Commentary Magazine


Must We Cut the Army to Expand the Navy?

Seth Cropsey, a former deputy undersecretary of defense, has written a fine new book called Mayday, warning of the perilous decline of U.S. naval supremacy. It should be required reading in Washington. As you might expect, retired Adm. Gary Roughead, a former chief of naval operations who is now at the Hoover Institution, gave the book a thumbs up in the Wall Street Journal. But while endorsing Cropsey’s warning about the dangers of allowing the Navy to decline too far, Roughead adds a curious dig at the army:

With its 286 ships, the U.S. Navy is now smaller than it was in 1917, when it boasted 342. The number is stuck, and the trend spans the administrations of both parties. We have spent heavily on our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the U.S. Navy, which is central to our long-term strategic interests, languishes. Navies, unlike armies, take time to build—why the framers of our Constitution wrote of the imperative to “provide and maintain a Navy,” as opposed to the need to “raise and support an Army.”

Although he does not expound on it in this book review, Roughead has previously proposed that we cut a further 200,000 personnel from the active duty army which is already supposed to shrink to 490,000 men and women even before sequestration takes effect. (He proposed at the same time adding 100,000 personnel to the National Guard and Reserve, as if reservist and active-duty units are interchangeable–they’re not.) His proposal for cutting the army, while increasing the navy, seems to be based on the assumption reflected in the book review–that armies can be far more quickly regenerated than navies.

It’s certainly true that naval ships take a long time to build–and it takes a long time to gain proficiency in operating them once they are added to the fleet. Granted, rifles, tanks, and helicopters don’t take as long to build and are easier to operate. But that doesn’t mean that an army can be generated with a snap of the fingers. We have learned this lesson time and again throughout our history in the early battles of the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, among others–all of which exposed the inadequacies of ill-trained, ill-equipped recruits commanded, in many cases, by incompetent generals.

In point of fact, a professional, high-quality army takes a long time to develop–simply developing the capacity to be a competent battalion commander in today’s army can take 20 years. If we downsize the army excessively now, it will be no easy feat to replace lost experience on some future battlefield. History suggests we will pay a heavy price if we break up the high-quality, combined-arms ground forces we have today because, however unlikely it may look at the moment, the odds are that we will be engaged in another ground war sooner or later.

Roughead is right that we need to keep the U.S. Navy from shrinking further–and we even need to expand it. But it would be a mistake to eviscerate the army to pay for naval power. The U.S. is a full-service superpower that needs–and can afford–world-class forces on both soil and sea, not to mention in the skies.