The Pentagon has concluded that the US Army could drop to as low as 380,000 soldiers. (Army)
WASHINGTON — Few in the Pentagon or the defense industry liked what they heard Wednesday at Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s press conference announcing the findings of his four-month Strategic Choices and Management Review (SCMR).
But the Army probably didn’t like what it didn’t hear, as well.
The secretary laid out two paths if Congress and White House remain unable to reach a budgetary “grand bargain” that would reverse the $500 billion in budget cuts that the Pentagon will face over the next decade, beginning with a $52 billion hit in 2014.
One plan would prioritize high-end capabilities over end-strength numbers, while the other would keep end-strength while sacrificing modernization and research and development on next-generation platforms.
While Hagel was short on specifics when it came to platforms that would or wouldn’t be modernized, the secretary provided a hint when he said “we would protect investments to counter anti-access and area-denial threats, such as the long range strike family of systems, submarine cruise-missile upgrades and the Joint Strike Fighter. And we would continue to make cyber capabilities and special operations forces a high priority.”
Notice anything there? No Army platforms were mentioned, save those few presumably used by special operators.
That doesn’t mean that key Army modernization priorities like the ground combat vehicle or joint light tactical vehicle are doomed under Hagel’s scenario. But being left out of a roll call of the Pentagon’s highest priorities may make some people nervous.
Not only was the Army left out of the list of critical programs, but under either plan it would also take by far the largest hit in terms of end strength.
With the end of U.S. involvement in Iraq and the ongoing drawdown in Afghanistan, the Pentagon has concluded that the service could drop as low as 450,000 to 380,000 soldiers, numbers which haven’t been seen since before World War II.
The wartime high of 570,000 grunts was always seen as a temporary spike — save for some in the Army who wanted to keep what they had gained — but the service is working on culling 80,000 troops to reach 490,000 by the end of 2017.
When it comes to prioritizing modernization vs. end-strength cuts, “I would suspect the first impulse would be to protect as much combat power as you could,” said Maren Leed, a former adviser to the Army chief of staff who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Doing so would mean deeply reducing headquarters elements, combining major commands, and the “further pooling of enablers at higher echelons to get those as lean as they can before they start going after combat power.”
That said, “the Army’s going to have a difficult time holding on to as much [combat power] as they might like to” if the cuts are not reversed, she said.
The dirty little secret in the rush to gain some cost savings, however, is that even letting go of 80,000 soldiers won’t actually save the Army a dime.
All of the funds earmarked for paying those soldiers over the 490,000 threshold come from supplemental war accounts, and don’t count toward any sequestration savings — which means barring deeper and faster cuts, the service won’t save any money on force reductions until the fiscal 2018 budget.
And the service desperately needs those savings. The Army already spends 46 percent of its budget on compensation, a number that service chief Gen. Ray Odierno has warned will rise to 80 percent in a decade if compensation trends continue.
What’s more, even forcibly separating soldiers won’t reduce the strain on budgets all that much. Service contracts include provisions for unemployment and other benefits for about a year after a soldier leaves the force, so the service still has to pay for former soldiers months after they separate.
Taking soldiers out of the ranks is one thing. Resizing units to reflect those reductions while still retaining combat punch is another. The Army announced in June that it was reducing the number of brigade combat teams from 45 to 33 — while protecting its overall combat wallop by keeping 95 out of its 98 combat battalions.
The plan is to take the cuts in headquarters positions across the brigades while increasing the number of maneuver battalions in each brigade from two to three, while adding engineering and fires capabilities to each unit.
Odierno called the moves “one of the largest organizational changes probably since World War II” for the service.
“If we go though full sequestration there’s going to be another reduction in brigades, there’s no way around it,” Odierno warned, adding that there will likely be more cuts coming in the heavy armor brigades, sequestration or not.
Fewer brigades, fewer soldiers, less money, and an uncertain modernization profile. With all of this in flux, what missions will the Army prioritize in the future?
“The most important thing that they’ve got to be concerned about is the Korean war plan since it doesn’t necessarily align that well with all the other things the Army believes it also needs to be doing,” Leed said. Those missions include things that Army leadership has spent a lot of time talking about in recent months, such as partner engagement in Asia and Africa, humanitarian response and training for contingencies spanning counterinsurgency to peer combat.
But the continuing instability on the Korean peninsula will mean that “they will be highly reluctant to take risk [in Korea] because of the criticality of it.”
The Army National Guard and reserve — much used in the past decade of conflict but largely spared from the current round of drawdowns in ground force end strength — would also be due for a haircut absent any grand bargain. They would fall from 555,000 soldiers to between 490,000 and 530,000 under the two scenarios.
One of the key questions to be considered when taking combat power out of the active force, but trying to maintain capability in the Guard and reserve, is to what degree can the Guard mitigate various kinds of risk? “Much of the Guard is not particularly well suited to meet the short term-risk in Korea,” for example, Leed said. But “when you’re talking about missions that align well with their competencies they can step in almost immediately.” Missions such as small unit training and advising, medical support, engineering and partnership missions are things that the Guard has traditionally performed well.
When it comes down to it, under any sequestration scenario “the whole Army would be the bill payer,” said Thomas Donnelly, a defense policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. Any cut to end strength or modernization would affect the other in serious ways, and would also impact the way the service could respond to contingencies.
The Pentagon has now laid out its thinking — absent any major change in national defense strategy — and now Congress and the White House will have their say.