With budget cuts looming, officials struggle to make case to maintain large Army

With another round of budget cuts seemingly just around the corner and with the military shifting its focus to the Asia-Pacific region, Army officials worry they haven’t been able to effectively make their case that the nation still needs a large full-time active duty ground force.

Before this year, the Army’s drawdown plans called for it to arrive at a post-war active duty end strength of 490,000 soldiers. When DoD released its 2015 through 2019 budget plan earlier this year, service officials said they could and would reduce their size down to a force of 440,000-450,000 over the next few years, but only while assuming additional “risk.”

Unless Congress makes some change to sequestration, the Army would need to shrink to 420,000 active duty soldiers over the next few years, a size Army officials maintain would be too small to meet its missions.

But even after months of congressional testimony and warnings in various other public forums, the Army so far has not been able to successfully press its case for a larger enduring size, said Brad Carson, who became the Army undersecretary in March.

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Speaking recently to an Institute of Land Warfare audience, Carson illustrated the Army’s quandary by recounting a recent conversation with someone he characterized as a senior civilian national security official.

“One has to explain the numbers in a way that even this person who was so involved in national security policymaking had no idea about,” he said. “He had no idea that yes, we might have 500,000 people right now, but 80,000 of those are trainees, transients, holdees and students, and, therefore, they can’t fight. Then we have a generating force of 80,000 to 100,000 people who are necessary man, train and equip those people who might fight. Then we have 20,000 to 30,000 people who are doing national missions, like theater missile defense or security cooperation, and sure, they could be pulled out and sent elsewhere, but the national command authority thinks they’re very important. So that leaves you with maybe about 300,000 people who could be deployed somewhere.”

Carson said if the military were to get involved in a major contingency operation, that force would probably be stretched thin enough that the ratio of time soldiers spent on the battlefield versus back at home would be about 1:1 — a “BOG-dwell time” Congress would probably object to.

“But even with that ratio, you’re talking about 150,000 people who can fight at any given moment,” he said. “This was, surprisingly, news to this major national security figure. When you’re providing not just combat power but the entire sub-strata of American military power — we don’t just fight, we bring the dogs and the mortuary affairs and the cooks and the cleaners that allow the other services to do their jobs — when you put all these things together, the Army has to have a certain size, and that size is larger than even very smart people think it should be.”

With no clear sign that Congress will change the caps it imposed under the Budget Control Act, the Army is asking itself questions that go beyond its public communications strategy, said Carson, who posed a total of 10 to the ILW audience. Among the others are whether the Army needs to reexamine its current models for how it divides manpower between those who are currently deployed and those who are training and getting ready to deploy: the Army Force Generation process (ARFORGEN).

“Going back to a tiered readiness system is not something that people openly aspire to, because it’s not a term with positive connotations in the Army for lots of reasons,” he said. “So the question is, what are the alternatives? So I think we’re still a ways away from moving to something besides ARFORGEN, because these readiness models are something you don’t take lightly.”

Another question: If the Army is forced to shrink below a size that its advocates believe is wise, how quickly could it grow if it were called on once again to participate in a major conflict? Carson said yes, the Army did grow rapidly during World War II when there was both a draft in place and the nation faced what was perceived as an existential threat. But any buildup during future conflicts will probably happen along very different contours.

“Between 2000 and 2011, including those years when we had all kinds of incentives in place to try to grow the Army, the most the enlisted force ever grew in a single year was 9 percent,” he said. “If we were going to try to grow our Army from 420,000 back to 550,000, we’d have to grow our force by 35 to 40 percent in accessions each year. That is probably not possible no matter what financial incentives one puts in place, but to even try to do that is an extraordinarily costly thing.”

Costly, Carson said, not just in terms of the incentives the Army would have to offer to recruit new soldiers into its active duty force, but also in terms of the long-term consequences of having to lower its accession standards in order to meet its needs. He says similar decisions the Army had to make during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have had effects the service will be dealing with for years.

“Perhaps people were getting waivers because they’d been involved in petty criminal behavior or their fitness wasn’t what it should have been. We will deal with these things on the back end,” he said. “Sometimes people come into the services who aren’t equipped for the rigors of combat, and to them, the consequences of seeing things on the front lines are even more devastating than they would be to people who come in with greater physical and medical fitness. We rightfully will take care of them, but we will be taking care of them for decades and decades to come. It is entirely predictable that we will be paying benefits to the survivors of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts until the middle of the next century.”

Some of the other questions the Army’s asking right now are a bit more prosaic, having to deal with how the Army builds its budgets and force structure plans over the long term, but Carson says they’re definitely worth revisiting. Among them, the planning, programming, budgeting and execution processes former defense secretary Robert McNamara put in place during the Vietnam era and which live on to this day.

“This process is entrenched throughout the entire Pentagon, and it’s worked well in some ways, but it’s worth considering whether it’s still the optimal planning system in an age of uncertainty where it’s not clear who the exact threats might be. We need to be more agile and flexible in our planning,” he said. “It may not be optimized in a world where the combatant commanders — something McNamara didn’t have to think about as much — are now the driving force within the Department of Defense. We now have an odd system where the combatant commanders, who are the consumers of what the military services provide have no direct say in the supply of things offered to them. That would seem to be a misalignment of incentives in a way that calls into question the continued vitality of a planning system that has worked well, but is now more than half a century old.”

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