Sequestration Could Take Our Army Back to 1940

Politicians need to get our fiscal house in order, but risk cutting defense too far, too fast in an uncertain world.

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Michael P. Noonan is the director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Rep. Adam Smith, a Democrat of Washington and the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, has floated a plan on Fox News that would transform sequestration from a hatchet to a more precise cutting knife. Under his plan the budget cuts—which would still occur—would be targeted under a more common sense approach rather than across the board cuts. He noted, for instance, that you can't buy two thirds of a submarine. Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, in a rare showing of recent bipartisanship, commended Smith for this proposal even though the two agreed to disagree as to whether taxes needed to be raised to help reduce the ongoing budget deficits. One would hope such a reasonable approach can take hold while cooler heads eventually (and hopefully) prevail, but both sides seem to be more inclined on grandstanding and scoring political points at the moment.

This happens a day after the ugly confirmation process of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel finally concluded. After a 12 day filibuster Secretary Hagel can get to work starting off in a near crisis situation with looming cuts set to begin Friday. (And both Representatives McKeon and Smith agreed that sequestration will happen.) Only four Republicans crossed the aisle to vote for their former Senate colleague. Time will tell if the Hagel vote was just another partisan skirmish or if he has arrived at the Pentagon badly wounded politically.

[See a collection of political cartoons on sequestration and the fiscal cliff.]

As sequestration becomes a reality and as the political divisions remain seemingly constant, perhaps proposals such as the one by Tom Ricks that I discussed here last week will take on more steam. For instance, over at The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution former Chief of Naval Operations  Admiral (ret.) Gary Roughead and Kori Schake of the Hoover Institution offer their cut at a defense structure for austerity. Army supporters will be nonplussed:

The structure of a force that meets these needs would maintain the Navy and Air Force at current objectives—the Navy tasked with greater presence in Asia and the Middle East, and the Air Force tasked with prioritizing speed of response in the Asia and the Pacific region. The active duty Army would be reduced by 200,000 soldiers from the 490,000 planned in the FY 2013 budget, with an increase of 100,000 reservists and National Guardsmen closely entwined in the regular rotation whose principal mission would be arriving in a mature theater for sustained combat. Putting more of the responsibilities for ground combat into the combat-proven reserve component is both consistent with the new demands of the evolving international order and justified by the superb performance of National Guard and reserve units in our recent wars. The Navy and Air Force have principally devised the air-sea battle concept, and the Army should undertake a similar rethinking of its concept for future organization and employment. A Marine Corps of 172,000 would serve as the forced entry and initial-response capability, and all services, especially the Navy and Air Force, should be tasked with developing and sustaining concepts and technologies to counter access-denial strategies. We would revise war plans to extend reinforcement times of our own initial entry forces and allied forces. We would shift much greater responsibility to allied forces, especially in the Pacific, where speed matters most and our allies are more capable than either we or they currently give them credit for. In conjunction with these changes, an aggressive base closure and realignment should be undertaken immediately.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

When was the last time the active Army end-strength was under 300,000 troops? 1940 (269,023 troops to be exact, p. 94). Austerity indeed. An active Army of 290,000 even with a larger reserve component (whose members cost just as much as active duty soldiers, if not more so when activated) would be hard pressed to sustain even a Bosnia-Herzegovina-style protracted peacekeeping mission let alone a major theater war. To be sure the country and its politicians need to get our fiscal house in order, but when push comes to shove the risks attendant with cutting defense too far, too fast in an uncertain world may cause a balloon payment in blood and treasure somewhere down the road.

  • Read Patrick Christy and Evan Moore: Don't Let Sequestration Cut Foreign Aid
  • Read Robert Schadler: Hillary Clinton's Unfinished Business at the Broadcasting Board of Governors
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