Smallest Army and Navy Since Before WW II: So What?
By Harlan Ullman
Now that the US Army has officially announced cuts to reduce its active duty force to 450,000, the howls and screams of protest coming from many directions, and especially from Capitol Hill, are deafening. Many will complain that this will be the smallest Army since the start of World War II. Similarly, the Navy will sink to some 280 ships and pre-World War II size. And the Air Force too has made sharp cuts in its aircraft fleet.
But are these fears and dire predictions of America's fate due to smaller land, sea and air forces justified? Or are there other views and reasons from which to draw different conclusions?
Unfortunately, emotion rather than thoughtful analysis is dominating reactions to these drawdowns. And of course, no one refers to the Constitution in this debate that grants Congress the power "to raise an army ... and to maintain a navy."
People forget that the US actually has other armies by different names. The first is the US Marine Corps, some 175,000 strong. Even if the Army were to be reduced further to 425,000, America would have an active ground force of 600,000.
Unless the United States decides to re-occupy Iraq or invade Syria or Iran, that number seems more than enough to keep the nation safe. And if the US stumbled into a war with China and its population of 1.3 billion, even the 12twelve million in uniform during World War II would not necessarily be up to the task. As a retired four star general wryly remarked after visiting China before its current defense build-up, the US does not have enough bullets to win a land war in Asia.
The US also has a sizable Army National Guard and reserve component of about a million, a force it did not have in any quantity before World War II. And no mention has been made about the technologically advanced weapons that the services wield, orders of magnitude more effective and destructive than what was in the field 75seventy-five years ago.
If the Navy’s 280 ships found itself in battle with the World War II Navy that was more than 20twenty times larger in total numbers, including 27 large and 90 small deck aircraft carriers, how long would it take to send that fleet to the bottom? Not long. The point is that numbers alone say very little without a strategic or operational context.
Similarly, the Air Force of today and tomorrow is light years more advanced than even its predecessor of 20twenty years ago. Of course, quantity can have a quality of its own. And reductions can go too far in preventing the formation of a critical mass of military capability.
While this furor over cuts is substituting for a real debate, a far greater threat faces the US military, a threat likely to be more damaging than a recrudescent Russia, a more muscular China and an expanding Islamic State. This danger is uncontrollable internal cost growth that will erode and deplete military capability and capacity unless it is checked now. Unfortunately, few realize the consequences and fewer are prepared to take necessary corrective action that indeed could exceed the ability of a political system and its broken government in Washington to effect.
The sources of this exploding cost growth are no secret. By way of comparison, in constant dollars, more is being spent on defense today than at the height of the Reagan defense build-up more than a quarter of a century ago when nearly a million more people were serving on active duty in uniform. Cost of the all-volunteer force, health care, overhead, operations and maintenance, procurement, retirees, research and development, and all the other budget line items are increasing in some cases by 5-7% a year.
Even if the defense budget is significantly increased, which it will not be short of an existential crisis, this cost growth will exceed the most optimistic estimates of any plus ups for the Pentagon. As a result, if action is not taken now, a 21st century version of the dreaded "hollow force" that plagued the military after the Vietnam War will recur. The issue will not be the size of the military. The issue will be how the nation will cope with a military that is not fully prepared or capable of defending the country, our friends and our interests.
Rather than bemoan the current reductions, let's get on with actions to contain this exploding cost growth so that the term hollow force remains an artifact of history.