Michael P. Noonan is the director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
This week, as previously threatened, I am returning to focus on the issue of the Army in the broader context of the defense budget challenges for the Obama administration. The conventional wisdom these days seems to be that end of the war in Afghanistan will reduce the demand/need for a large U.S. Army. As the New York Times reported the current seems to be that the United States will keep 66,000 troops in Afghanistan until the end of the fighting season in fall 2013 and then begin the drawdown to a much smaller ground footprint by 2014. Coupled with this, of course, are the budget cutbacks that will also reduce the size of the Army from 551,000 to roughly 470,000 over the next decade, but if sequestration hits, triggering 12-14 percent cuts across the board cuts, that number could drop Army personnel totals to as few as 400,000 over the same period.
A new blue ribbon report by the Stimson Center calls for maintaining superior space, air, and naval forces and robust special operations forces capabilities but, "The US should strongly resist being drawn into protracted land wars." How does one resist being drawn into protracted land wars? Reduce the size of the Army and Marine Corps.
After a decade of counterinsurgency wars in Afghanistan and Iraq it is quite understandable to want to cut back the Army (especially as personnel costs are so high and are beginning to crowd out modernization funds), but a thorough thinking through the implications of reductions needs to be done. At a certain point, living in a world with much strategic ambiguity, the size of the Army, whether it have a baseline total active duty force size of 485,000 or 470,000, needs to be looked at like an insurance policy. Wild eyed justifications for that number shouldn't have to be necessary. Contortions of logic should not be used to retain "relevance" on the green eye shade budgetary battlefield in the Pentagon. One area where this can be seen today is in the Army's idea for regionally aligned brigades to work with regional militaries in places such as Africa. The idea is not a bad one if the investments made were in people to learn new languages and build up regional relationships, but it appears to be put out there by the Army to retain force structure.
Another possible logical contortion is the notion that that Army National Guard and Reserve can continue to be used as operational reserves to be called upon regularly after U.S. forces leave Afghanistan. During the Cold War the reserve components were seen as a strategic reserve in case of a war with the Soviets, but during the first decade of the post-Cold War as the size of the active component shrunk, some elements of the Guard and Reserve (particularly units that had expertise or experience in non-martial skills such as civil affairs) began to be used more and more in places such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, East Timor, and Kosovo. Post-9/11, of course, the Guard and Reserve were heavily relied upon. Some in the leaderships of the Guard and Reserve might like to see this continue for reasons of relevance, but it remains to be seen whether the employers, family members, and Guardsmen and reservists will be willing to continue to deploy at a frenetic pace post-Afghanistan. In a recent blog post, for instance, an anonymous Guardsman complained that his unit was sent to Kuwait for a year to maintain regional presence.
To conclude, the Army is not just a counterinsurgency force. Its forces can run the operational gamut from humanitarian assistance to peacekeeping to counterinsurgency to major conventional war operations and are vital to maintaining the United States's ability to respond globally as its interests dictate—and particularly as a large portion of our allies in, for instance, Western Europe have allowed their capabilities to atrophy or go away due to their own austerity. In addition, maintaining a robust special operations forces capability, as mentioned by the Stimson report, while a very good idea requires the maintenance of an adequately sized general purpose force to draw its numbers from. So while yes, the size of the Army will decrease, we should all have some pause about letting the number fall too far in zero sum budget fights.