March 1, 2007  

The right-sized Army

The number of soldiers in the U.S. Army, both active and reserve, will continue to be a critical determinant of America’s ability to win future wars and, above all, the peaces that follow them. The current force is far too small.

It was cut after the end of the Cold War on the basis of optimistic assumptions that have proved invalid. A hard look at the most challenging likely near- and midterm threats suggests that the Cold War force level was about right. The active Army, currently at about 508,000 troops, would increase to a total end strength of about 547,000 over the next five years under Defense Department proposals. A better five-year plan would increase end strength to about 750,000 troops with the Army Reserve and National Guard at about the current level. Forces smaller than these place America’s national security fundamentally in jeopardy.

It will immediately be objected that it is impossible to recruit such a force without resorting to conscription. If that objection were valid, it would be fatal. Converting today’s volunteer military into a conscript force would result in a dramatic degradation of its effectiveness and professionalism, seriously reducing its competence in precisely the areas most urgently required in post-combat operations — policing, training of indigenous forces, and counterinsurgency operations. It is impossible, moreover, to imagine a system of conscription that is remotely fair. More than 2 million young men reach military age in America each year. Supporting an Army of a reasonable size would mean drafting only a small percentage of them, inevitably generating the same feelings regarding draft “winners” and “losers” that led to the elimination of conscription in the 1970s. Without a major war of national mobilization, conscription is not an option.

It is also not necessary. The U.S. maintained an active Army of between 770,000 and 780,000 continually between 1974 and 1989, entirely through voluntary accessions. That period covers recessions and economic booms, the hottest period of the Cold War and the period of perestroika leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. It includes periods of expansion in the 18- to 21-year-old population and periods of contraction in that population. Problems in recruiting bedeviled efforts in the early 1980s but were offset by aggressive and successful national programs to make the military more attractive to potential recruits. It is true that this period of stable and larger forces did not see a significant counterinsurgency campaign, a problem that has led to difficulties in recruiting even the smaller force of today. It is very likely, however, that the period of a very large American deployment will come to an end within a few years, either in success or in failure. And the memory of conscription and defeat in Vietnam did not prevent the Army from recruiting its goal of 780,000 even in the years immediately following the U.S. withdrawal. If the president and congressional leaders make a call to national service and attractive incentives are put into place, there is no reason to imagine that the Army cannot recruit to a larger end strength over the next several years.

The process of expanding the active Army will certainly be expensive. In addition to whatever funds are required to support recruiting incentives and advertising, the cost of military manpower has soared in recent years as the result of much-needed improvements in military quality of life and health care, and it will be necessary to purchase or refurbish equipment sets for the new units, as well as support their operations and maintenance costs.

The total cost of expanding the active Army to the level of 750,000 or so will probably be in the vicinity of an additional $33 billion per year in fixed personnel and operations and maintenance costs (once the units have been recruited and fielded), with another $60 billion or so required to purchase the equipment for the new units. If this program were executed over five years, the average annual cost would come to something like $45 billion. That would be an increase of about 40 percent over the baseline fiscal 2007 defense budget, or about 30 percent over the fiscal 2006 budget, including the supplementals. Once the fixed costs for purchasing brigade equipment sets were met, the recurring annual cost of about $33 billion would constitute a little under 30 percent, or around two-tenths of 1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).


Today, our forces are stretched painfully thin by the grinding pace of operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world. We have spent billions of dollars on the operational costs of these wars, but very little has been available to replenish the military’s equipment or increase the size of the Army and the Marine Corps. The result has been a “hollow buildup.”

The closer one looks at this problem, the greater the strains and potential problems appear. A simple truth emerges: A military that has less will do less. This is a dangerous situation for a nation with expansive foreign-policy goals and global-security commitments. The American military may well be the finest fighting force in history, but it cannot escape the fact that numbers matter. This is not the first time the U.S. has been confronted by sizable gaps between its strategic ends and its military means, but the stakes in this battle have never been higher.

Equally significant, the men and women of the Army are exhausted. We are now in the sixth year of the global war on terrorism. Sustaining operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and around the world has come at a high cost. It is increasingly difficult to keep 150,000 soldiers in the field, fighting year after year, with an active-duty force of some 500,000, and not wear out that force. By not expanding the Army’s numbers significantly, the Pentagon has on its hands a force whose overall readiness is faltering. Faced with continual rotations into and out of the theaters of conflict, the Army says it has no more than two brigades that are not currently deployed and who are at the level of readiness necessary to handle a new military crisis should one occur.

