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Army end-strength goal gets bump this year, but growth to slow in the future

The Army has updated its intended end-strength goal for fiscal year 2020 to 485,000 active duty troops — 5,000 more than the service originally planned, according to a budget request submitted to Congress on Monday.

The active duty Army’s planned end-strength for 2021 is now at 486,000 soldiers, minus roughly 100 soldiers who are expected to transfer to the Space Force.

However, the service also appears to be moderately slowing its plans to build a 500,000-strong active duty force by the end of the decade.

“We’re going to have modest growth of about 1,000 soldiers per year for the next four or five years,” said Maj. Gen. Paul Chamberlain, director of the budget at the office of the assistant secretary of the Army.

The update comes on the heels of a good recruiting and retention year for the service. The Army ended 2019 with an end-strength of almost 484,000 active duty soldiers. The service was originally aiming for just 478,000.

“We actually finished the year 5,000 over the end-strength that we wanted,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville told Army Times on Jan. 22. “We’re well over the end-strength that we’re supposed to have, which is 480,000."

That allowed Army leadership to leap-frog its growth numbers by several thousand troops. The Army National Guard and Army Reserve will remain relatively flat in terms of personnel growth, however, adding only about 800 soldiers between the two components in 2021.

The total force strength across all three components is expected to reach 1,012,200 soldiers by 2021.

The Army hasn’t yet set recruiting targets for 2020, but the number of soldiers they need is considerably lower than in previous years.

As for the the 500,000-soldier goal, Army leaders have cautioned in the past that it could fluctuate, but when they were bearish, it was usually due to a strong economy that made for a poor recruiting environment.

Other times, service leaders were more bullish in their predictions.

“I can’t tell you what the Army end-strength will be. I know it has to be above 500,000," the former Army secretary and current Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said in April 2019. “But our war games could come out and tell us — in two years, or a year and a half — that we really need 504,000. Or it could come out and tell us that we need 540,000.”

Today, the ground branch faces a few factors that “pull the future size and shape of the Army," according to Mark F. Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The first factor is guidance from the Pentagon to modernize the force, investing in research, development and acquisition of expnsive technology, Cancian wrote in an October analysis for CSIS. The cost of that innovation is sometimes paid for by cuts to force structure.

“Another is the day-to-day demand for forces to deploy to Afghanistan, Europe, and elsewhere. That implies a larger force that may not need the most advanced technologies," Cancian noted. "Finally, difficulties in recruiting and retention, as described earlier, may drive force size regardless of strategy.”

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