U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has proposed cutting the active U.S. Army down to just 450,000 soldiers as part of the Pentagon’s 2015 budget plan.
“This is a time for reality,” Hagel said, trying to ward off critics of the cost-saving measure. And the reality is that the proposed cutback isn’t all that bad.
It’s true that the force Hagel wants has 50,000 fewer people than the one the ground branch proposed last summer. It’s also true, as is being widely reported, that the resulting Army would be the smallest since before World War II.
But the comparison to World War II is about as meaningful as Mitt Romney’s election-year claim that Navy was as small as it was in 1916. The Army today is not the Army of 1940 any more than today’s Navy is anything like the sailing branch 100 years ago.
The World War II trope also ignores history. Recall that Congress decided right after the world war ended that an Army of 600,000 was sufficient to meet its post-conflict needs. Those needs included fully occupying Germany and Japan.
Sound familiar? The Army grew to its recent peak of almost 570,000 active personnel in 2011, when it still occupied Iraq and Afghanistan. But we’re no longer in Iraq—and soon our conventional forces will leave Afghanistan, too.
It should also have sounded familiar when the Army proposed a force of 490,000 last June. In 1994, the Army shrank to 495,000 amid post-Cold War budget cuts. Historically speaking, an active force of under half a million troops seems about right for the Army in a period following major conflicts or occupations.
And bear in mind that in 1994, the U.S. military still had to be able to fight two major ground wars at the same time. In the 1990s, Iraq and North Korea were the expected battlefields.
Officials and pundits worry now, as they did in the ’90s, that the Army won’t be able to fight these two wars at once. There’s one problem, though—big wars are rarer today than they were 20 years ago, and being ready to fight two of them at a time is no longer U.S. policy.
Pres. Barack Obama’s administration announced a new defense policy in January 2012. Ground forces are now required to “maintain the agility needed to remain prepared for the several areas in which such conflicts could occur.”
The policy makes no clear reference to the previous two-conflict requirement—although Leon Panetta, the secretary of defense at the time, did say that the U.S. military would continue to focus on Asia and the Middle East.
Does anyone really think that the Army will fight a major land war in Asia? Against whom? China? America could no more invade China than China could invade the United States.
Even if the ground combat branch were still on call for two conflicts, Hagel’s proposed reduction isn’t necessarily debilitating. The 450,000 number only applies to the Army’s active elements.
The Army Reserve and Army National Guard, referred to collectively as the Reserve Component, have a combined strength of some 500,000. Around 30,000 reservists were on active duty at the beginning of February.
Reserve Component troops are the force of choice for many overseas missions, including NATO’s peacekeeping effort in Kosovo and the observer force in the Sinai. The Reserve Component has also become key part of operations in Afghanistan.
Guard troops from Guam ended a deployment in Afghanistan in January. Active Army soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division replaced them. This should be evidence that the ground branch can treat active and reserve units as equals in major conflicts.
The Pentagon is clearly working to distance itself from big operations like Iraq and Afghanistan. Drones, Special Operations Forces, and smaller rotational deployments are the way forward in an era without large-scale U.S. occupations.
To that end, Hagel’s proposal adds thousands of Special Operations Forces troops and continues modernizing the Air Force drone fleet with new MQ-9 Reapers. The forces that should be most useful in coming decades are still growing and improving instead of shrinking, even with cuts elsewhere in the military.
Hagel’s proposed reductions are not as dramatic as they might seem to self-interested legislators and panicky media, especially when you view the cuts in historical context. A slightly smaller Army will not necessarily hurt U.S. national security.
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