Small Wars Journal

“Don’t Cut the Army”

Mon, 08/03/2015 - 4:52pm

“Don’t Cut the Army”

Joseph J. Collins

Eisenhower said that plans are nothing, but planning is everything.  Plans are designed to change with circumstances. In bureaucracies, however, plans harden into concrete. We lose sight of the assumptions on which they were based, and they no longer match the changing strategic environment.  The Pentagon’s plan to cut the active Army exemplifies this problem.

Plans to take the Army from its high of 570,000 to 490,000 today, and then to reduce it again to 450,000 soldiers seemed prudent a few years ago. The war on terrorism was fading; we departed from Iraq, and our forces were coming out of Afghanistan.  Russia and China were competitors, but not behaving aggressively.  Iran and North Korea were ugly regional powers, one nuclear, the other wanting to achieve that status, but none of that was new.  Real negotiations with Iran were just getting underway.  Propelled by war weariness, hope was breaking out all over.

Today, reality has changed and not for the better.  ISIS dominates much of Syria and Iraq.  The war has escalated in Afghanistan.  The plan to end our military presence in Afghanistan at the end of 2016 no longer seems feasible.  Iran has increased its influence and presence in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. As a bonus, Tehran has just inked a nuclear deal that will bring it dozens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief, a bonus for the Revolutionary Guards and the Quds Force.  

In 2014, Russia took advantage of a weak Ukraine, seized the Crimea, and now threatens to take control of the Eastern Ukraine.  It continues its close relationships with Iran and Syria. Russia is now studying whether it was right to let the Balkan republics leave the USSR, questioning whether these states --- occupied by Stalin’s army --- have a right to freedom and NATO membership.  Beijing continues its relentless military modernization program and is attempting to turn the South China Sea into a Chinese lake.  China’s aggressive cyberattacks grow bolder by the day.  North Korea has become a dangerous combination of bellicosity and instability. 

These geostrategic developments have not escaped the view of the incoming and the outgoing chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  Marine General Joseph Dunford has called Russia an existential threat. Army General Martin Dempsey said in his valedictory interview in Joint Force Quarterly, that “my successor will have to deal with the reality of state actors who can now coerce and constrain us, as well as non-state actors…I don’t think the pendulum will swing entirely back to Russia or China as peer competitors, but I think the institution will have to adapt…”  The security threats from non-state actors, regional powers, and peer competitors have all grown.  

One segment of defense analysts believe that we can make up for our relatively small ground forces by maintaining a larger, more modern Air Force and Navy. They can see the outline of the next war; it won’t be a land conflict in the desert, but an air-sea battle, possibly in Asia.  This view is highly questionable. To paraphrase Trotsky, we may not be interested in ground wars, but throughout the last century, they have been very interested in us.

Our inability to predict the time, location, and the shape of the next conflict has been a near constant. Despite the world’s best intelligence, we are often surprised or inadequately prepared for the work at hand.  The only recourse is to maintain a balanced joint force, capable with our allies and partners, of meeting our objectives across the spectrum of potential conflicts.

Ground forces are a vital part of that joint force and our strongest deterrent against conventional aggression.  While air and sea forces magnify the power of armies, wars happen on land and among people.  Armies are the centerpiece of ground combat and dominate post-conflict stability operations.  U.S. national security increasingly relies on training and advising our partners.  That work too is done by soldiers and marines, and there are already too few of them.  In particular, this mission falls heavily on U.S. special operations forces, and nearly 70% of them are in the Army.

In the immediate future, we will be calling on our ground forces to maintain a high level of readiness for short notice contingencies, establish presence in critical areas, continue their advisory and training efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, deter North Korean aggression, and enhance deterrence in a Europe noticeably frightened by a resurgent Russia.  While we should do more in Iraq and Afghanistan, the increased threat in Europe is vitally important.  At a minimum, the United States should resolve to station a reinforced heavy division in Poland to signal the Russians that Poland and the Baltic nations will not be treated like the Ukraine.  U.S. soldiers should also bring much needed aid and training to Ukrainian forces. With all this on our plate, cutting the Army now makes no sense.

Dr. Joseph J. Collins is the Director of the Center for Complex Operations, National Defense University.  He’s a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense and a retired Army Colonel.  This essay represents his own views and not the official position of the Department of Defense, the Joint Staff, or the National Defense University.


