Getting to the Army’s Better Argument


Here we go again.  With the DoD budget in free fall and no bipartisan consensus on defense on the Hill, the knives are coming out on force structure, and the target—guess what—is the Army’s end strength.  Veterans of the post-WWII years (if there are any left), the Eisenhower years, the post-Vietnam drawdowns, and of the “defense dividend” at the end of the Cold War must be shaking their heads.  “Good grief,” they say, “don’t they ever learn?”

Apparently not.  In an alternative defense budget last year, Dr. Kori Schake of the Hoover Institution and Admiral Gary Roughead, a former Chief of Naval Operations, generously offered the opinion that the Army should be cut in half and assigned the role of “sustained land combat”, a mission it already has.  Further, they conclude that the Marines be given the role of initial entry force in most contingences—a role that the Corps also already fills, though assigning “roles” in advance of contingencies puts planners in an unrealistic straitjacket.  In a subsequent article, Dr. Schake argues that the Army’s focus on rapid deployment shows that “the Army is trying to become the Marine Corps” and that there’s no “big war” on the horizon that necessitates a big Army (No More Big War, or NMBW for short).

Would that we could be so sure of the NMBW argument; however, this opinion has been so consistently wrong in the last 70 years that no serious person should fall for it (just weeks before the start of Operation Desert Storm a rear admiral assured the author that the U.S. would never deploy an armored division overseas).  In fact, every conflict in which the U.S. has been involved since 1945 but one, Vietnam, required deployment from a standing start.  Speed has mattered through generations of military conflict, and it would be foolish to believe that it matters any less in today’s world. The example of the Army’s rapid Desert Shield deployment alone (addressed in my last article for War on the Rocks) should have sufficed to at least subdue the NMBW side, but no luck.  There is nothing inherently wrong, and a lot right, with getting forces to the fight as fast as possible.  Nor is there any substance to the assertion that a capability for fast deployment sacrifices sustainability, as Dr. Schake asserts.  In fact, the more rapidly sealift closes, the more rapidly it becomes a “conveyor belt” for whatever the theater needs.

The more pernicious NMBW argument is to cut the regular force—Admiral Roughhead and Dr. Schake say by half—and beef up the reserves; so, if in fact a future administration miscalculates and blunders into a big war after all, “sustained” land power can come from them.  This is also an old, old budget argument, deployed by the “maritime school” during the Cold War to divert funding from Army divisions to the 600-ship Navy (one observer said it was really only a budget argument tarted up to sound like strategy).

We should say up front that the reserve components rose brilliantly to the challenges of the past decades, individually and as units.  But, anyone remotely familiar with the reserve components of the land forces—principally the Army—realizes that competent reserve units cannot be called up and deployed without sustained and sometimes lengthy pre-training here in the U.S.  As opposed to Air National Guard aircrews, an Army National Guard tank battalion is simply not combat-ready at the drop of the hat, despite its best efforts.  One wonders how many months Marines would be willing to wait for an Army armored division from the Guard.  The answer is that it would be irresponsible in the extreme to put the Marines or any other forward-deployed troops, allies or the nation’s interests in that position as a result of interservice budget bickering.

Cutting regular forces carries another penalty, as well.  We demand more of soldiers today.  While infantry battalions can be formed faster than aircraft carriers can be built, it’s still slow; the institutional and doctrinal base from which new forces are formed is vastly different than from the WWII mobilization or the Vietnam draft years.  Expectations today on the part of politicians and the public, as well as the professional Army, are much higher.  The WWII mobilization, conducted under the press of time, sent half-trained divisions overseas.  While they eventually became battle-tested, they also paid a price in blood in the Normandy hedgerows and Pacific islands; draftees in Vietnam were similarly undertrained.  That would be unacceptable today.  Not only does modern war demand more of the private soldier, the public expects to see—in ways previous generations never could—the professionally-trained, expert infantrymen and aviators they are accustomed to seeing on TV.  So do potential enemies.  The Marines’ “strategic corporal” has a “strategic soldier” cousin in the Army.  Dr. Shake says that the Army Chief of Staff has pointed out the increasing cost of soldiers, and he is right:  this highly skilled craftsman is expensive, as are Marines.  That’s a pretty good investment for the nation, and not a drain on the defense budget, but its essence.   Manpower should be the first budget line protected, not a drain on purchases of more F-35s or Ageis destroyers.

