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Rumsfeld and Ground Force Cuts

On November 19, I published an item taking issue with current calls to cut the ground forces. We should not repeat the mistake that Donald Rumsfeld almost made before 9/11, I argued, when he was planning to cut two divisions from the army. Now Rumsfeld has taken strong exception to my article, writing, “That is flat wrong. There was not any plan to cut the size of the U.S. Army that I was ever aware of. No such plan was ever presented to me. Further, I would not have supported it if such a plan had been brought to me.”

I was startled by Rumsfeld’s denial of what was commonly reported both at the time and since. See, for example, this Wall Street Journal article from Aug. 8, 2001, by ace military correspondent Greg Jaffe. He reported:

Aides to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld are calling for deep personnel cuts to the Army, Navy, and Air Force in order to pay for new high-tech weaponry and missile defenses that are cornerstones of President Bush’s plan to “transform the military.”

The proposal to reduce manpower—part of a congressionally mandated defense review due next month—calls for the Army to trim as many as 2.8 of its 10 divisions, or about 56,000 troops. …. Mr. Rumsfeld and top generals of each military service were briefed on the recommendations for the first time yesterday.

A report on the same meeting can be found in Cobra II, the meticulously researched history of the early days of the Iraq War by New York Times military correspondent Michael Gordon and retired Marine General Bernard Trainor. They write, “Shortly before September 11, Rumsfeld had presided over a meeting at which [close aide Stephen] Cambone laid out several options, including one to reduce the Army by as much as two divisions.”

Could it be that Jaffe and Gordon—two of the most respected defense correspondents in the business—were wrong and Rumsfeld was right? For further clarification I called up Jack Keane, a retired four-star army general who was at the time the Army vice chief of staff (and subsequently an architect of the surge in Iraq which Rumsfeld opposed). He told me:

It is a fact that during the 2001 QDR [Quadrennial Defense Review] the staff recommendation that was on the table, because I was at the briefing, was to reduce two army divisions from the active force and four national guard divisions. I took umbrage with that at the meeting, and I told Secretary Rumsfeld who was sitting at the end of the table. I asked his permission to take a briefing to his deputy, Secretary Wolfowitz and the Vice Chairman, Gen. Myers, the next day, outlining the Army’s position (presented by then BG Ray Odierno, now, Chief of Staff).  As such, Secretary Wolfowitz agreed with the Army’s position and Secretary Rumsfeld overruled his staff’s recommendation.

As Keane notes, his vociferous opposition and that of other Army leaders convinced Rumsfeld to drop the idea of major cuts in the army end-strength. Perhaps I was overstating the case a bit when I wrote that Rumsfeld was actually “planning” to cut army end-strength. It might have been more accurate to say he was “seriously considering” cuts. But Rumsfeld is rewriting history when he now asserts that no plan to cut the army was ever presented to him.

He is also misleading readers when he claims that he has always been a champion of bigger ground forces, writing that he was in favor of “increasing the size of our ground forces as necessary. Indeed, in 2004 and 2006, we increased the end strength of both forces by tens of thousands of troops.” He did approve small, temporary increases in army end-strength, which brought the active duty force from 477,862 when he took office to 502,466 when he left office.

But he did so grudgingly and only when it was obvious that the army was horribly overstretched by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even so, he never came close to undoing the post-Cold War downsizing that cost the army a third of its end-strength. (The active-duty Army was 710,821 strong in 1991.)

And he constantly stressed the need to keep the army as small as possible. For instance on Aug. 6, 2001, the Chicago Tribune reported, “Despite growing strains on the U.S. military, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld insisted Tuesday that the Pentagon needs to exhaust every alternative before asking Congress to increase the size of the active-duty force.”

Rumsfeld may well be right that he never said “technology is a substitute for troops”—but then I never claimed that that was a direct quotation. It is, however, an accurate summary of the views he held while in office. See, for example, his essay in the May/June 2002 issue of Foreign Affairs, “Transforming the Military.” In it he touts his “transformation” agenda and justifies dropping the “two-war” standard that had long governed American defense planning—meaning he decided it was no longer necessary to have armed forces large enough to simultaneously fight and decisively defeat two major adversaries. He wrote:

We decided to move away from the “two major-theater war” construct, an approach that called for maintaining two massive occupation forces, capable of marching on and occupying the capitals of two aggressors at the same time and changing their regimes… [B]y removing the requirement to maintain a second occupation force, we can free up new resources for the future and for other, lesser contingencies that may now confront us.

When Rumsfeld speaks of “occupation forces” he is of course referring to ground-combat forces. This Foreign Affairs essay is just one example of many that shows how skeptical Rumsfeld was of the utility of a large, active-duty army. As books such as Cobra II document, he acted on this prejudice by pressuring commanders to keep forces as small as possible in Afghanistan and Iraq—which had tragic consequences for both countries because it allowed the development of a power vacuum in which armed, anti-American extremists could come to the fore.

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