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Cutting 31,000 more soldiers: How small will the Army get?

Mar. 4, 2013 - 08:29AM   |   Last Updated: Mar. 4, 2013 - 08:29AM  |  
Although the Army is in the process of trimming its size to 490,000 soldiers over the next five years, few believe that will go far enough.
Although the Army is in the process of trimming its size to 490,000 soldiers over the next five years, few believe that will go far enough. (Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod)
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Under the Budget Control Act of 2011, the Army will have to cut $170 billion over 10 years and make these personnel cuts:
Active-duty end strength: From 570,000 to 490,000
National Guard: From 358,000 to 350,000
Army Reserve: From 206,000 to 205,000
Civilians: From 272,000 to 255,000
Net loss: About 106,000 soldier and civilian positions.

Cut the Army to 290,000. Really?

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Cut the Army to 290,000. Really?

That's one of many suggestions for meeting today's harsh budget reality imposed by the combined effects of sequestration and operating under a string of continuing resolutions.

Although the Army is in the process of trimming its size to 490,000 soldiers over the next five years, few believe that will go far enough.

"Is 490 the bottom?" Lt. Gen James Barclay, deputy chief of staff (G-8) asked. "We're not sure."

Army leadership has long warned that sequestration would force the service to cut 100,000 soldiers roughly 80,000 reservists and 20,000 active-duty troops. This is in addition to the five-year reduction to 490,000 already in force.

But those cuts will not provide the savings necessary to protect modernization and training dollars and Army leadership seems to know this.

Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, the Army's deputy chief of staff for personnel, said sequestration could lead to involuntary separations for 24,000 enlisted personnel and 7,000 officers.

Retired Adm. Gary Roughead, former chief of naval operations, is one of two authors of "National Defense in a Time of Change," published by the Brookings Institution in February. At the heart of this plan is the elimination of 200,000 active-duty soldiers. This would bring end strength to 290,000 troops. The plan also would increase the Guard and Reserve by 100,000 soldiers who would be "entwined in the regular rotation … arriving in a mature theater for sustained combat."

This aggressive analysis calls for "responsible reductions in defense spending" that will:

Design a force better aligned to face future challenges.

Improve the efficiency and efficacy of the acquisition system.

Control rising personnel costs.

The goal is a sustainable defense budget that preserves the capability to face challenges in the near future and to rebuild as new challenges arise.

Needless to say, Army leadership is not keen on the idea. But they have some big numbers to overcome.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno testified in February before the House and Senate armed services committees, addressing the "unprecedented" and "grave consequences" that await an Army in transition. He listed the reduction of at least 189,000 personnel, then added "it'll probably be closer to 200,000."

That represents a 14 percent reduction of Army end strength and will cause an almost 40 percent reduction in brigade combat teams and U.S.-based installation infrastructure.

Everything above the 490,000 threshold is funded through overseas contingency operations dollars, which means the numbers already planned for reduction won't affect the Army's base budget.

Defense and service personnel officials on Feb. 27 testified before the House Armed Services Committee's military personnel panel. They said decisions on troop strength could be made within 30 to 60 days.

Army leadership won't address the likelihood of deeper cuts or whether they are planning for the possibility.

Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., the personnel panel chairman, said he dislikes the idea of cutting personnel levels in the first place.

"Increasing fiscal pressure on the military services, especially the Army and Marine Corps, will compel them to move from gradual reductions in manning levels to precipitous declines," he said. "I am also concerned that if the services are compelled to make more significant reductions than now planned, that the use of involuntary separation authorities will become the norm."

Indeed, many lawmakers are working feverishly to protect defense dollars, but the fight is increasingly difficult. One congressman described it as "trying to brush your teeth while eating a bag of Oreos."

A ballooning budget

The defense budget has grown from $329 billion before 9/11 to $525 billion for fiscal 2013. Combat operations account for roughly $20 billion, which leaves a 66 percent increase in a little more than a decade.

And that is a prime target for a cash-strapped Congress looking to cut costs.

The U.S.'s defense spending is higher than that of the next 18 countries combined. It represents nearly half of the world's total. When combined with U.S. allies, that number jumps to 70 percent.

