Terms of Engagement

Why Stop There?

The Obama administration's leaner, meaner military may be still too big.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

If you listened on Thursday afternoon to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lay out the details of the 2013 Pentagon budget, warning that cuts yet deeper than the ones Congress had mandated could "inflict severe damage to our national security for generations to come," you would have had a hard time believing that the Pentagon’s budget had been reduced all of 1 percent — from $531 to $525 billion — with small increases projected over the coming years. While the rest of the federal budget is being squeezed to a pulp, the Defense Department, which now absorbs more than half of discretionary spending, has to forego the 6 to 7 percent increases to which it has become accustomed since 9/11. Cue the violins.

The focus of public attention, and criticism, will of course fall on those areas where the budgetary axe has landed, and above all on the planned reduction of the Army from 570,000 to 490,000 active-duty troops over the course of the next five years. Panetta pointed out that this would still make the Army bigger than it had been on Sept. 11, when the figure was 482,000. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that he was "confident that 490,000 is the right number for 2017," when the current five-year plan will end. I wish that someone had asked him why he was so confident. It’s quite possible that the Pentagon hasn’t cut deep enough.

The real, unspoken theme of the 2013 budget is not "smaller," it’s just "different" — though the difference in spending is much more modest and incremental than the change in doctrine which lies beneath it. The very first priority listed in the new budgetary document is the "Rebalance Towards the Asia-Pacific and Middle East Regions," where the Pentagon authors write: "The focus on the Asia-Pacific region places a renewed emphasis on air and naval forces while sustaining ground force presence. The Middle East has been dominated by ground force operations over the last decade; however, as we gradually transition security in Afghanistan and reestablish peacetime ground presence, this region will also become increasingly maritime." For this reason, the planners, explain, they have maintained the current bomber fleet and all 11 aircraft carriers — and kept troops forward-deployed in Asia while removing two of the four brigades based in Europe. While the Navy will give up some ships and the Air Force some planes, neither will suffer a loss of uniformed personnel.

The deep change which the new budget rather vaguely discloses is the shift from a military doctrine focused on land wars to one much more oriented towards naval and air conflict. First, as the "Strategic Guidance" which the Pentagon issued earlier this month states, "U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations" — i.e., no more wars of occupation like Iraq or Afghanistan. We have tried it, and we don’t like it, and we’re not as good at it as we thought. Second, China has replaced, or drawn even with, al Qaeda as the chief threat to U.S. national security — at least that’s the view in the military and the administration. The terrorist threat will be increasingly countered through drones and Special Forces. And the threat from China will be countered largely through naval and air power. The same is true of the very real danger that Iran will seek to choke off the Straits of Hormuz.

It is no longer obvious, as it was only a few years ago, what the Army is for anymore. This is not some sort of metaphysical question. As Andrew Krepinevich, director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments says, "In the Cold War, the Army was the supported force, not the supporting force. The same was true in Afghanistan and Iraq." The Navy’s job over the last decade was mostly to haul fighter planes around on top of aircraft carriers. But all that has been reversed. The military is now very much focused on projecting power in regions where strong states, not stateless actors, are developing the capacity to exclude us. Krepinevich is one of the authors of the so-called "AirSea Battle Concept," whose goal is to counter the threat that China’s long-range missiles, anti-satellite and cyberwar capacity, space-based and land-based surveillance systems pose to U.S. forces stationed in Asia and to America’s Asian allies. AirSea Battle, as the name implies, involves coordinating efforts by the Navy and the Air Force. Krepinevich flatly dismisses the possibility of a land war against China. The Army’s role in Asia, he says, will consist largely of training allies and partners, such as Japan, Korea, and the Philippines.

The Army has never fully embraced counterinsurgency, the chief doctrine to emerge from the wars of the last decade. And now the Navy and Air Force have AirSea Battle. The Army’s current problem may have less to do with a lack of imagination than with a lack of appropriate enemies. Who do we expect to fight a land war against?

As the military strategist Andrew Exum recently wrote, "No one can clearly spell out what the U.S. Army is meant to do in the current threat environment and why its current share of defense budget makes sense." Exum notes that the two big growth areas for the Army are training foreign militaries and special operations, especially in counterterror settings. But counterterror efforts will be largely carried out by Special Forces — whose numbers remain steady in the current budget — while training is a much more modest and less glamorous role than war-fighting, and one that the Army does not particularly enjoy.

 The Army, which devotes immense resources to thinking about and imparting matters of doctrine, is trying to find its way in this new environment. The service’s big thinkers are engaged in an exercise called "United Quest 2012," which is designed to figure out a way forward and, not incidentally, offer strategic grounding for the Army in what are bound to be increasingly fierce inter-service budgetary battles. According to reports from recent United Quest seminars, officials are "peeved" to have been excluded from AirSea Battle, but also "looking for something like that." I spoke to Ricky Smith, a senior civilian official with the Army’s Capabilities Integration Center — a big-think site at Fort Eustis in Virginia — who said, rather hopefully, that AirSea Battle is still only a "concept," and may never make it to the status of "doctrine." In fact, the centrality of the Navy and Air Force to preserving security in Asia and the Persian Gulf is firmly established.

In any case, as Smith noted, "wars pick you" and not the other way around. You don’t, that is, usually fight the wars you expect, much less intend. And that’s the real reason why a (mostly) defensive power with global obligations needs a large standing army. The Army is a hedge against uncertainty, against what former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld used to call the "known unknowns." What if a war breaks out over access to oil in West Africa, or natural gas in Central Asia? Sounds unlikely? So did a war in Afghanistan until it wasn’t. You need insurance. But how much do you need? This is a matter not only of cost but of plausibility: While it is very easy to imagine small-scale conflicts in these or other settings, a war involving 100,000 soldiers, like Iraq or Afghanistan, is highly unlikely.  The Strategic Guidance stipulates that America’s armed forces must be able to win a war in one region while blocking an "opportunistic aggressor" in another. This still seems like a lot of insurance. And it’s instructive that while the Army will be pared back to pre-9/11 levels, the Army Reserve and National Guard are being preserved from cuts. They constitute, in effect, a hedge against the hedge.

For all the caterwauling we’re bound to hear about the current round of cuts, which amount to $485 billion over the next decade, there are probably more to come. The failure of last year’s bipartisan deficit-reduction panel triggered automatic cuts of which about half, or $500 billion, will be apportioned to the Pentagon. It’s unlikely that all of that can be avoided. In that case, President Obama may find himself asking the same questions about the Army that so many military experts have. Andrew Krepinevich, no dove, suggests that the Army may settle at 450,000 troops. That sounds like plenty. The Army had better come up with some good answers.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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