Bringing U.S. ground forces to their lowest level since before World
War II makes sense given that troop-intensive, nation-building
operations are unlikely for the foreseeable future, the Defense
secretary said in discussing his Pentagon budget plan.
By Anna Mulrine
WASHINGTON — With Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announcing a historic
downsizing of U.S. ground forces, along with other cost-cutting
measures, what does the move say about military priorities at the end
of two long wars?
The new budget, if it were to be approved by Congress, will take the
Army down to pre-World War II levels — a good idea given that the U.S.
military is not likely to be waging troop-intensive nation-building
operations for some time to come, Secretary Hagel said during a
briefing with reporters.
What’s more, “given the Army’s reliance on contractors to do things
once performed by active-duty personnel,” these cuts do not
“necessarily mean the Army will be less capable,” said Benjamin
Freeman, policy adviser for the National Security Project at Third
Way, a think tank in Washington, D.C. “Personnel numbers only tell one
part of the story.”
Although reaction to the budget plan within the Beltway can tend to
run toward the dire, particularly among defense contractors, “one
doubts that the American public are terribly worried about a military
that might be slightly less likely to get involved in unnecessary and
counterproductive nation-building missions in distant lands,” argues
Christopher Preble, a defense analyst at the libertarian Cato
Institute think tank.
Under the budget plan for fiscal year 2015, the Army would decline
from a post-Iraq high of 566,000 in 2011 to some 440,000 active-duty
troops by 2019. The post-World War II low was 475,290 in 1999, Dr.
“Given rapidly rising personnel costs, and the great political
difficulty of reining them in, the only way to achieve actual savings
may be a smaller active-duty force,” Mr. Preble adds. That’s in effect
what Hagel is proposing. “Our recommendations favor a smaller and more
capable force, putting a premium on rapidly deployable,
self-sustaining platforms that can defeat more technologically
advanced adversaries,” he said.
Even with the cuts, the Army still would be just above the force
levels it had prior to 9/11. The proposed cuts, moreover, are not
nearly as deep as the Army had contemplated during a strategic review
last summer, notes Todd Harrison, senior fellow in defense studies at
the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
That signals that the Army and the Marine Corps are prioritizing
higher numbers of troops over acquiring modern technology, he adds.
At the same time, the Navy will retain its 11 aircraft carriers, while
the Air Force will continue to prioritize the F-35 fighter jet, the
next-generation stealth fighter.
Rather than putting their money on higher force levels, the Navy and
the Air Force are emphasizing high-tech modernization, Mr. Harrison
said. “The real story here for me is this looks like a giant balancing
Special Operations Forces would get a boost, too — from 66,000 troops
today to 69,700 in the new budget. “Clearly, Special Operations Forces
have been very effective in what we’ve been doing in Iraq and
Afghanistan, and in terrorism operations around the globe,” Harrison
What is not included in the budget are the sequestration cuts already
mandated by Congress, or the overseas continuing operations (OCO),
which is where the Pentagon keeps the funding for the war in
“The OCO has really become, frankly, a slush fund,” Freeman said,
adding that defense analysts will be watching carefully when the
Pentagon rolls it out, probably after the presidential election in
Afghanistan in April.
But defense officials are eventually going to have to make some tough
decisions on the cost of the war, or face the wrath of some lawmakers.
Adds Preble: “If the Pentagon isn’t serious about confronting” the
high cost of the war, as well as looming sequestration, “the resulting
infighting could get ugly.”