While the Army might find a slight reprieve in the United States withdrawal from Afghanistan, that’s not guaranteed, acting Secretary of the Army John Whitley said at an event May 10.
How the exit from Afghanistan evolves will determine the service’s force commitment to that country, Whitley said at the Atlantic Council discussion also attended by Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville.
Without divulging detailed plans, McConville deferred to the Defense Department regarding what an Army contribution would look like should the situation in Afghanistan deteriorate to the point that U.S. ground forces would need to re-enter the country.
President Joe Biden has set a September withdrawal deadline and military leaders have already developed commitments beyond Afghanistan.
The Army, for instance, has been sending rotational armored and aviation units to Europe since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Whitley noted that the service is keeping a close eye on Russian actions along the Ukrainian border, be that in the southern area near Crimea or the northern regions.
“We’re constantly thinking about those things and what might happen elsewhere in Europe,” Whitley said.
“We’d like a much bigger army, but what I have to do at my level is say, you know, what can we actually afford,” said the Army chief of staff.
And the Indo-Pacific region doesn’t allow for much breathing room either, he added.
Whitley rattled off ongoing island disputes in the South China Sea, ever-present tensions with North Korea, friction along the India-China border and recent unrest in Hong Kong.
“The list of what could happen in the next year is quite long,” Whitley said.
If one of those scenarios escalates or an unforeseen challenge emerges and necessitates U.S. soldiers, the Army will likely have to respond with the same force size it had two decades ago.
At the height of the post-9/11 period, Army rolls topped out at 570,000 soldiers on active duty, McConville said.
Right now, the force has an active-duty end strength of just 485,000 soldiers — totaling nearly 1 million troops when the Army National Guard and Army Reserves are factored in. Those lagging numbers have been touted by Army leaders for months as the service heads into budget season.
“We are not going to grow the Army above the 485,000 number with the resources we have now,” McConville said. And the current force is already flush with ongoing responsibilities, both men explained.
“The U.S. Army is fully committed today between [planning] demands in the event of war and current operations,” Whitley said.
Commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria in recent years have taxed the force. But the Army has also been the go-to service at home this past year.
Army Guardsmen were dispatched regularly in 2020 and early 2021 to handle the U.S.-Mexico border mission, COVID-19 pandemic response, security in Washington, D.C., following the Capitol riot and annual natural disaster relief such as floods, fires and hurricanes.
“It becomes a conversation of what requirements are going to be relieved on us” should multiple scenarios unfold, Whitley said. And he has no doubt they could.
The secretary said that were something to go wrong in the Pacific, he could see “optimistic behavior” elsewhere in the world, hinting at maligned moves by Russia. And the reverse would be likely, too.
McConville also discussed balancing end strength numbers with modernization priorities at a Heritage Foundation event in February, Army Times reported previously.
“We’d like a much bigger Army, but what I have to do at my level is say, you know, what can we actually afford,” McConville said at the February event. “That’s what we’re taking a hard look at.”