A slip up: "right to let the _Balkan_ republics"

Outlaw 09

Wed, 08/05/2015 - 11:28am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Well stated as it is the two concepts "combined arms at even the company level" and SF that are the pillars of the future.

The force level of 540K and yes even 490K cost simply to much--just check the VA follow on costs that is on the verge of even killing the VA as the tax payers are no longer willing to pay.

What many in the active duty force do not fully understand is that right now 31% of the entire DoD budget goes to pay for salaries, benefits of various kinds and retirements-that is 31% that could be used for other needed equipment for a lighter force.

Robert C. Jones

Tue, 08/04/2015 - 1:39pm

Ground forces are only a deterrent if postured to physically counter what they seek to deter (unless of course those ground forces are tied to some fixed defense, such as the Maginot line, in which case they have no deterrent effect whatsoever).

If one has a heavy division in place, but no will to engage in ground combat over a gray zone infringement on some partner's sovereignty that is cleverly designed to not trip those clear triggers necessary to generate political will - what gain in deterrence does one have if they have a Corps, or even an entire Army? "Will" is the multiplier, and anything times zero equals zero.

I am afraid that this is a fairly specious argument for maintaining a large American standing army in times of peace. Based on the geostrategic reality of the United States, we will always be a maritime nation (until such time that peer ground forces threaten from the north or south); and of all our services the Army is the one that is primarily a warfighting force with little true peacetime contribution to our security.

We do indeed have an erosion of the deterrent effect of our comprehensive scheme of deterrence against rising powers who feel the time is right to act upon long-held vital national interests. The Army can play a major role in shoring up that comprehensive scheme of deterrence, but not with large, expensive, provocative ground formations. Army SOF, however, in that long neglected ability to employ SOF in peace so as to create a credible threat of unconventional warfare against competitors who are tempted to test our resolve, is the most logical Army answer.

So, the question I have for the Army is, are you making a argument for how you can best work to secure US vital interests? Or are you making an argument for how you best preserve yourself at levels no longer justified by the current strategic environment?

Once we stop treating peace as war, the optempo will quickly subside to reasonable levels. We can bring our small, lean, army home and once again focus on the training necessary to conduct combined arms maneuver. Creating missions to justify force structure that at the same time wear out our equipment and people, and erode our warfighting skills is not due diligence. Our nation's approach to the world is lost and wandering in the post Cold War era, and the Army as a microcosm of the nation is lost and wondering as well. Time for both to do a map check and shoot a new azimuth.


Thu, 08/06/2015 - 3:45pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Response in order to your response.

1-True, but neither did the Army or Navy or Marines.

2-Very, Very wrong, you do conquer a nation from the Air and then enforce the terms of surrender from the ground.You forgot Airborne warfare the most underused Strategic concept in the Army.

3- Agree. Airpower is moving Troops or Materialor Ordnance to the right place at the right time through the Air. Think Mitchell and Gavin and Warden, and Lemay and Deptula.

The question is not should we cut or don't cut the Army the question is how to reorganize the Army. We need a ground based missile offense and defence, and that is Army business just like General Gavin said 50 years ago, but the Army Tanker now COIN mafia cannot think in those terms.

The Army is in the Strategic Wilderness and only leadership and not money will save it.

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 08/05/2015 - 3:59pm

In reply to by slapout9

Very true, but did little to stop the 9/11 attacks, nor will it stop a rogue missile or cyber attack via satellite.

Besides, (Sorry Warden, LeMay, et al), one cannot conquer a nation from the air. That takes land power that one must drive or march on land, or arrive from the sea. So it has been, so it will always be.

Very true that our air power (and the unsinkable aircraft carriers better known as Great Britain and Japan) keep invasion fleets from being able to get here, but that is the gauntlet they must run.


Wed, 08/05/2015 - 1:39pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Bob,we have had total Air dominance for so long we have forgotten what it would be like to fight without it. You cannot control or defend the seas until you control the skies.

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 08/05/2015 - 10:39am

In reply to by slapout9

"Air" offers the US no strategic advantage - the opposite in fact.

Air and Space connect us all, and in ways the US is particularly vulnerable. The sea, however, both connects and divides nations in ways that play to and help create America's strategic strength.


Tue, 08/04/2015 - 2:11pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

We are an Aero-Nautical nation, not just a Maritime nation.

Robert C. Jones

Tue, 08/04/2015 - 1:35pm

Duplicate post