Dr. Schake is incorrect to say that the Army is “cutting in a different direction” from the national strategy, nor does it appear to be diverting from guidance from the senior civilian leadership, as she says.  The National Security Strategy states that the U.S. will be prepared to fight one major land war; the Defense Guidance says that forces “will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations [emphasis added],” but it clearly supports a combat-ready force, calling for an “agile” force prepared to deploy quickly.  In this, the Army is correct to be investigating rapid deployment.  But, parsing such language is largely irrelevant.  The Army’s task is to raise, train, and equip forces to fight sustained combat on land; its implied task is to deploy those forces as rapily as possible in support of combatant commanders overseas.  And Army forces have to be ready for any contingency.  The NMBW view of the world confuses the elegant sentences of desk-holders in the Pentagon with the Army’s responsibility to deal with the unexpected.  Stuff happens even at the strategic level.  It is certainly a consideration that this and subsequent administrations will be chary of large-scale deployments (I heard the same thing after Vietnam), but the real world has an uncomfortable way of interfering with the preferences of political leaders; being too slow to get there or too weak to fight is not the way to avoid NMBW.

Dr. Schake is certainly right in her central premise, though, and this makes up for everything.  The Army has got to find a way to “establish a floor under its end strength.”  The Army is having a hard time making its case.  Why is that?  Here are three suggestions, and there are probably more.

First, the Chief of Staff or his spokesmen have to better explain the facts. Particularly with the sequester’s impact on readiness, 490,000 troops doesn’t give the U.S. that much rapidly-available combat power in addition to the logistics base about which Dr. Schake is rightly concerned.  As opposed to the Marines, the Army is an army, a national resource that maintains not only fighting power, but levels of support that reach beyond just combat support into schools, hospitals, depots, factories, installations and even the nation’s river systems.  Within the service, there is a constant pull and tug for resources between the support side and the combat side, which in its turn has its own combat “tail” of helicopter mechanics and medics, cooks and cops, all embedded in the combat formations.  And then there is rotational unit readiness: a copy, conscious or not, of the Marines MEF system.  While this author is not familiar enough with the Army’s current structure above division level to make the case in detail, our historical experience strongly suggests that a force of 200,000, or thereabouts, is simply not a responsive, sustainable fighting force capable of fighting and winning the “major theater war” that the NSS specifies or much else besides (the U.S. deployed nearly 700,000 service members to the Gulf region even for the short, eight-month duration of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm; some were reserves, but the cutting edge was regular divisions).  Despite the rhetoric, neither Dr. Schake, Admiral Roughead, Congress, nor the public really want to gut the Army, but the burden of educating national decision-makers is on the Army itself.

Second, the Army has got to sharpen up its Washington game. While the political scene in Washington is indeed in flux, and the Army has the old problem of not having the support of an aerospace or shipbuilding industrial base, the service has friends on the Hill who can be developed to listen sympathetically to a clear message like that outlined above.  It’s more than periodic testimony before Committees; it means being on the Hill a lot, and working with staffers and members to get the readiness message out.  The U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) can perhaps get a better feel for public relations; war game results can always be second-guessed, as Dr. Schake does with the fish-in-the-barrel assertion that the Army would deploy 530,000 troops to Korea in six months.   What an easy target to attack (“… no political leader is going to make the choice in favor of that option anytime soon”).   Giving hypothetical numbers in public debates is almost always a bad idea.

Finally, to work on the “how much is enough” question in the long term, the Army should reach out to Dr. Schake and other critics and engage them, in wide-ranging debates on the nature of future war—not warfare, but war itself.  This is not only part of the messaging that the Army needs to be pushing, but also a fundamental responsibility of the service.  No other service bears so heavy a responsibility to understand and anticipate the nature of future wars.

War is an inherently political act, and the Army has traditionally shied away from politically driven thinking (one TRADOC general once said to the author that the Army has no business thinking about strategy).  But, while the nature of war doesn’t change—that is the Leavenworth answer—the political and social milieu in which it will be fought is changing rapidly, and only broad-based inquiry that involves and informs the national leadership will result in an Army force structure that has broad support.  The Army failed—and so did everybody else, including this author—to anticipate the insurgent swamp of Iraq and Afghanistan, so the first question we should all should be asking is “How did we get it so wrong?”  The second is “Why did it take us so long to adapt?”  And the third is “Where do we go from here?”  Finding the answers to these questions should involve a wide audience, and then be fed downward into force-structuring and upward to DoD and the Congress.

Now the downer—after all this, whatever emerges from so broad an effort will probably be wrong.  Even an assembly of the top brains in the nation and the most experienced war leaders will probably miss the mark, but hopefully the result will be good enough to adapt to new circumstances—the agile part of the Defense Guidance—and there will be a broad base of understanding on how big an Army we need, not just on the Army’s part, but on the national leadership’s as well. Once the Army can make a clear case in the right places, it has nothing to lose by such an approach and quite a bit to gain.


Colonel (USA ret) Bob Killebrew writes and consults on national defense issues as a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.  Prior to his retirement from active duty he served for thirty years in a variety of Special Forces, infantry and staff duties.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army