By now everyone has heard about the defense cuts leaked by Secretary of Defense Hagel’s staff to the New York Times. To summarize, the Air Force is again offering up the much hated (by the Air Force establishment) A10 as its offering. The Navy will cut back on the number of unsatisfactory and lightly armed LCS ships. The Marines will lose 8,000 and the Army 40-50 thousand troops. My focus here is on the impact of the Army’s sacrifice which along with the 50 thousand troops already cut is the lion’s share of defense cuts.
General Ordierno, the Army Chief of Staff recently explained the role of the Army. Simply put he described it as “prevent, shape, win”. “Preventing” war is enabled by being capable enough to deter enemy action. Modern weapons, training, size and being present or the ability to be where needed are all required.
“Shaping” is achieved by military-to military contact with our friends to help them be as capable as possible. This can in some cases mitigate our need to have a large presence in every hotspot and can even deter conflict by making our friends capable of thwarting an enemy’s actions.
“Winning” means to decisively and dominantly defeat the enemy. When the Army does not, the price is paid in American lives. Cutting six brigades minimizes our ability to forward deploy troops. It cuts the number of brigades we can surge immediately before or during conflict. It makes preventing wars much more difficult and may even jeopardize winning them.
A 40-50 thousand troop cut is equal to about six brigades or two divisions of the Army. This is less than half of the troops we deployed to invade Iraq in 2003 which was overall 40% less than the Army forces we deployed during Desert Storm in 1991. Contrast our experiences in casualties and outcomes between WWII (Kasserine Pass) and Korea (Task Force Smith), with OIF (early invasion) and Desert Storm when US troops first made contact with the enemy.
The Army is already fielding the smallest number of divisions since WWII, which is currently at ten. The latest cut equates to about 20% of the force after already cutting about 50 thousand troops over the last couple of years. Army officials have unofficially stated the cuts would be four brigade combat teams, two aviation BDE’s and about 20 thousand support personnel. The plan is to maintain two each heavy armored, Stryker and light infantry brigades at the highest states of readiness along with an aviation brigade for contingencies. That equates to a force of almost 40 thousand combat troops.
Some say and is commonly believed, is that we will no longer conduct operations requiring large formations of troops. That assumption requires a comprehensive analysis of what potential future threats may be or at a minimum, the agreement of future foes to only fight with small armies. Neither exists. Additionally, we have a very strong historical trend of not predicting where or what kind of fight the next war may be. The fundamental assumption upon which we are justifying a massive cut to the Army is based on conjecture, not a consideration of who we may actually face. A casual analysis of history, potential adversaries, and the world produces numerous scenarios where the US would be in need of a larger Army.
No one can discount that Russia, China, Iran and North Korea are clearly adversaries. Russia has an over 420 thousand man Army. Hundreds if not thousands of books have been written describing scenarios where US and Russian troops come in conflict. Amazingly, none have been written with the whopping 10 thousand soldiers we currently have forward deployed in Germany today. Today Russia uses the existence of Russians in Crimea to justify an invasion. Two decades ago, Russia reminded the world their Slavic brothers in Bosnia were in need of their assistance. Russia lacked a strong military or a common border then. That has changed. Today Russia can bring its Army to bear surprisingly quickly. They were able to conduct a “snap exercise” and mass 150 thousand troops on Europe’s edge. NATO cannot match this feat and with the rule of thumb that it takes three to one to conduct a successful offense, it would take an awful lot of time and effort to mass 450 thousand soldiers to eject Russia from anywhere.
Often discussed in the potential “big war” scenarios is Korea. North Korea boasts a one million man army with eight million in reserves vs. South Korea’s 639 thousand and 2.9 million man reserve. Our measly 20 thousand troops in Korea would definitely need reinforcement in the event that the “Norcs” came south. If one does the math I described above the force ratios become even more staggering.
What often isn’t discussed in the “big war” Korea scenario is that China could easily be drawn again into a Korean War II. As many have forgotten, it took one and a half months from the US pushing out of the puny Pusan perimeter, to being engaged in firefights with Chinese troops. China has a 2.3 million man Army with 800 thousand in reserve. If Korea isn’t enough of a flashpoint, China borders 14 different countries many of which most Americans have never heard of and again I must remind one that we have fought in many a place we couldn’t find on a map. Besides Vietnam, N. Korea, Russia, India and other nations that border China, there are other nations like Taiwan, Japan and the Philippine Islands that don’t. Taiwan is often discussed as a potential battlefield, but the Philippines boasts an active communist movement that would benefit from Chinese sponsorship causing a situation the Philippine government might be unable to address.
Iran has 500 thousand troops and 300 thousand reserves. Besides the obvious flashpoint that is nuclear weapons and a vehement anti-Israel position one can speculate scenarios where Iranian adventurism or “protecting” Shia in Iraq could lead to an armed confrontation. We have one brigade stationed forward in Kuwait but remembering the three to one rule quickly and clearly demonstrates it is not enough. Add to the potential flashpoints and nations above, the near infinite number of potential situations we can’t imagine as well as those as wild as a failed Mexico. Cutting troops to pre WWII levels make less and less sense.
Missing from much of the discussion that supports cutting the Army is the fact that we had to grow the Army to meet the limited conflict we’ve been engaged in over the last decade. Is it really wise to drop numbers below the number that wasn’t adequate before? Most discussions that address the ability of the US to grow an Army give it short shrift or overstate our capabilities. Conveniently forgotten is that it took two years to build an Army before WWII. Guard units were federalized for that whole period away from their homes and underwent extensive training so as to be as capable as regular units to conduct full spectrum operations. We also stripped our active duty formations to cross pollinate the Guard and then rebuilt those active divisions.
Don’t get me wrong. The Guard has done yeomen’s work over the last decade but of the hundreds of national guard deployments on only a handful of deployments were National Guard combat arms battalions used to conduct full spectrum operations for the majority of their deployments. Guard units were primarily engaged in repetitive or limited tasks such as fixed point security, convoy security and training type tasks. Those units deployed with two-three months of mobilization training often cannibalizing other units for personnel and a year or more warning of deployment. In the event we have to engage in a major conflict and as I mentioned earlier, no scenarios count on two years of peace and foresight with the gutting and rebuilding of divisions to meet the threat.
The current school of thought discounts contingencies requiring large armies. History has a way of making predictions wrong. Some will discount some of these flashpoints. They are not new and are based on real issues that have caused conflict in the past. Have those issues been reconciled? Many naysayers lack imagination or account for the subversive approaches by nation states when considering contingencies. Just saying we aren’t going to fight somewhere/somehow doesn’t mean the enemy will agree with us, and in fact becomes more likely the weaker we are in that area. To attack someone’s weakness with your strength is at the core of asymmetric warfare.