Convincing the Customer: Why shouldn’t the U.S. Army shrink?

December 26, 2013

The U.S. Army is trying to make the argument to Congress and the public that it needs an active duty end strength of 490,000 and 37 active Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs). But the Army is failing to convince its “customers” (Congress and the public) to “buy this product.”

Why is the Army’s sales pitch failing? Looking at it from the perspective of a common, outside-the-Beltway citizen, I would say there are two reasons why the Army is not closing this sale.

  1. The Army is not explaining specifically what it needs these soldiers and BCTs for.
  2. The public is skeptical—in light of the past decade’s experience—that these soldiers and BCTs can actually solve the problems they might be assigned. In other words, Congress and public aren’t sure that the product they are being sold actually works.

Army leaders reply—correctly in my view—that forecasting is a fool’s errand, and that we have never been correct at predicting where we will have to fight next. Therefore, the Army needs to maintain a robust force, ready for anything.

From a historical, technical, and strategic perspective, that is a reasonable argument. But the customers—Congress and the public—are not convinced. In their current skeptical mood, they need specifics, not abstractions.

In 1990, just before the commencement of Operation Desert Shield, it was easy to point to specific contingencies that would require numerous U.S. armored divisions supported by plenty of tactical aircraft. The Soviet army, although then withdrawing from the inter-German border, was still alive and still a potential threat. And even if there had been no Soviet threat in 1990, Army leaders could have pointed to potentially hostile and large conventional armies, such as Iraq (#4 in the world), Iran (with recent conventional combat experience), and, of course, North Korea.

How about today? Could Army leaders point to a plausible and sudden conventional ground combat threat scenario that requires maintaining 37 BCTs at the ready? Well, there’s North Korea again. But I think The Customer would expect South Korea to bear the vast majority of that burden.

What about irregular warfare contingencies, which we all know to be quite likely anywhere in the currently messy world? Well, The Customer doesn’t want the Army doing that sort of thing anymore, and is not willing to pay for being ready to do it again. That may be a foolish judgment by The Customer. But when you want The Customer’s money, “the customer is always right.”

In addition—and this is an important point from The Customer’s perspective—The Customer is not convinced the Army actually knows how to achieve success at a reasonable price in such irregular warfare situations. Army leaders groan that they tossed out all of the lessons learned from the Vietnam War, and are preparing to toss these lessons out again today. The Customer says, “If those were the lessons, please toss them out. They didn’t work in Vietnam, and they didn’t work in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army obviously needs to learn something new before we will pay to maintain 37 BCTs for reasons and missions the Army leadership cannot convincingly explain.”

To sum up, Congress and the public need to hear something much more specific from Army leaders. These leaders need to explain—specifically—what current and potential threats require 37 active BCTs. Much more importantly, they need to explain how those BCTs will actually and permanently fix security problems at a reasonable cost. And the security problems for which the Army feels the need to prepare must be ones that Congress and the public actually want fixed.

Until Army leaders can do these things, they should expect to hear, “Sorry, no sale.”

I think it is important that the Army actually closes the sale, so that it will be truly ready for the tomorrow’s threats. But it won’t do so until it makes a better effort to understand the point of view of its Customers.


Robert Haddick is an independent contractor at U.S. Special Operations Command. He writes here in a personal capacity. In 2014, Naval Institute Press will publish Haddick’s book on the rise of China’s military power and U.S. strategy in East Asia.


Photo credit: General Frank Grass