Buried deep in this Wall Street Journal article on the future of the U.S. Army is this dismaying revelation: “Defense officials said the Army must shrink by an additional 100,000 soldiers if the across-the-board cuts remain, bringing the service to 390,000.”
Let’s put that figure into perspective. The army shrank by roughly a third after the end of the Cold War–from 730,000 active-duty personnel in 1990 to 491,000 in 1996. That was grossly inadequate to deal with the challenges of the post-9/11 world (or arguably the pre-9/11 world either), and so over the past decade the army slowly grew, reaching a peak strength of 557,000 in early 2012. A year later the army is down to 541,000 and shrinking fast.
The plan had been, because of half a trillion dollars in defense budget cuts mandated by Congress in 2011, to cut army end-strength down to 490,000–i.e. roughly the pre-9/11 level. But sequestration has added another half-trillion dollars in cuts which, if not rescinded, will result in an army of 390,000–the smallest level since before World War II.
Such drastic cuts only make sense if you assume–as the Obama administration and many on Capitol Hill seem to–that we will never fight another major ground war in the future or that if we do we will have plenty of time to mobilize and train reservists and new recruits. Neither assumption is historically warranted.
First, wars today do not take place after an elaborate mobilization; more often they arrive out of the blue, as the post-9/11 conflict in Afghanistan did.
Second, despite our aversion to fighting more wars after Iraq and Afghanistan, there are still plenty of places where it is easy to imagine American combat troops being sent–in fact just about anywhere in the giant arc of instability stretching from West Africa to Central Asia, in other words from Mali to Pakistan. That region is full of dangerous regimes and non-state actors and it is growing more unstable, not less. The danger to the U.S. is heightened by the fact that one country in that area (Pakistan) already has nuclear weapons, another is close to acquiring them (Iran), and others (Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia) may yet follow suit.
Sending large numbers of U.S. grounds is not anyone’s preferred solution to the dangers emanating from this area–but even in a best-case scenario we will have to continue providing substantial security assistance and Special Operations missions to keep the threat under control. The worst-case scenarios (e.g., war with Iran, another 9/11 emanating from Pakistan) could, in fact, dictate large-scale ground deployments.
No matter how much we hate the idea of another major war, especially on the ground, prudence suggests we need to have the capability to fight and win–and the only way to achieve decisive results (i.e., change of regime) is through ground action. Ground troops can sometimes be provided by allies, such as the Libyan rebels, to complement American airpower, but we cannot rule out the possibility that in the future U.S. ground forces will have to be deployed.
It is the height of folly to cut our ground forces so much–and to degrade their readiness so markedly–that they will no longer be able to deploy in sufficient strength to win future wars. But that is precisely what we are now doing.