By Zachary Keck
In a series of increasingly dire assessments, the U.S. Army all but declared itself to be on the verge of becoming an impotent fighting force as a result of budget cuts and sequestration.
At a joint press conference with Army Secretary John McHugh on Monday, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno warned that the U.S. Army only currently has two combat-ready brigades in the entire force. According to Odierno, even many of the brigades being sent to Afghanistan are only equipped for training and advisory missions, not for combat roles.
Back in June the Army announced it was cutting 12 combat brigades as part of its efforts to meet its reduced budgetary allocation. A brigade consists of about 3,500 troops.
Although noting that the Army plans to increase the number of combat ready brigades to seven by 2017, Gen. Odierno nonetheless warned, “There is going to come a time when we simply don’t have enough money to provide what I believe to be the right amount of ground forces to conduct contingency operations. We’re not there yet, but it is something we are going to continue to review.”
This dire assessment came just days after USA Today reported on a classified internal Army document which presented stark consequences if the size of the Army is further reduced. Already Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has announced the Army will be downsized to 490,000 active-duty troops from a war-time peak of 570,000. It will also maintain 350,000 National Guard troops and 205,000 reserves
The Army’s assessment, which was provided to the Pentagon’s top leadership as part of the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) strategy document that the military prepares every four years, said a force of 450,000 soldiers would run a high risk of not being able to fight one major war, much less the two regional conflicts the Pentagon has structured itself to fight simultaneously for years. An Army of 420,000 troops could not carry out the Defense Strategic Guidance, according to the report.
It was not clear from the report why a force of 570,000 troops or less had been able to fight two major regional wars simultaneously, while a force of 450,000 troops might be unable to fight even one. The assessment does raise the question of why the U.S. should maintain an Army that can’t fight a war.
News of the internal assessment was greeted with major skepticism, if not ridicule, by many independent defense analysts. Some analysts pointed out that the other services were restructuring themselves and incorporating new technologies to reduce their troop levels. Others note that the Army doesn’t have to maintain an active force large enough to prosecute every conflict it may find itself in. Rather, it just has to retain the capability to surge forces quickly if the need arises. Mobilizing forces during war is of course the traditional way nations fight major conflicts and has been done by the U.S. Army as recently as the middle of the last decade.
An influential recent report by the Washington-based Stimson Center argued that the U.S. Army of 450,000 troops would be capable of carrying out manpower-intensive counterinsurgency and stability operations. The report specifically argued that troops trained to fight traditional wars should be cut.
Other think tank reports have also called for reducing the size of the U.S. Army, including one published by the Center for a New American Security that was co-authored by Lt. Gen. David Barno, a retired Army general who previously led coalition forces in Afghanistan. The CNAS report called on the military to better utilize reserve forces.
There have been some hopes that renewed budget talks in Congress will lead to the rolling back of sequestration. However, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) seemed to pour cold water on that idea over the weekend when he said he would not agree to entitlement reform in order to restore defense spending.