The Buzz

Forget About Too Big To Fail, America's Military Has Become Too Small To Succeed

Once upon a time, the U.S. had a large military that was technologically superior to its adversaries in many, even most, areas. Today, the U.S. military is a pale shadow of its former self.

In 2016, the active component of the U.S. Army of 479,000 soldiers shrank to the smallest it has been since before World War II, when it had some 269,000. The number of Army combat brigades is scheduled to decline to 30 by 2018, one third fewer than there were just in 2013. The U.S. Navy, with 273 ships, is about the same size as it was prior to America’s entry into World War I. At approximately 5,000 total aircraft, the U.S. Air Force is both the smallest and oldest it has been since its inception in 1947. The number of active duty squadrons in the Air Force is slated to decline to 39, less than half of the 70 that were available during Operation Desert Storm. Army, Navy and Air Force end strengths are each about 40 percent smaller than they were at the end of the Cold War. This is one of the main reasons why the Pentagon had to rely on more than a hundred thousand private contractors to provide the necessary logistics, sustainment and communications for its deployed forces when it went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. maintained a two-and-a-half-war strategy: major, simultaneous wars against the Soviet Union and China plus another nation. The Nixon Administration changed the sizing criteria to one-and-a-half-wars: a major war with the Soviet Union plus a second, possibly related, conflict in the Persian Gulf or on the Korean peninsula. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the political system concluded that war between major powers was virtually impossible.

The sizing construct for the U.S. military changed in the early 1990s to two near-simultaneous Major Regional Contingencies (MRC), reflecting the belief that the likeliest threats came from regional actors such as North Korea, Iraq and Iran. It was assumed that each MRC would require approximately the quantity of forces deployed for the then-recently-concluded Persian Gulf War. Thus, a two-MRC U.S. force would consist of 10 Army divisions, two or three division-sized Marine Expeditionary Forces, 11 aircraft carriers, 120 large surface combatants, 38 large amphibious warfare ships, 200 strategic bombers, 60 tactical fighter wings, 400–500 tankers, 250 airlifters and some 75 maritime support ships.

In truth, the U.S. military never had sufficient capacity to conduct two near-simultaneous MRCs. The dirty little secret among Pentagon planners is that the conflicts would have to be sequenced, possibly by six months or more, in order to allow critical assets to be redeployed from the first to the second contingency. Even the fight against Islamic terrorism strained the military’s capacity in some ways. The Army had to add nearly 75,000 active duty personnel and mobilize a large fraction of the National Guard just to handle the ongoing demands of Iraq, Afghanistan and its other worldwide commitments. A special acquisition program, directed by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, had to be undertaken to acquire sufficient drones and Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles.

Since the end of the Cold War, reductions in the size of the military and its combat capacity was justified, first, on the basis of the diminution of the threat and, second, by reference to our technological edge over prospective adversaries and the resulting improved combat capability of the new systems that were being deployed. Neither of these arguments any longer holds true. The demand for U.S. military forces continues to grow even as their overall capacity declines. The civilian and military leadership of the Department of Defense (DoD) have publicly declared that the U.S. now faces five strategic threats: Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and global Islamic terrorism. Conflict with either of the first two would constitute a major war, not a regional contingency. U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein testified before Congress that his service only had enough combat ready forces for one MRC and even that would require denuding all other theaters.