How Big An Army?

How Big An Army?

The unified front put forward in the budget debate by the military services is cracking.  It was inevitable: When money gets really tight, trade-offs have to be made and those trade-offs will create winners and losers among the services. A year ago, the service chiefs were extolling the camaraderie amongst themselves; now they are beginning to challenge the distribution of budget shares.

The Army is in the proverbial gunsight, for several reasons. First, Congress has gotten serious about debt reduction. Second, the wars are drawing to a close. Third, the difficulty of fighting those wars with large land armies has exhausted public — and therefore political — willingness to handle current and future threats by those means. Fourth, there is a public sense that either the threat that has galvanized our national security establishment since 9/11 is lessening or our ability to manage it has increased to a comfortable level (something reinforced by the head of the FBI in yesterday’s congressional testimony). Fifth, the administration is choosing to address the terrorist threat by stand-off means (drone strikes, training local forces) in Yemen and other very dangerous places. Sixth, the Marine Corps will (as usual) get a pass because they so adroitly argue they’re the nation’s 9/11 force (as a soldier of my acquaintance argues, the Army brings a spoon to the budget fights, the Marine Corps brings a knife) and so unflinchingly make do with what they get.

And seventh, sad to say, the Army has done a dismal job of justifying their preferred end-strength of 490,000 active duty soldiers. The number is suspiciously near the size of the Army in the 1990s, before advances in information technology enabled our dramatically heightened situational awareness, persistent surveillance, and precision strike from beyond the enemy’s visibility — changes that a former commandant of the Marine Corps said gave a battalion the firepower of a brigade. And even with that end-strength, General Odierno now says the Army will be incapable of fighting even one war because of cuts to training and equipment. 

As Micah Zenko pointed out in his insightful piece on myths the military are propagating, the Army’s argument is that (1) we’re terrible at predicting the future, but (2) we know it will require large land armies. 

Their rebuttal of critics has consisted mostly of saying anyone who doesn’t support 490,000 doesn’t know history. Not only does the Korean War’s Task Force Smith (in which the Army deployed an unready force that took high casualties and failed in its mission) figure prominently, but so does their current evaluation that 530,000 soldiers would be needed to occupy North Korea should that tyrannical regime collapse. But their own war games show it would take on order of five months for that force to arrive, rather defeating the purpose of sending it.  

Nowhere evident is an intellectual ferment about how to capitalize on technology and operational experience to find new and less manpower intensive ways of countering our enemies. Nowhere evident is the kind of conceptual development that melds a joint force — our signature dominance over other militaries — to greater effect. The Army’s advocates talk as though sooner or later every military engagement results in the commitment of large ground forces. It’s actually not true: That’s a political and strategic choice, not a law of nature. And it’s even less true as our range of military capabilities expands thanks to technology and operational innovation. 

Breaking Defense today reports an interview with MG Snow, the Army’s director of strategy, plans and policy, in which he derides Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Sandy Winnifeld for stating that the Army won’t fight large wars. The article quotes Snow: "It’s not his call, though…That future security environment… is going to require a suite of capabilities. OK, so Admiral Winnefeld, he certainly has got his thoughts, [and] in many cases, if you view the threat as things that can be addressed by technology, that leads you in a particular direction. [But] technology is not going to solve all of our problems in the future."

It’s an aggressive tactical move, an admirable reflex in a soldier, but in this case wrong.  Because it’s not Admiral Winnifeld that has determined in these austere times the place to accept risk is in the size of the active-duty Army. The president of the United States made that decision. Winnifeld’s statement was paraphrasing the president’s guidance to the Department of Defense. That presidential guidance has been incorporated into Department of Defense planning documents under both of the last two secretaries: Secretary Panetta’s January 2013 defense guidance for the budget and Secretary Hagel’s recently concluded strategic choices management review. The truth is that if the Pentagon really budgeted to the president’s strategy, the Army would take an enormous cut, probably far beyond what the White House, the Pentagon or the Congress would be willing to actually administer. 

Rather than validating the end strength, the Army’s approach seems to have caused Secretary Hagel to question the force-planning constructs that produce such large numbers as "requirements." The secretary has now identified revisiting those as one of his top priorities.  In what should be heard ominously by the Army, Hagel in his CSIS speech, said "We must make sure that contingency scenarios drive force structure decisions, and not the other way around." Hagel has also signaled an Army end-strength of 420,000 is under consideration. The Army looks set to lose the budget battle. And the reason is that they have lost the battle of ideas.