Janine Davidson

Defense in Depth

Janine Davidson examines the art, politics, and business of American military power.

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Pentagon’s Proposed Cuts to Ground Forces: Not as Bad as You Might Think (For Now)…

by Janine Davidson
March 6, 2014

Cadets salute during their graduation ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on May 25, 2013. Cadets salute during their graduation ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on May 25, 2013 (Mike Segar/Courtesy Reuters).


One of the more controversial proposals in the Pentagon’s latest budget is the cutting of the active duty Army from its post 9/11 peak of 560,000 soldiers to approximately 450,000. If sequester pressures remain in 2016, numbers could go to 420,000 or even fewer.

Critics assert that slimming the Army to numbers not seen since before WWII will require a time intensive process to grow more forces when faced with another large scale operation. This will send a dangerous message to potential adversaries who will question our ability to respond to aggression. Pentagon leaders counter that these cuts are manageable and that our ground forces will remain more competent and lethal than any potential foe.

I am sympathetic to the critics’ arguments that we cannot wish away the need for robust and ready ground forces. But considering the numbers in historical and strategic perspective, and assuming the Army is not forced to cut more soldiers due to sequestration (a big gamble), this round of cuts does not seem quite as dramatic. Here’s the logic:

Compared to pre-war levels, it is still a pretty big Army: Cutting the army by about 19 percent seems severe; until one considers that the Army has actually grown by about 14 percent in the last ten years. There were 490,000 soldiers serving on active duty at the start of the Iraq “surge” in 2006, about the same in 2001. Reducing to 450,000 after over a decade of fighting is a net reduction of 40,000. This 8 percent cut will still bite, but it is quite small compared to the 35-50 percent drops that took place after other big wars.

Considering SOF and the Marine Corps: While the regular army will have at least 40,000 fewer troops compared to 2001 levels, some of this will be offset by the dramatic growth in Special Operations Forces (SOF), which will have grown by more than 35,000 since 2001 (from 33,000 to 69,700). Likewise, the Marine Corp, which began the wars in 2001 with an end strength of 173,000, will have grown by 9,000 to 182,000 in this new budget (900 of whom will be dedicated to the new embassy protection mission).

Considering the net growth in both the active Marine Corps and Special Operations Forces since 2001, the resulting force structure does not reflect so much a downsizing across our joint ground forces, but rather a redistribution. The relative increase in SOF and Marines reflects the way in which the Pentagon anticipates operating in the future, which is also based on lessons from the last 10 years. I will save discussion of the rationale and wisdom of this redistribution (along with a discussion on how the Guard and Reserves fit in) for subsequent posts; but let us at least begin the debate with an understanding of the size of these forces compared to pre-war, not peak levels.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Guy Swan

    I think the real lesson of the last decade is that the future security environment will be more manpower intensive, not less. Globalization, urbanization, climate change generating natural disasters, humanitarian catastrophes, and more indicate that land forces will have a growing role, not a shrinking role.

    One of the fallacies of the conventional wisdom in Washington is that the US can choose its wars (or deal with adversaries with special forces and unmanned aircraft). That would be nice, but unfortunately it doesn’t work that way – unless, of course, the U.S. wants to abrograte it leadership role. The whole “red line” episode in Syria indicates that once the administration took land force intervention off the table, it was clear that other methods were going to be ineffective in forcing the Assad regime’s compliance.

    Further, land forces have a deterrent value (an insurance policy, if you will) that even air and maritime forces do not. Think of the Milosevic regime in the 1990s. No amount of allied bombing was able to force capitulation. Only when Russia withdrew its support for Milosevic and their was a credible threat of land force intervention, did the regime come to the negotiating table.

    We are seeing this again Ukraine. Clearly, the President is correct in moving air and naval forces to the region. But will this truly change any behaviors?

    Finally, and most disturbingly, the downsizing/reshaping of our military forces is not being driven by a sound national security strategy. It is being driven by budget constraints which in turn are being driven by the artificial and irresponsible effects of sequestration. Sequestration has done more to harm our national security posture than an external or internal threat to the nation.

    I would like to see contributors on this blog discuss the implications of sequestration on national defense.

  • Posted by Gary Christopher

    When looking at the actual size of the Army in pre WWII numbers one has to consider the fact that there was no “Air Force”. The Army Air Corps fielded America’s air force. In comparing today’s numbers vs pre WWII you must factor in our current Air Force numbers to obtain a realistic picture of force sixe.

  • Posted by Eric Walters

    We’re back to that age-old conundrum of balancing strategic policy ends/aims against the means/resources that are strategically affordable and the ways that are most feasible,suitable, and acceptable to employ those means to reach the desired ends. It appears to be a real quandary. WIth all the emphasis on regionalization (military organizations intended to gain familiarity/expertise in only portion of the global environment to economize on means), we will lose a measure of effectiveness when swinging forces away from their “region” to the one suffering a bubbling crisis. It’s also not the most efficient from a manpower management perspective, given institutional priorities for the services in career development and progression/promotion. This approach does not appear to be workable or sustainable for the services. But it seems to be the least of all evils compared with the national-level political impossibilities of scaling back our goals to a realistic level given our fiscal constraints or the bugetary/domestic political ramifications of funding larger forces able to do what we ask of them.

  • Posted by Timothy S. Muchmore

    Use of “beer math” to justify reductions to Army forces is sad. Mischaracterizing history is equally sad.

    Before WW II, the Regular Army comprised about 269K of Soldiers, before exploding to over 8 million by 1945. The post-war downsizing took the Regular Army to 554K, before again expanding to nearly 1.6 million for the police action in Korea. The smallest Regular Army between the Korean and Vietnam conflicts was nearly 859K in 1961.

    The historical pattern here is clear. Small army before the war, rapid expansion, and then downsizing to a force that is larger than the pre-war level in recognition of strategic uncertainty and expanded global responsibilities. Our downsizing after the 1991 Iraq war and now are different, with both resulting in an Army of a more diminished capacity after the war than before. That approach has not looked very smart for the past decade as Soldiers have rotationally deployed at unsustainable rates, but I guess here we go again. Some folks have apparently decided that if we make our Army small enough, potential adversaries will pursue kinder, gentler approaches. How’s that working in the Crimea?

    Beer math has its place somewhere, I guess, but it’s not in national security decision making.

  • Posted by majrod

    You do know we grew the size of the military because it wasn’t big enough to handle the last decades of crises and we’ve worn them out?

    Cutting FURTHER when we didn’t have enough for the last decade (and were unable to respond anywhere else in the world) is a subtle lesson in stupidity the author missed in his rush to explain a dumb decision.

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