WASHINGTON - President Bush said Tuesday that the United States should expand the size of its armed forces, acknowledging that the military has been strained by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and would need to grow to cope with what he suggested would be a long battle against Islamic extremism.
"I'm inclined to believe it's important and necessary to do," Bush said. "The reason why is, it is an accurate reflection that this ideological war we're in is going to last for a while, and that we're going to need a military that's capable of being able to sustain our efforts and help us achieve peace."
Speaking in an interview with the Washington Post, Bush did not specify how large an increase he is contemplating, or put a dollar figure on the cost. He said he had asked his new Defense secretary, Robert Gates, to bring him a proposal, and that the budget he unveils at the beginning of February would seek approval for the plan from Congress, where many members of both parties have been urging an increase in the military's size.
In interviews Tuesday, administration officials said the president had been speaking generally about the broader campaign against terrorism, and was not foreshadowing a decision on whether to send additional troops into Iraq in coming months in an effort to stabilize Baghdad. Any big change in the size of the U.S. military would take years to accomplish. Bush told the Post, which excerpted the interview Tuesday on its Web site, that he had not made a decision about sending more troops to Iraq.
Coming the day after Gates was sworn in as Defense secretary, Bush's comments indicated that the administration was breaking abruptly with the stance taken by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who long championed the view that high technology and better intelligence could substitute for a bigger military.
Bush said his plan would focus on ground forces rather than on the Navy and Air Force, telling the Post, "I'm inclined to believe that we do need to increase our troops: the Army, the Marines." There are about 507,000 active duty Army soldiers and 180,000 active-duty Marines.
Bush's comments were his most direct assessment that the armed forces are facing strain so serious that the nation should invest billions of dollars in expanding the military.
Congress authorized a 30,000-soldier increase in the active-duty Army after the Sept. 11 attacks in what was described as a temporary measure. Army officials say they hope to reach that authorized total troop strength of 512,000 by next year, and would like to make that a permanent floor.
To that end, the Army already has drawn up proposals to grow to 535,000 and 540,000, with some retired officers advocating an even larger increase.