On 19 July, 2013, an article in “Real Clear Politics” written by Kori Schake discusses three questions the Army Chief of Staff GEN Odierno needs to address in justifying the reduction of the Army from its current 570,000 personnel to pre-war number of 490,000. According to the author, the Army brass is struggling to justify its numbers and programs and she is correct. In response I offer the following to argue in favor of greater reductions:
The first question, “Why so similar to the 1990s?”: While a convincing argument could be made for sizing the post-GWOT Army at 1990s levels (roughly 490,000) based on similarities in the global strategic environment (we’re the only superpower left standing, numerous regional state and non-state actors, need to support allied interests, etc), a stronger argument could be made for further reducing the size of the active Army based on improvements in communications and drone technology, lack of near-peer threat (despite the appearance of a Chinese threat, they are more interested in making money and stabilizing their economy VS fighting the US or anyone else), and greater interest in assisting other states to address regional threats before they become international ones as stated in the 2012 National Defense Strategic guidance: “Whenever possible, we will develop innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to achieve our security objectives, relying on exercises, rotational presence, and advisory capabilities”, pp. 3, para 2, NDS Jan 2012. Furthermore, the 490,000 number was based on the strategy of being able to fight two major wars at the same, or fighting WW2 again. Given our current economic state, the global security environment in which regional instability and non-state actors tend to reign (neither of which are existential threats to the US), and the significant improvements in technology we’ve experienced as stated above, the active Army can probably afford to downsize to levels well below 490,000 (400,000?) and still effectively support our national strategic objectives (though I am aware of the report by the Center for a New American Security, “Hard Choices: Responsible Defense in the Age of Austerity” that says otherwise). This can be done by reinforcing the importance of, perhaps giving preeminence to, regionally aligned elements in order to do more, and have a greater impact with fewer, but better trained, forces that leverage host-nation capability as well as US technological assets, vs throwing US ground troops into the mix.
This takes us to the second question, “Why not more in the reserve component?”: The Reserve Component has demonstrated that they are an effective and capable element of the Army. They can maintain that effectiveness as long as the Army maintains its emphasis on AC/RC assignments and pre-mobilization training, as well as tapping into the extensive combat experience now resident in the Reserve forces. The active component can shed some of it more expensive formations (like armored units) and personnel and place these capabilities in the reserve side. The active component can focus on lighter, more rapidly deployable forces, that are tailored to operate in small teams designed to advise and assist those who request such assistance (refer to NDS guidance). The effectiveness of such a force isn’t dependant on size but training, experience, and professional aptitude.
How can the Army do this? A 490,000-man active Army would leave 10-divisions, which was what the Army had in the 1990s in order to simultaneously fight two major regional conflicts. Since this is no longer a defining characteristic of the Army, does it need to maintain a force of 490, 000 on the active roles? I think not. Reducing the size to seven active divisions (with the Marine Corps making up the other three, giving DoD ten active combat divisions), moving the heavy armored force into the reserve component and replacing them with the Stryker mobile gun platform in order to retain mobile firepower, and investing more in cyber and drone systems should allow the active Army to reduce size and spending while retaining the ability to meet strategic goals and still have a sizeable reserve force, full of combat-tested personnel, to draw from.
The third question, “Should Army and Marine Corps roles and missions be further disaggregated?”…..yes. We do not need two land armies. This leads to discussions about what purpose the Marine Corps serves and how large they need to be but that is for another day (and no, I don’t think we need 182, 000 Marines). The Army is our primary land combat force, retaining the bulk of its combat power in the National Guard forces and much of the support capabilities in the Army Reserves. Let the Army remain as our war-fighting force and let the Marines be our quick-strike “911” force.
Given the current economic problems DoD faces, the global strategic environment in which threats exist but are, for the most part, not as acute or severe as some might claim, as well as the shift towards smaller foot-print approaches that emphasize assisting others in securing their regions, an Army sized for the pre-9/11 two-war strategy makes little sense. No wonder the Army brass has problems making a strong case for it. Reduce the Army (military and civilian force) and size it for what we currently face, not what we faced 10 years ago or 50 years ago. Prepare for the upcoming “war”, not the last one.