Potential Cuts Will Lead to a Weaker U.S. Military

Editor’s note: Michael O’Hanlon argues that the Pentagon’s recently unveiled Strategic Choices and Management Review is a step too far on troop reductions. O’Hanlon believes a smaller Army is possible, but cutting too deep could be highly problematic in the dangerous world we live in. 

The cuts are simply too high.

That’s the key takeaway from a little-noticed new Pentagon report, the summary of which was unveiled last week by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and his deputy Ash Carter.

The report, the Defense Department’s so-called Strategic Choices and Management Review, is designed to cope with the likelihood of additional defense budget reductions. It was a worthy exercise designed to produce options for Pentagon planners as they craft future budgets.

But the review should have an additional purpose: to warn against excessive defense cuts in a time of considerable strategic turbulence abroad. And on this point, while Hagel and Carter understandably treaded lightly given political sensitivities in this budget environment, there is a very troubling message in their findings.

The starkest example of this concerns the U.S. Army, which could lose another 70,000 to 100,000 soldiers in its active force and a comparable number in its reserve component under sequestration – the automated budget cuts, mandated by Congress, that began in March. That means another round of 15 to 20 percent cuts on top of the 15 percent cuts already underway. The Army would wind up significantly smaller than in the Clinton administration or at any other time since before World War II.

A sense of perspective is in order. Today’s American military today is still quite expensive. And it is the second largest in the world, after China’s, in terms of personnel. But it is only modestly larger than those of North Korea, India, and Russia. And the U.S. Army is substantially smaller than several others in the world today, including India, China, and North Korea.

But the costly, all-consuming ground wars of the last decade are coming to an end, right? Well, maybe. After Iraq and Afghanistan, many believe the country’s military priorities can and should turn to air and sea operations, special forces, cyber, and the like. And there’s some truth to that argument. But latching onto some strategic fad to justify radical cuts in the U.S. Army or Marine Corps is no way to run a military.

To understand why, just look at how advocates of a “revolution in military affairs” were able to warp America’s approach to war in the years before the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. These proponents argued for cuts of tens of thousands more soldiers than were implemented; thankfully their more extreme views were not adopted. The subsequent decade then proved that even with all the progress in sensors and munitions and other military capabilities, the United States still needed forces on the ground to deal with complex insurgencies and other threats.

We also learned the hard way after Vietnam. That war led the Army, and the nation, to dismiss future counterinsurgency operations as unappealing and unnecessary. It was a good assumption, until it wasn’t, and our preparedness for both Iraq and Afghanistan was much weaker than it should have been as a result.

Throughout the 1990s, U.S. ground forces were sized and shaped primarily to maintain a two-war capability. The wars were assumed to begin in fairly rapid succession (though not exactly simultaneously), and then overlap, lasting several months to perhaps a year or two. Three separate administrations—George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, and a total of five defense secretaries (Richard Cheney, Les Aspin, William Perry, William Cohen and Donald Rumsfeld)—endorsed some variant of the two-war capability. They formalized the logic in the first Bush administration’s 1992 “Base Force” concept, the Clinton administration’s 1993 “Bottom-Up Review” followed four years later by the first Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), and then secretary Rumsfeld’s own 2001 and 2006 QDRs. These reviews all gave considerable attention to both Iraq and North Korea as plausible adversaries. More generally, though, they postulated that the United States could not predict all future enemies or conflicts, and that there was a strong deterrent logic in being able to handle more than one problem at a time. Otherwise, if engaged in a single war in one place, the United States could be vulnerable to opportunistic adversaries elsewhere.

With Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein gone, much of this specific force sizing can and should change. But the core deterrent logic of being able to conduct more than one large operation at a time should not be simply dismissed. And the possible need for stabilization or counterinsurgency capabilities should not be downplayed to excess, either.

The Obama administration initially agreed. Its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review stated that after successfully concluding current wars, “in the mid- to long term, U.S. military forces must plan and prepare to prevail in a broad range of operations that may occur in multiple theaters in overlapping time frames. That includes maintaining the ability to prevail against two capable nation-state aggressors.” Still, Obama scaled back the presumed likelihood of two truly simultaneous large land wars in which simultaneous offensive operations would be needed. That was a reasonable modification given the changed strategic environment.

But the January 2012, Pentagon guidance went further, placing somewhat more limited demands upon U.S. forces. It stated: “Even when U.S. forces are committed to a large-scale operation in one region, they will be capable of denying the objectives of—or imposing unacceptable costs on—an opportunistic aggressor in a second region.” The same review also stated that planning for large-scale stabilization missions would no longer drive the size of U.S. ground forces.

Now, the Strategic Choices and Management Review would go further still, taking the 2012 strategic guidance as an invitation to cut back ground forces quite substantially. But it would go too far, leaving the U.S. military without the ability to conduct one large operation while simultaneously sustaining perhaps two smaller, multinational ones.

We may not need a two-war requirement per se, but a prudent new ground-force planning paradigm should still have the capacity for “one war plus two missions” or “1 + 2.” Those missions might, for example, include residual efforts in Afghanistan or perhaps contribution to a future multilateral stabilization force in Syria or Yemen (even if such missions seem unlikely and undesirable at present). They could include U.S. participation in a future international force designed to help implement a two-state peace deal in Israel and Palestine. They could include deterrent deployments in places like Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates if Iran becomes belligerent after a possible U.S. airstrike against its nuclear facilities (I do not advocate or predict such an operation at present, but a force planner cannot prudently rule it out either). And with North Korea still threatening the South and still building nuclear weapons, it would be most imprudent to weaken our deterrent capabilities for that theater.

This “1+2” approach strikes the right balance. It is prudent because it provides some additional capability if and when the United States again engages in a major conflict, and because it provides a bit of a combat cushion should that war go less well than initially hoped. It is modest and economical, however because it assumes only one such conflict at a time (despite the experience of the last decade) and because it does not envision major ground wars against the world’s major overseas powers on their territories. And it allows for a smaller Army than today. Still, by my calculations, it would require something like 450,000 active-duty soldiers, not the 400,000 or even less that could result from sequestration.

Simply put, and as the new Pentagon review demonstrates, sequestration-scale defense reductions on top of those already in the works are a bad idea — not only because of the pace at which they would require cuts in the short term, but because they would simply cut the U.S. military too much for the dangerous world in which we live.