WASHINGTON: There are three things you need to know about the administration’s new budget plan and what it means for the Army. Most importantly, the fact the Army will be its smallest since before World War II is not one of them.
In the dystopian mirror universe that is Washington under sequestration, being cut by 40,000 to 50,000 soldiers is actually a win for the Army. Everyone I’ve talked to inside and outside of the Army knew the service would go below 490,000 regular active-duty troops, the previous plan. The only question was how low. Sec. Hagel’s Strategic Choices and Management Review studied a 380,000-soldier option and many sources speculated about 420,000, while Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno entrenched himself at the 450,000 line. Hagel’s plan to reduce the Army to “440,000 to 450,000” looks pretty good for Gen. Odierno…
….but those numbers aren’t real. They won’t even be voted on in Congress this year. That’s because the Army will only get down from its wartime peak to 490,000 — again, the previously planned level — by the end of fiscal year 2015. Further reductions, to whatever level, would have to come in future budgets. And those notoriously hazy “out years” are even more unreal than usual, because Hagel’s 440,000-450,000 figure presumes that Congress will somehow toss the automatic budget cuts called sequestration, which December’s budget deal merely delayed. If sequestration’s 10-year, half-trillion cut to defense spending stays in place, Hagel acknowledged, the Army would have to come down further, to 420,000….
… and that means this war is far from over. “The cuts usually come in threes,” Maj. Gen. Bill Hix of the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) said this morning. What he didn’t say out loud is that going down to 490,000 was the first slice; down to 440-450,000 is second; 420,000 or lower would be the third.
(Hagel also said he’d bring the Army National Guard down by about 20,000 soldiers — less than 40,000 the active-duty leadership had wanted but more than the 5,000 Guard leaders proposed — let alone the zero demanded by the powerful National Guard Association of the US).
Hix was speaking on a Brookings Institution panel on the tri-service concept of “strategic landpower,” a case for future relevance in which the Army has much more at stake than its partners, the enthusiastic Special Operations Command and the ambivalent Marine Corps. It’s telling that the panel’s moderator, Michael O’Hanlon, spoke almost in passing about how we need more data on the Army National Guard’s contributions relative to the active duty force’s in Afghanistan and Iraq, “not so much for the current round of cuts, but maybe for the next round, or the round thereafter if there is such a thing.” It’s telling that such a savvy scholar assumes there’ll be at least one more slice off the Army’s apple.
The next speaker was Hix’s soon-to-be boss, the infamous “warrior-scholar” H.R. McMaster, recently promoted to his third star and the no. 2 job at TRADOC, in charge of thinking about the future force. McMaster made the Army’s case in his characteristically blunt language.
“What concerns me the most is really that we’ll engage in wishful thinking that’s motivated mainly by budget constraints,” he said. “You get the army that the people are wiling to pay for in a democracy, and it’s our job to do our best with it.”
The “wishful thinking” that McMaster fears is what he calls “four fallacies” about future conflicts that promise “easy solutions”:
- “The return of the revolution in military affairs,” a theory thought discredited in Iraq — “it’s like a vampire,” he said — with its promise that long-range sensors and precision strikes will let air and sea forces win wars cleanly and bloodlessly (for us) on their own.
- “The Zero Dark Thirty fallacy” that we can solve our problems almost bloodlessly with Special Operations raids, “something akin to a global swat team to go after enemy leaders.”
- What might be called the Mali Fallacy (my words, not his) that we can rely on allies and local surrogates to do the fighting on the ground while the US provides advisors and high-tech support.
All three fallacies, he said, begin with a core of truth: Air Force, Navy, Special Operations, advisors, and allies are all impressive and essential capabilities, but we can’t count on them to prevail alone.
- The fourth fallacy, by contrast, McMaster considers just plain “narcissistic.” The idea that the US can “opt out” of certain kinds of conflict — say, counterinsurgency, or ground warfare in general — without giving our adversaries credit for what they may be able to force us to do. Invading Afghanistan seemed ludicrous on September 10, 2001, after all, and inescapable on September 12th.
The problem here, of course, is that it’s awfully hard to make the case that we are likely to wage another large-scale, long-duration ground war any time soon. No one wants to do it, the Army included, but many Americans don’t even want to think about it, and many more don’t want to pay for the capabilities required to do it. And while the Army provides a wide array of capabilities for operations ranging from advising to disaster relief to missile defense, its crucial — and costly — contribution to the national defense is the sheer size and staying power it provides for major war.
“There are political reasons behind many of the fallacies that H.R. McMaster put on the table,” said Brookings scholar William Galston, a former Marine who now specializes in domestic politics. “The worst phrase in American politics right now is ‘boots on the ground.'”
The current mood reminds Galston of the years just after Vietnam, when “it took us the better part of a decade to get over the psychological and political consequences,” he said. (And at least then we had an obvious Soviet threat to justify a large land force). Whatever eternal verities military theory might hold about the decisive role of land power, he said, “realistic thinking about our defense future ought to take the sentiments of the American people into account — and if you don’t like ’em, figure out how to challenge them and change them.”
CORRECTED February 27: The original version of this article identified William Galston as a “retired” Marine; in fact he served 1969-1970 and was honorably discharged, rather than serving for the 20-year minimum required for retirement benefits.