Shadow Government

3 Questions the Army Needs to Answer Persuasively

The U.S. Army is besieged. Not on the battlefield, where it acquitted itself remarkably well across concurrent and sustained combat campaigns. Where the Army finds itself bogged down is in an inability to make its case effectively to the executive, the legislature, and the American public. As a result, there is little resonance to the ...

The U.S. Army is besieged. Not on the battlefield, where it acquitted itself remarkably well across concurrent and sustained combat campaigns. Where the Army finds itself bogged down is in an inability to make its case effectively to the executive, the legislature, and the American public. As a result, there is little resonance to the Army’s argument for its size and spending program.

The U.S. Army has been at war for more than a decade while broader society has been untouched by the demands that so weigh on the fighting forces and their families. It feels itself buffeted by demands that it meet civilian standards of conduct on social issues. Congress wholly disregarded its warnings about the catastrophic effects of sequestration and refuses to give any latitude to make even modest cuts to military benefit programs. It finds itself playing catch-up to the military services that are thinking more creatively about the demands of military operations against adversaries in the Asia-Pacific. And now it finds itself the potential bill payer for the next round of Defense Department budget cuts. 

The Army’s leadership is responding to these challenges by projecting a resigned discontent, as Gen. Ray Odierno conveyed in his press conference a few weeks ago — almost as though the leadership knows it’s fighting a losing battle, but is seeing it through to whatever outcome the titanic forces arrayed against the leadership’s preferred size and structure for the Army ultimately exact.

Unlike the Marine Corps, which stands proudly and even defiantly outside society, the Army expects to be understood and appreciated — its ethos is to feel it’s the service closest to the rest of American society, the most democratic in many ways and the one that eventually gets answers right on terms broadly acceptable both inside the military and beyond it. And it’s right; that earnestness is one of the beautiful attributes of America’s magnificent Army.

But the Army’s leadership needs to take responsibility for the fact that it has not made a persuasive argument for its program. And the weakest part of the Army’s program is its justification for end strength — that is, the size of the Army it seeks to maintain.

Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, held a press conference on June 25 to announce what has long been the Army’s planned manning level: reductions from 540,000 active-duty soldiers and 358,000 National Guardsmen to 490,000 active-duty and 350,000 Guardsmen. Oddly, Odierno made the announcement in advance of the defense secretary’s release of his Strategic Choices and Management Review, which is supposed to guide the military services’ budget and programmatic choices.

Odierno didn’t just preempt the defense secretary; he outlined an Army program for the coming 10 years. Odierno said, "The Army’s in the process of undergoing one of the largest organizational changes probably since World War II." And it is true that the Army is (again) redesigning its brigade combat teams, but the force structure he outlined is nearly identical in dimension to the Army of the mid-1990s. Despite all the differences in the international environment, capability improvements by both U.S. forces and America’s enemies, and reduced force planning requirements, the current Army program and the mid-1990s program had end strengths of 490,000 active-duty soldiers.

And it sadly goes without saying that the Army program does not anticipate sequestration continuing into fiscal 2014, though it almost surely will. Odierno said that if sequestration does continue as outlined in the 2011 Budget Control Act, it "could require another significant reduction in active guard and reserve force structure [of] as much as 100,000 combined."

For the Army leadership to get ahead of the train and craft an outcome different from cuts of another 100,000 soldiers, it will need to be much more forthcoming and much more analytically persuasive than Odierno has been. The Army needs urgently to answer three fundamental questions: 

1. Why so similar to the 1990s? Bill Clinton’s administration lamely protested that the Bottom-Up Review, which sized and apportioned U.S. military forces for the post-Cold War, was not a budget-driven exercise (what strategy isn’t a budget-driven exercise?). The review was admirably serious in describing threats and the requisite military forces, concepts, and equipment for defending and advancing U.S. interests. Force planning is a dark art and, as Mark Gunzinger of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments argues, typically is better at identifying additions than subtractions.

In the mid-1990s, the Defense Department’s planning construct sized the force to fight "two nearly simultaneous major regional contingencies" — two wars. The department’s current guidance reduces that standard to one war. In the mid-1990s, the U.S. military was just beginning to reap the benefits of the communications revolution, which has provided the situational awareness, precision, range, and sustainability of combat power that has "transformed" how we fight. In the mid-1990s the United States did not have a combat-hardened military expert at adapting to emergent tactical and operational challenges. In the mid-1990s, the National Guard and Reserve were generally not considered the peer of their active-duty counterparts; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have proved them capable of being a regular part of the combat rotation. Yet despite all these differences, X = 490,000. Why?

2. Why not more in the reserve component? Not only have the National Guard and Reserve shown they can and will fight with the excellence and tenacity of their active-duty counterparts, but the long lead times associated with many current threats suggest the possibility of greater reliance on mobilizable forces. Since the 9/11 attacks, 877,000 reservists have been mobilized, with remarkably little resistance from either the reservists or their employers. There are problems, to be sure — especially for returning reservists whose employers have not honored their commitment — but very few refusals to serve. And the Army’s leadership has lavishly praised the performance of the National Guard and Reserve in ways that make difficult any future argument that they are not central contributors.

The Reserve Forces Policy Board (not a disinterested source, but it at least produced its analysis for review) concluded that even with train-up costs, a reservist costs a third of what it costs to keep an active-duty service member. Pennsylvania’s adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Wesley Craig, has calculated that cutting the active component by 100,000 and increasing the reserve component by the same amount would save "$15.7 billion annually with no loss in Total Army end-strength." The Army is sure to have lots of concerns about making such a trade-off, and many of those concerns are justified. But none will carry any weight until the Army can explain what needs to be in the active component and what can be shifted to the reserve component.

3. Should Army and Marine Corps roles and missions be further disaggregated? The Marine Corps bills itself as "the nation’s 9/11 force," always ready to fight and fast to get there. It relies on support and sustainment from all the other services, but is the utility infielder of the U.S. military, able to make do with what’s available and absorb the shock of first engagement. The current defense program envisions retaining a Marine Corps of 182,000 and refocusing its mission toward amphibious operations — that is, away from being a second army as the size of U.S. ground forces has required for the past decade. There does not appear to be a similar refocus by the Army on its traditional strength of entering a mature theater of war and fighting extended combat. Should not the reductions in end strength allow the two ground forces to specialize more to their strong suits? Does the United States need an Army with one-fifth of its force optimized to what the Marine Corps does?

There may be — surely are — good rebuttals to these questions that make a strong case for retaining an Army of 490,000 active-duty soldiers. But the Army needs to make a persuasive case for that, and so far the Army has not.

The Army cannot sustain an active duty end-strength of 490,000 in the current budget and threat environment without doing a dramatically better job of explaining their rationale for the size Army. As it currently stands, General Odierno comes across as trying to salvage as much end strength as he can, falling back slowly as budget pressure and Congressional intransigence make his current position untenable. And that may be the best the Army can do, if they honestly don’t have answers to these questions. But it’s not a winning strategy.

Kori Schake is the deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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