On July 9, the Army announced the details of a long-planned drawdown of some 40,000 U.S. troops. Among the press, this set off a flutter in the dove-cote (Or is it the war-cote, or the press-cote?). You’d have thought the nation was suddenly stripped bare of its soldiers.
Breaking Defense called it a release of “painful details” for military bases across the country. The normally staid PBS NewsHour gave Sen. John McCain free publicity to warn of “depleted readiness,” “chronic modernization problems,” and “deteriorating morale.” Speaking before Congress that day, the soon-to-be chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Joseph Dunford, warned of “catastrophic consequences” if budget cuts and drawdowns continue. Meanwhile, Nancy Youssef of the Daily Beast said that the threats posed by Russia, North Korea, China, and the Islamic State could make the drawdown a dicey proposition, one that the military feared would leave it “on pins and needles” in the face of the “constant threat of budgetary cuts.”
The hubbub surely delighted the Army. After all, it’s budget time in Washington, when large, vapid, and content-free debates rage about whether the president will veto the National Defense Authorization Act (unlikely), or the Defense Appropriations Act (likely, if it overcomes a Democratic filibuster in the Senate to reach the president’s desk). Threats abound. Surely the nation is in peril, especially with budgets and presidential campaigns heating up.
Stepping outside this chatter, there was precious little news here, except for the specific bases that will be affected. In fact, the active-duty Army has grown by roughly 80,000 over the last decade, as the Army sought to expand in order to rotate forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. And now with the wars basically behind us, those troops are coming out of the force. The plan to downsize the Army to 450,000 has been known for some time; the recently hyped news was nothing more than an announcement of how those changes will be allocated on a base-by-base level. In testimony over the past year, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno has made it clear that this number is consistent with the administration’s overall military strategy (deeper cuts he does not like, of course).
So, is the nation really in peril as the press might have you think? Will our ground forces be unable to perform? The very clear answer is no, once you look at the details.
For instance, neither they nor the press corps bothered to count the Army Reserves and National Guard components (who, of course, don’t like to be left out). During the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army regularly used the National Guard and the Reserves to augment its active-duty force, turning them into a deployable, combat-hardened force (at one point, some 40 percent of Army forces in Iraq and Afghanistan came from the Reserve Component). Today, some 350,000 serve in the Army National Guard, while the ranks of the Reserves number some 180,000. Together, there are over half a million members of the National Guard and Reserves available for call-up, in addition to the active-duty Army.
Moreover, the Army never discusses the other active part of U.S. ground forces: the Marine Corps, which adds another 184,000 active-duty troops to the number. In case you thought the Marines were just an amphibious force (both the Army and the Marines like to make that distinction), the reality is that the Marines have been a continuous part of U.S. ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan for the past decade.
But the Army insists on counting its own active-duty forces and not the Reserves. Its commanders like to argue that they will have a hard time expanding the active-duty force in a hurry if they need to, because it takes time to get the National Guard and Reserves up to speed. Of course, they also said this in 2006, when they wanted to increase the size of the Army in the first place. Then, they said it would take five years to recruit and train the additional folks they needed. In reality, it only took three.
The Army pushes on, however. The point of arguing about the size of the force is to try to stop the budget cuts that have hit the military since 2010. This whole PR flurry is, in reality, about the budget. But wait: What budget cuts are we talking about stopping? Last time I checked, the 2011 Budget Control Act caps for the Pentagon turned around in 2016, ensuring that spending caps would start growing and continue to do so into the next decade. But “cuts” is such a compelling word that few elected officials and, God knows, few reporters pay attention to fiscal realities (And forget about “sequestration.” That’s just a scary word politicians like to throw around when what they really mean is “raise the Pentagon budget cap” — been there, wrote that).
Okay, okay, so the Army says we’re supposed to get more money. And we need it to deal with the new, big, scary strategic threats the nation faces. But when you scratch beneath the surface of those big threats, they justify no such growth, either in money or manpower — unless you’re lobbying Congress, of course.
Moreover, given the potential threats we’re likely to face over the next decade, the Army is actually the least likely force to be called upon. If you are talking about the Islamic State and non-state insurgencies and counterterrorism missions, the Special Forces — a 27,000-person subset of the Army, some active and some in the reserves — are who we rely on, not the regular ground forces. If you are talking “building partners” through training exercises, it is a very small mission for the active force.
For bigger cases, the political rhetoric from the Army (and politicians like McCain) tends to skew the argument and conveniently leave out any discussion of other people’s ground forces in regions that would have to counter any aggression. When it comes to North Korea, for example, the rhetoric would have you think the United States fights alone, ignoring the over 3.5 million in the active and reserve South Korean forces, a significantly larger capability than they had the last time there was a ground war in the Korean Peninsula (1950-1953, for our millennial readers). The South Koreans would clearly be the front line against conventional North Korean aggression, not the United States, giving us time to mobilize our Reserve and National Guard forces.
Anyone worried that the United States will have to fight a ground war with Russia understands neither the weaknesses of the Russian military nor the reality that the nuclear arsenals of both countries preclude a force-on-force confrontation. Should such an unlikely war break out, moreover, guess what? The United States (like NATO) would rely on European ground forces, again buying time to call up National Guard and Reserve troops, and to recruit or draft backup forces.
And, frankly, anyone who thinks that the Army needs significantly more ground forces to deal with China doesn’t understand that a U.S.-China war is both unlikely and highly unlikely to feature Chinese and American ground forces in battle. Been there, done that at the Yalu, where it didn’t work out so well.
All this threat rhetoric sounds compelling. But treating all potential adversaries as if they’re equally scary and deserving of a larger U.S. ground force is nothing more than budget rhetoric. It does not pass muster or hold up to sound strategic or military analysis. But, hey, rhetoric is a useful weapon in a budget war, which is what we have this year. And it must seem really useful to Republicans positioning themselves as defenders of America as they run for president in 2016.
In reality, the Army has never produced a document providing anything like a close correlation between its force size and the threats it faces. And it is entirely possible, even likely, that 450,000 active-duty Army troops, along with 500,000 National Guard and Reserve forces, plus another 184,000 Marines, are more than enough to scare the bejesus out of any potential military adversary. It might even be possible to extract another 30,000 without doing any serious damage to American capabilities or strategy.
But nobody seems to want to hear that reality. It’s just too much fun to wave the flag, warn of disaster, jump on the bandwagon, watch the doves flutter, and misreport reality.