BIGGER MILITARY?….A bipartisan (but hawkish) group called on Congress today to increase the size of the armed forces:

While estimates vary about just how large an increase is required, and Congress will make its own determination as to size and structure, it is our judgment that we should aim for an increase in the active duty Army and Marine Corps, together, of at least 25,000 troops each year over the next several years….After almost two years in Iraq and almost three years in Afghanistan, it should be evident that our engagement in the greater Middle East is truly, in Condoleezza Rice’s term, a “generational commitment.” The only way to fulfill the military aspect of this commitment is by increasing the size of the force available to our civilian leadership.

What does this mean? Here’s some back-of-the-envelope arithmetic:

Assuming that “several years” means at least three or four years, these guys are suggesting an increase of around 100,000 troops. This is roughly eight divisions.

A couple of years ago the CBO issued a report that estimated the cost of a new division at about $10 billion up front and then $5 billion per year to maintain and deploy. Eight divisions, then, would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $25 billion per year for the next few years and $40 billion to maintain after that. This amounts to a permanent increase in the defense budget of about 10%.

Should we do this? I have my doubts about an increase of this magnitude, although I think a smaller increase is pretty well justified. But regardless of my own view, which is open to change in either direction, this is a debate I’d really, really like to see us have. It gets straight to the heart of a question that our political leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike, have been tap dancing around ever since 9/11: what are our future military plans in the war on terror?

George Bush does indeed talk about this being a task of generations, but he has consistently refused to risk public opinion by proposing the kind of military that this kind of commitment obviously requires. After all, that might scare off some of his supporters who think this is just happy talk. For his part, John Kerry did support an increase of 40,000 troops during the campaign and congressional Democrats reiterated their support for that earlier this week. At the same time, though, they’ve never really said what they want to do with those extra troops.

No one should be allowed to posture endlessly about America’s enduring commitment to freedom if they don’t have the guts to say clearly whether this means a military commitment ? and troop strength is a concrete issue that requires everyone to put their cards on the table. Do you think the war on terror requires large number of American troops to be deployed overseas for long periods or don’t you? Do you think we’re likely to be involved in another Iraq sometime in the future or not?

This is far more important than trivia like “saving” Social Security, a program that’s solvent for at least the next 40 years, or pandering to the Christian right over gay marriage and cartoon rabbits. It’s a real issue, and it’s one we ought to be dealing with now.