The U.S. military is slated to shed 150,000 soldiers. Can it still go to war with so few?
- By Gordon Lubold
Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He is also the author of FP's Situation Report, an e-mailed newsletter that is blasted out to more than 70,000 national security and foreign affairs subscribers each morning that includes the top nat-sec news, breaking news, tidbits, nuggets and what he likes to call "candy." Before arriving at FP, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he wrote on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular Morning Defense early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Latin America as well as at American military bases across the country. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including on CNN, public radio's Diane Rehm and To the Point, and C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children.
The U.S. Army, already reeling from the beginning of a round of cuts that will drop from its peak of 570,000 to about 490,000, was just told that those cuts don’t begin to cut it. Now the Army has begun planning to plan to shrink even more: to a force of about 420,000.
The writing was on the wall. With Iraq now a distant memory and Afghanistan winding down by the end of the year, the Army had expected to drop in size. But to some, this means "cutting into bone," as one officer observed, and that raises a question about what a smaller Army can do — and what it can’t.
The Army leadership have framed almost any cuts to end strength as draconian. Speaking before a December budget deal that softens some of the blow, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno attempted to make the case that a smaller Army couldn’t do what it was supposed to do.
"If Congress does not act to mitigate the magnitude, method and speed of the reductions under the Budget Control Act with sequestration, the Army will be forced to make significant reductions in force structure and end strength, adding: "Such reductions will not allow us to execute the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, and will make it very difficult to conduct even one sustained major combat operation."
But that’s not quite right, defense experts say. A smaller Army can conduct any kind of small operation — training indigenous forces in Africa, say, or sending a peacekeeping force into Syria. And it can do anything big, too like conducting an "MTW" – a major theater war — just not for long.
Budget cuts have already forced the Army to cut back on training and operations. Odierno told lawmakers last fall that there is less money to prepare deploying soldiers for combat, leaving soldiers across the Army less ready than they have ever been. Last summer, when the Army was still planning on having 490,000 soldiers, the service announced that it would cut 10 brigade combat teams, or BCTs, over four years.
For example, a smaller-sized force fighting in any larger, longer-term contingency operation would be forced to deploy its soldiers on smaller, quicker rotations before the Army could be expanded for the extended mission – or the National Guard or Reserve can be called in. Friction between the Guard and Reserve and the active duty Army has spilled into public recently, with Odierno and Guard and Reserve leaders sniping at each other over the cuts. Many in the active Army fear the politically powerful Guard and Reserve are poised to gain as the active Army shrinks.
Under a smaller Army, one of the Army’s flashiest new concepts – regionalized brigades, in which soldiers receive cultural and language training – would likely be pared back. The implications of a smaller Army may not yet be clear.
Experts say it’s all in the way the service does the cutting that matters. A smaller force can achieve a lot of what it needs to if it has the right balance: If the Army has too many combat forces and not enough "enabling" forces for certain kinds of operations, it’ll be incapable of performing much of what it’s asked to do, said former Army officer Nate Freier. On the other hand, if it doesn’t have forces at the ready to move quickly it could be left out. "One of the real risks is getting the balance inside the numbers wrong," said Freier, now a research professor at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. "The number itself isn’t nearly as important as how it’s broken down inside of that."
Freier said the Army must focus more on capacity and capability — not just raw numbers. And an institutional bias across the military, but in particular the Army, toward conventional threats animates anxiety within the service if it shrinks too much. The Defense Department still prefers to think about big wars against nation-states, arguably leaving the military vulnerable to more likely threats that emerge from dissolving regimes. In a word, it must hedge. For example, if the Army remains fixated on the possibility of a large land war, it may assume risk when it’s called upon to mobilize forces for an entirely different operation for which it is not prepared. Likewise, if conducting training of indigenous forces in other countries, say in Africa, is critical, it must also maintain the proper forces to do that but also have enough capability and capacity to fight a conventional war.
"Your credibility in doing that is based on your capability to take on those missions and to maintain your hedge for other contingencies worldwide," he said.
At the moment, the political winds against another major war are gale force — and the Obama White House has seen the value in sending small, specialized forces into conduct high-impact missions, like the raid that nabbed Osama bin Laden — attitudes can turn on a dime. Which means the military has to keep planning for big missions with a smaller force.
"Whether or not we get involved is so dependent on the political circumstances of the day and no one can predict that in advance," said Maren Leed, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a former adviser to Odierno.
But, she said, "I go back to Trotsky: We may be done with war, but war may not be done with us."
The Army has long been criticized for being too big and lumbering – qualities that perhaps suited it all right for the conventional land wars of the past decade. Calls for a lighter, nimbler one haven’t made huge impacts yet on the institution.
But aside from the conventional threats in the Asia Pacific like China, most people argue that in this budgetary environment, there are few reasons to have a large, sitting Army that topped about 570,000 just a few years ago. And an Army sized at 420,000 soldiers is not exactly skeletal. In fact, it’s roughly the size of the pre-war Army in 2000. And cutting it back isn’t anything like the hundreds of thousands of forces cut in the early 1990s.
A smaller force may have an impact on one of the Army’s cherished new concepts: regionalized brigades. The idea is to give soldiers assigned to a brigade basic language and cultural skills for a certain region. Although the brigades are not assigned to a specific part of the world, they are theoretically "on the step" to deploy there — most typically in smaller, platoon- and company-sized units — for training and advising or potentially more "kinetic" missions. It’s an ambitious approach and one not without its critics. But for example, the Army has begun using the Army’s 2-1 brigade combat team as one of the first ones trained and ready to deploy to Africa.
"I think what we want to make sure is that they’re much more culturally attuned to the area they’re going to," an Army official working on the initiative, told Foreign Policy’s Situation Report last year. "I think that is an important part, and it’s certainly something that 12 years of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has highlighted to us, that you’ve got to understand the culture within which you operate. If you don’t, it does come with potentially cataclysmic problems."
It’s not yet clear how a smaller Army would affect a plan, but Freier said a smaller force will have fewer options.
"The smaller you get, the less you can afford to specialize," he said.
Although it’s not clear how the Army has begun to plan to shrink to 420,000, it had already begun downsizing. Just this month, two Army separation boards began looking at more than 19,000 Army captains and majors.
A recent article in the Small Wars Journal by retired Army Col. Kevin Benson argued that the Army must figure out its strategy and what kind of missions it wants to do and determine its size accordingly. But Leed argues that planners have to add an interim step. The Army needs to know what role it is to play in this post-war period, but it must figure out other ways of how it can perform them before determining its proper size.
"420,000 is not skeletal, and they’re not getting emaciated," Leed said. "It’s a significant [cut] but it’s not devastating."