Recently, President Bush signed the 2007 Defense Authorization Act, which provides some $463 billion for the Pentagon and an additional $70 billion for ongoing costs related to the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 2008 Pentagon budget proposal requests $716.5 billion, including wartime funds. That is a lot of money by any account.

Yet as Andrew Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has noted, America’s military buildup has been “a hollow buildup,” filled largely with funds for operations, maintenance, readiness and health care — but not for the acquisition of new military systems or added manpower. To be sure, between fiscal 2000 and fiscal 2006, spending for planes, ships and systems increased from $55 billion to $78 billion, and the Army’s end strength was bumped up by 30,000 troops. Nevertheless, these increases are inadequate given the needs of the military, the wear and tear of war on both men and materiel, and the set of global responsibilities placed on the American military by existing treaty obligations and the strategic policies of the last two presidents.

The collapse of the Soviet Union inevitably gave rise to calls to cut America’s Cold War force structure. From 1989 to 1999, military end strength was cut from 2.1 million to 1.4 million. For the Army in particular, this meant a dramatic reduction in the number of divisions — from 18 to 10. But these cuts were based on the mistaken premise that the active-duty forces of the early 1990s were the same forces with which the U.S. would have gone to war against the Soviet Union and its allies. In reality, America’s active-duty forces were stationed around the world to buy time until the U.S. and its allies could muster the additional hundreds of thousands of reserve troops needed to wage the actual war. The force of the early 1990s was, in effect, America’s global placeholder, deterring threats in key regions of the world and reassuring allied states that the U.S. would be there should a conflict erupt. Yet these tasks remain. The decision to cut U.S. forces since then has made it increasingly difficult to provide this necessary global presence, especially when combined with the fact that the American military has been asked to take on mission after mission (Panama, the first Persian Gulf War, the Balkans, Haiti, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq) since the Cold War’s end. While many have suggested that the U.S. undertake fewer overseas commitments, the logic of the international system is such that no administration — Democratic or Republican — has seen fit to stem the demand for U.S. forces. Unlike the title of the old Broadway play, “Stop the World — I Want to Get Off,” the U.S. cannot just withdraw.

As early as 1997, the House Armed Services Committee reported that the Army was being worn down by repeated deployments and that readiness levels were low and getting lower. Factor in two major wars, stabilization, counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations, and the marginal increase in Army manpower (approximately 30,000) in recent years is little more than a Band-Aid for what ails America’s ground forces.

recipe for failure

When the military became an all-volunteer force, the U.S. undertook an implicit contract with those signing up for military service. In exchange for a young man’s or woman’s commitment to serve and fight for the nation, the country would provide him or her with decent pay and a chance to raise a family in an American middle-class lifestyle. Military pay and benefits have largely kept up with this promise. But with the size of the present active-duty force and repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, we have created a situation in which military families — especially those in the Army and the Marines — are being pulled apart as husbands, wives and parents are constantly rotated into and out of the theaters of war. To maintain a force of 150,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan requires a base force larger than today’s if we expect to keep readiness levels adequate, train and educate officers, and not exhaust the men and women who are putting their lives on the line.

If the government’s projected budgets hold true, these problems will only get worse. According to Office of Management and Budget tables, defense spending is expected to decline from 4.1 percent of GDP in 2006 to 3.1 percent by 2011. Yet because of deferments in procurement from the early 1990s on, there is a planned wave of new systems and platforms coming on line in the years ahead to replace and upgrade worn-out and outdated equipment. This “procurement bow wave” cannot possibly be met under current spending plans. If the Pentagon’s budget is not increased, it is inevitable that the American military will shrink in terms of both materiel and manpower. And, in turn, the gap between what our national security strategy calls for and what the men and women of the U.S. military are able to provide will continue to grow.

Winning in Iraq and Afghanistan, winning the global war on terrorism, having the arms and men to react to a new crisis — be it with Iran, North Korea or an imploding Pakistan — and preparing the military to hedge against a rising China are all tasks that the U.S. and its military will face in coming years. Attempting to carry out those missions within planned defense budgets is a recipe for failure — and one potentially far more costly than the increased spending necessary to tackle each of these missions effectively.

TOM DONNELLY is a resident fellow in defense and security policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor to Armed Forces Journal. GARY J. SCHMITT is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and director of AEI’s Program on Advanced Strategic Studies. FREDERICK W. KAGAN is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former associate professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.