The Buzz

America Needs a Larger, More Modern, More Lethal Army

Since the passage of the Budget Control Act of 2011 and the Defense Strategic Guidance of 2012, the Department of Defense (DoD) has been cutting the size of the military, retiring obsolescent weapons systems and reducing combat units in order to meet defense budget strictures while salvaging some prospect for modernizing the force. The Army felt the impact of this new strategy more than the other services. It cut 13 Brigade Combat Teams as part of the process of downsizing the Active Component end strength from a wartime high of 570,000 to a planned level of 450,000.

Of late, the pressure to reduce force structure and cut manpower has increased as DoD set itself on a course towards investing in advanced capabilities. As reflected in its so-called Third Offset Strategy, the Pentagon’s leadership believes the military has sufficient capacity or force levels to address today’s challenges, but needs to invest in new technologies in order to reassert its eroding advantage in cutting-edge military capabilities. This focus on capabilities vice capacity, or number, was reinforced by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s recent directive to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, in which he ordered that service to reduce its intended procurement of the Littoral Combat Ship and apply the savings to acquiring additional advanced tactical aircraft and munitions.

Applying this strategy to the size and composition of the Army would be disastrous for both that service and national security. Simply stated, the Army cannot afford to cut end strength and units in order to free up resources for modernization. This is all the more true if the modernization programs are complex, expensive and will take years to reach initial operational capability. The assessment of the global security environment undergirding DoD’s decision to emphasize capability over capacity is fundamentally at odds with reality. As the new Army Chief of Staff, General Mark Milley, observed in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, “Right now the level of uncertainty, the velocity of instability, and potential for significant inter-state conflict is higher than it has been since the end of the Cold War in 1989-91.” It should be noted that at that time the size of the Active Component was in excess of 700,000 and the Total Force stood at more than 1.2 million.

It is increasingly evident that the Army is too small to meet even current challenges, much less the possibility for large-scale conflicts in multiple regions. In order to deal with two long-term stability operations in Southwest Asia, the Army had to grow temporarily to 570,000 in the Active Component. Even then, it actually conducted the two campaigns sequentially, not in parallel.

The National Commission on the Future of the Army acknowledged indirectly that the Army cannot meet its current missions at proposed force levels without a significant increase in resources above those mandated by the current budget comprise. Even then, there will be significant capability shortfalls in terms of both manpower and technologies. The Commission even goes so far as to suggest the possible need for a further reduction of two combat brigades in order to free up manpower for support missions. In the words of a well-respected expert on Army issues, Dr. Nadia Schadlow, “the commission pulled its punches on Army end strength. It endorses a minimum level of manpower, while admitting existing rotational policies actually leave the active duty force understrength in the event of simultaneous contingencies.”

The reality for the Army is that numbers count and it is extremely difficult to replace the power of soldiers on the ground with machines in any form.  Unlike air and naval combat, which involve clashes between a relatively small number of high performance machines, land warfare is about numbers. It is ironic that the military services and Pentagon leadership continually say that people are its critical military advantage while cutting personnel in order to acquire more hardware.

It is clear that even an enhanced Active Component will not be sufficient to address all major missions. At a minimum, the Active Component must possess both the capacity and capability to ensure that no adversary can achieve a successful “blitzkrieg.” The role of the National Guard in such a scenario is to make it clear to an adversary that the U.S. military has sufficient capacity to pursue a protracted conflict, if necessary. In order to fulfill this role, the National Guard does not need to be a carbon copy of the Active Component.  But it does have to be robust, with combat units capable of taking their place in the line of battle or supporting a counterattack.

Avoiding the continual erosion of its end strength is only the first problem the Army faces. It must also invest in essential modernization. But how to do so without breaking the bank or, at least, provoking yet another round of personnel cuts to create an investment fund?

The answer is to break with past service and DoD practices with respect to modernization. Over the past two decades, Army modernization has careened from one fanciful idea to another, generally reflecting the Pentagon’s changing views of the national security environment and the prospects for future conflict. Across all the various ideas – Comanche, Future Combat System, and Ground Combat Vehicle – Army modernization focused on the wrong problem. It sought to replicate the other services, building ever more exquisite machines embedded in ever more elaborate networks that require fewer people and permit increased distance between the soldier and the target. It was predictable that each of these efforts would be extremely complex, expensive and take way too long to reach the field.