The U.S. annually spends $2,250 per person on military forces. In comparison, Russia spends $301 per person, Iran spends $137 and China spends $57.

That's a problem for soldiers who want to stay in uniform. People cost money, and the Army has a lot of people. For example, more than $6 billion will be saved by reducing the Army by 27,000 and the Marine Corps by 20,000 in 2014.

The Pentagon spent $85 billion on personnel in 1991 as the Cold War and Operation Desert Storm came to a close. Today, it spends $135 billion on personnel, and that number does not include $14 billion in personnel costs covered by OCO funding. Despite this increase, the size of the Defense Department workforce has increased by only 3 percent.

Equipping, training and modernization funds bear the burden. These funds provide quick savings and aren't nearly as unpopular as personnel cuts.

"Growth is crowding out the money for military modernization," said Clark Murdock, senior adviser and director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Defense and National Security Group. "The growth rate of personnel in [operations and maintenance] could consume 80 percent of the budget by FY 2021."

As a result of sequestration, all but five of the Army's 26 Army major acquisition programs to include the top 10 programs will incur major delays of up to 18 months. That will adversely affect more than 300 contractors and 1,000 suppliers in more than 40 states, according to Army data.

To restore the 32 percent of the budget historically spent on military modernization by fiscal 2021, "you have to give up 455,000 additional personnel," Murdock said. "The numbers are pretty unforgiving."

And that is the catch.

"The military wants to keep its people. And Congress doesn't want to cut people or benefits that's not a popular move among constituents," one congressional staffer said. "But there is no way around this anymore. DoD and Congress can't make these sizable cuts without addressing end strength and benefits.

"That's a big problem for the Army. It has the most people and the hardest time justifying those numbers in the new defense strategy."

‘Very high' risk

Sequestration all but forces the Pentagon to cut ground forces as future strategies have fewer dollars and a heavier reliance on naval and air forces. In addition, the air and sea components have already been cut to the bone. The Army cut six divisions following the 1991 Gulf War. But a return of the Pacific theater to the forefront of future strategies has placed renewed emphasis on the air-sea team.

"Naval and air forces will grow increasingly important in the future strategic environment," the Center for a New American Security said in its October 2011 report, "Hard Choices: Responsible Defense in an Age of Austerity." "As a result, the Pentagon should prioritize these forces and not distribute the expected defense cuts evenly across the services."

The CNAS report stands as the most detailed scenario to date of sequestration's potential impact. The analysis said it will be necessary to cut end strength to 430,000 soldiers and 150,000 Marines. The lack of manpower would make large commitments difficult. As such, the Army would focus on rapid response/forcible entry (airborne and helicopter assault) and on the lower end of the conflict spectrum, such as advising and assisting foreign forces and conducting irregular warfare.

Heavy armored formations will suffer more cuts, with the remainder being shifted to the reserves, the report said.

The risk inherent to this is described as "very high."

And that is one reason Roughead is calling for big troop cuts.

"The Pentagon's own 2012 strategy is somewhat at odds with the force it buys one that is too heavily invested in a large ground force, does not provide for adequate speed of response to conflicts in Asia, shifts too little risk to allies, relies too much on a growing civilian force, and spends too little to redress crucial vulnerabilities in our forces," his report said.

"The military's current strategy sustains an Army that is far larger than necessary to face these modern military challenges. This criticism is less true in the case of the Marine Corps, given their expeditionary nature and competence, but still, the Marines' structure is too much dictated by Congress' stipulations than it is by the needs of future challenges."

Roughead called into question the Pentagon's preference for "equal service budget shares." The goal is continuity and harmony among the services. But the plan does not align with strategic guidance, the admiral said.

"In the current cost-constrained environment, this is an expensive and inefficient indulgence that will leave us with an over-capacity for land warfare and an under-capacity for emerging air, maritime, and cyber challenges," he said.

Roughead's analysis asserts a "careful" force redesign and the associated reduction in infrastructure could save nearly $25 billion per year in personnel costs, operations and maintenance, military housing and other support costs.

But cutting troops won't cover all the costs.

Another way the Pentagon can save a significant number of weapons and personnel is to cut benefits. Again, this is a tough pill to swallow, but military leaders are finding it increasingly difficult to argue this case.

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