The recently proposed U.S. troop cuts are an important step toward re-sizing today's forces to meet the current U.S. defense strategy, which calls for defeating a major adversary and deterring a second by denying objectives or imposing unacceptable costs, in the process discouraging others from following the same path. It also calls for the ability to conduct smaller-scale, albeit highly important, missions such as humanitarian relief and counter terrorism.
These new force sizes — a reduction in active duty Army troops from about 520,000 to around 440,000 and a decrease in the reserve components from 559,000 to 530,000, along with a smaller cut to the Marine Corps and a reduction and reallocation of air assets — also reduce defense costs and better align government spending with revenues. Reductions do not go as far as those that would have been imposed by "sequestration," which could have seen the active Army fall to 420,000 soldiers or fewer in the process of cutting more than a trillion dollars in federal spending by 2021.
Senior defense officials, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argue, rightfully so, that a force size this small — the smallest since 1940 — poses risk through a lower margin for error: Insufficient force size could potentially disable the defense strategy and enable adversaries. This calculation is understandable. Dick Cheney, a driving force behind the decision to undertake the Iraq war as vice president, has also criticized the reductions, as have others who advocate a more aggressive U.S. foreign policy. Mr. Cheney notes a reduced ability of future presidents to deal with new crises that will arise.
Worth noting, though, is that a smaller standing force may also slow down, if not disable altogether, the kind of decision-making that preceded war with Iraq (and wars of choice in general): The smaller the force, the more cautious senior officials might be about employing it.
What's clear in any case is that a future force of this size will require presidents and their advisers to more carefully think through the means to a particular military "end" than was the case in the run-up to the war with Iraq. They will also have to think twice before elevating a potential crisis to a level that requires major, long term commitment of land forces.
A smaller military might also engender a call for a military draft in such cases; this enabled victory in World War II, with a 230,000-man active Army in 1940 soon swelling to nearly 1.5 million. In 1990, on the eve of the first Gulf War, scenarios ranging from a short war to a long one, with associated casualty estimates, were developed and briefed by my office; they carefully detailed manpower limitations of the all-volunteer force and a plausible need for a draft under certain, long-war circumstances. The war was short, a draft was never necessary, and of course, the American people and their representatives in Congress would have had to sign on to the idea then, as now.
Later, in 1996, I helped craft Army force reductions in anticipation of a $2 billion dollar cut to the Army personnel budget, with savings transferred to equipment modernization. The ensuing active force of 480,000, together with 555,000 reserves, larger than the recently proposed numbers, was still never envisioned as sufficient for fighting major, simultaneous, 10-year land wars. It did enable 10 active divisions' worth of combat brigades to be manned at greater than 90 percent strength — but with nowhere near the kind of "rotation base" required for major combat, in two theaters of war, over a decade.
Going forward, senior officers and the thin layer of defense officials appointed over them will have to more carefully consider the sufficiency of available resources over a complex range of scenarios, in the course of preliminarily planning major military operations. This was not done with any real effect in the planning for the Iraq war; likewise, hysteria (the mushroom cloud) and hype (mobile weapons labs) often appeared as much the norm as the exception. The Bush administration evidently brooked no dissent from senior officers on force size required to fight that war or on its possible duration, either.
Smaller force sizes, one would hope, could be an additional hedge against that kind of scenario being replayed.
Ralph Masi is a retired Army infantry officer and force planner who studied the effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on Army manpower while with RAND Corporation from 2002 to 2012. His email is email@example.com.
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