In Iraq, you define your status by where you fit in a hierarchy of suck. Paradoxically, those who have it best inhabit the bottom of the ladder -- those poor souls in Kuwait or Qatar or Bahrain who get the combat patch and tax-free income without the risk of being in Iraq. Next up on the ladder are the "Fobbits". These are soldiers who live and work on the big FOBs [Forward Operating Bases] like Speicher, never to leave the wire nor be placed in any real danger. Although the large basecamps do occasionally take incoming rocket or mortar rounds, it's rare that those inflict any casualties. Fobbits get to live in relative luxury, whether at Speicher, LSA Anaconda or in Baghdad. In short, they earn the perquisites of a combat tour with none of the risk; the worst hardship for them is being away from home.
Suffice to say, most combat soldiers look down on the Fobbits with a mix of jealousy and resentment. We wish we could have the easy life they lead in Iraq, but are proud that we have it tougher, and that we actually get to contribute in some meaningful way to the mission. The unfortunate truth is that most Fobbits never get to meet an Iraqi or participate directly in the reconstruction of Iraq. They contribute indirectly to the mission here, of course; the gargantuan U.S. military could not function without its legions of support personnel and contractors. Nonetheless, these people don't get to see the same Iraq that other soldiers do, which in my opinion is too bad. Two of the things I like most about my job advising police are the ability to interact with Iraqis, and to see the fruits of my labor on a daily or weekly basis.
The stratification of the military also brings to mind another big trend in the military. It was discussed by the Administration defending its higher budget with fewer soldiers in the midst of what is calls wartime.
One example of why the Army argues that it does not always take an increase in troops to attain an increase in firepower is a new 155mm artillery weapon. It is not yet ready for fielding, but as designed it would take three times fewer people to operate than the old version, with the same firepower as six older 155mm cannons. Thus two soldiers operating one of the new weapons could achieve on the battlefield what it took 36 to do with the old weapons, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the top Army officer, said in an interview last week.
In similar ways, the Navy is moving toward ships with smaller crews. The Air Force is fielding missiles and bombs that can hit more targets with greater precision, thus requiring fewer airplanes to accomplish the mission.
This argument is half right. Many kinds of forces can see their numbers dramatically reduced. If we built the same Naval fleet that the U.S. has now from scratch today, the Navy would need 60% fewer sailors. One of the main innovations of the F-35A, one of the least revolutionary major spending programs in the military, which is designed primarily to replace aging F-16s, a design that entered service at the end of the Vietnam War, is that it is designed to have lower maintenance requirements. When you go from needing 15-25 Air Force military personnel per plane to 10 perhaps, with a new design, you don't need as many people in the Air Force. It can happen in more subtle ways as well. A surveillance drone flying over a transport convoy can eliminate the need to have dozens of scouts on the ground in front of and besides the convoy trying to prevent ambushes.
But, the other half of the argument is that not all kinds of forces can have their numbers reduced greatly with technology. A ship has the same capabilities whether you have 300 sailors on it, or 120. But, an infantry unit can't as easily be reduced in numbers. You can't do house to house searches for fleeing snipers and weapons caches with an artillery battery or a destroyer. Support units like medical staff or human intelligence personnel are also not so easily trimmed.
You will see in the military something very like the American economy at large. In the civilian economy, most goods producing industries from agriculture to manufacturing have grown dramatically more efficient over the past few decades. But, service providing industries, like retail sales, education and health care, are far less capable of reducing their ranks with new technologies. So, we have gone from being an economy of goods producers, to one dominated by service providers. Certainly, off shoring of goods producing jobs has had an impact, but the shift would have happened anyway, just a little slower.
In the military, similarly, the "button pushers" and "equipment operators" who dominate the current U.S. military ranks will wane in numbers (although not importance), while the grunts and people who provide services that support them, will not. As a result, it is almost inevitable that the lighter elements of the Marines and Army are increasingly going to dominant the ranks of active duty military personnel.