Today, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will preview aspects of the FY2015 budget for the Pentagon and an adjusted five-year plan for spending. The most anticipated announcement is the Department of Defense’s decision to reduce the end strength of the Army to between 440,000 and 450,000 active duty soldiers. These numbers are consistent with priorities set in the 2012 U.S. defense strategy, which as part of strategic rebalancing places greater emphasis on naval and air forces. Moreover, a smaller army would still retain massive combat power, according to expert analysis. Nonetheless, adjusting the size of the Army must come with the corollary that as forces decrease in number, civilian leadership must recognize the need for more judicious use of force, avoiding large-scale stability operations such as what occurred in Iraq during the past decade. Other expected changes, including adjustments to personnel compensation, are politically difficult but necessary policy choices.
Not all news expected from Hagel’s speech is good news. Hagel’s budgetary plans are reported to include increasing the Pentagon budget by $115 billion over the next five years beyond the caps put in place by the Budget Control Act, beginning with an increase in FY2016 that would be $36 billion over the legislated limits. Such increases are highly questionable given the margin by which the United States outspends its current and potential competitors and would therefore only continue the problem of overreliance on military tools in U.S. national security policy.
Reduction in Army end strength consistent with national security needs:
Reductions maintain considerable combat power. In a detailed proposal, the Project on Defense Alternatives outlined the sufficiency of reduced Army end strength even if brought down further to 420,000 and was accompanied by additional reduction in the Marine Corps, advocating “an Army and Marine Corp force of 39 active-component brigade equivalents and 23 reserve-brigade equivalents – 62 total, which is 27% fewer than DoD had planned circa 2011. This is sufficient to keep as many as 10 brigades forward continuously for presence and small-scale contingency operations – which is more than routinely needed. And it is enough to briefly maintain a total of 27 brigades forward, divided between presence missions and short-duration emergency operations.” Critically, the report adds, “And it is more than sufficient to address major conventional operations of the scale fought in recent years – including the opening phases of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.” [Carl Conetta, 30/12/12]
Mitigating the risk of smaller ground forces is possible. NSN senior advisor Major General (ret.) Paul Eaton, who served over 30 years in the U.S. army including assignments as Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Training as well as Chief of Infantry for the Army, says “A reduction in the size of the Army can be in line with U.S national interests and address national security priorities. However, reductions in armed forces in general and ground forces in particular, impose two considerations upon senior civilian leadership. First, the foreign policy appetite must accommodate the forces available and be careful not to overburden any branch of the military. Second, inherent with such reductions, risk goes up and we owe it to our troops to mitigate that risk. Such mitigation can be done effectively through technology, doctrine, exceptional training and an effective reserve component structure.” [Paul Eaton, 2/24/14]
Reductions in line with national security strategy, expert assessment. In reducing Army end strength, the Department of Defense will save funds required for executing strategic rebalancing the Pacific. In particular, such reductions can help protect investments in U.S. naval and air forces, which official U.S. strategy – the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance – calls for, in order to prioritize operating in the expansive, largely maritime Asia-Pacific. For this reason, reductions to the Army budget was a major feature of the recent budgetary exercise in which teams from CSBA, CNAS, CSIS and AEI developed their own Pentagon budgets: “all four teams hammered the Army. In the worst-case, full-sequester scenario, CNAS cut the Army budget by more than 10 percent, CSBA by 13 percent, AEI by 14 percent, and CSIS by a whopping 16 percent. But that’s not news to anyone immersed in defense debates.” [Breaking Defense, 1/28/14]
Grappling with personnel costs is the right policy but a difficult political challenge. The FY2015 budget proposal is expected to reduce personnel costs by way of modest changes to housing allowances, military healthcare and compensation. The need to tackle growing personnel costs is urgent. At current growth rates, personnel costs are projected to consume the entire DoD budget by 2039. To avert this crisis, a number of options are available with considerable savings. For example, according to the Task Force for a Unified Security Budget, “while the military’s retirement program serves only a small minority of the force, it provides exceedingly generous benefits, often providing 40 years of pension payments in return for 20 years of service. As a result, the program now costs taxpayers more than $100 billion per year.” The Task Force notes that one alternative, a 401k-style retirement system that would outperform most private sector plans, would save $13 billion per year in the near term – perhaps more in the future. [Task Force on a Unified Security Budget, 10/12]
$500 billion for the Pentagon is enough – rumored increases in FY2016 and beyond not necessary for American national security. Even a Pentagon budget that stays within the caps of the Budget Control Act (the caps for the current budget were increased by Congress) would leave the Department of Defense with sufficient resources. As Brookings Senior Fellow Peter Singer explained leading up to sequestration, “At the height of the Iraq war, US spending was above half of all the world’s military spending, but is now down to slightly above 40% of all military spending. Sequestration would take it down by about 2% more of the pie, roughly 38% of all global military spending, excluding any likely contingency or war spending.” More recently, Congressman Adam Smith (D-WA) has made the appeal that “We ought to be able to come up with a strategy whereby $500 billion a year is enough to meet our national security needs.” [Peter Singer, 9/23/12. Adam Smith via Breaking Defense, 2/6/14]