Commentary: U.S. needs larger Army, not a smaller one

Last year, the Pentagon proposed significant reductions in the size of the Army active and reserve components. But with the global threat landscape ever evolving, the proposed cut to the Army is a decision the nation may well come to regret. We will attempt to explain why.

The latest Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), released in March 2014, proposed cutting the Army's end strength from 570,000 active component soldiers to 450,000; the Army National Guard from 358,000 to 315,000; and the Army Reserve from 205,000 to 195,000. These force reductions would be even greater if additional spending cuts are mandated through sequestration, which could kick in next year.

The Department of Defense said in issuing the QDR that it could cut troop strength without compromising its pillars of protecting the homeland, building global security and projecting power when necessary. But meeting these commitments in today's world has proven a challenge, one that will be made even more daunting by a smaller Army.

In the 17 months since the QDR was issued, new threats have emerged and old ones have worsened. Among them are the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its implications for the NATO Baltic states, the potential for provocations or collapse of the nuclear-armed regime in North Korea, and the rise of the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq. These and other global challenges could threaten regional stability and national security if the United States is not prepared to prosecute robust military responses.

For example, how would the United States respond if Russia were to take the same course in the Baltics it has taken in its illegal occupation of Crimea? Against currently stationed forces, the Russian Army could reach the Baltic capitals within a matter of days, leaving the United States with few choices — all bad ones at that.

The president could seek to negotiate a Russian withdrawal, but that would risk fracturing NATO if negotiations and sanctions dragged on for months or years. Or the United States could launch a counteroffensive to retake NATO territory against a nuclear-armed Russia. This option would be particularly dangerous because the Russians would have time to prepare their defenses, and their military doctrine reserves the right of first-use of nuclear weapons to defend their territory from attack; and Russia would almost certainly claim conquered Baltic territories as their territory. Making this even more difficult would be the necessity of attacking Russian forces in cities with large civilian populations of NATO allies.

However, these difficult choices could be avoided by putting sufficient forces in the Baltics to strengthen deterrence by denying Russia a quick fait accompli. This would require that the United States and NATO place armored brigades in each of the Baltics, along with other U.S. and NATO quick-response forces before a war started. If the Russians attacked anyway, an additional 14 brigades and their accompanying enabling forces — with perhaps six coming from the United States and eight from NATO allies, along with air and sea forces — would be needed to defeat and expel invading forces.

Similarly, a diminished U.S. military could be ill-prepared to respond to a North Korean artillery attack on Seoul or the collapse of the North Korean regime that would leave a large nuclear, chemical and biological program unsecured. An appropriate response would require U.S. forces to evacuate U.S. noncombatants and secure North Korean artillery and weapons of mass destruction. Doing so would require ground combat forces and engineering, logistics and other units to sustain operations.

To meet potential challenges in the Baltics and Korea while at the same time countering the existing terror threat posed by the Islamic State group and dealing with other problems that will doubtless emerge, the United States would need more troops, not less. In the event of conflict, in addition to maintaining the fiscal year 2015 troop levels, this would require lengthening combat tours to 18 to 24 months, making broad use of stop-loss and improving readiness. If the existing Army will be challenged to meet America's current and potential future commitments, a smaller force would hardly be up to the task. This leaves the U.S. leaders with but two choices: limit responses to existing and emerging threats, or pause the current troop drawdown until known threats are more adequately addressed.

tim bonds
tim bonds

Timothy M. Bonds is vice president of the Army Research Division and director of the Arroyo Center at the nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank Rand.

Photo Credit: Diane Baldwin/Rand

Limiting response capabilities would mean taking strategic risks. Fully engaging in the Baltics, for example, would leave the United States unprepared to quickly defeat aggression in Korea and vice versa. Taking such chances could provide adversaries an opportunity to commit aggression and cause U.S. allies to question U.S. reliability as an ally or partner.

A pause in the troop drawdown, meanwhile, would provide another 40,000 active and 20,000 reserve soldiers and could be paid for using Overseas Contingency Operations funding. When the threats have diminished, this funding could cease and the drawdown continue when the threats have diminished. Additional funding would be needed to ensure that this force is made ready and tested regularly, and that equipment is pre-positioned where needed.

The best alternative might be to increase the size of the Army to ensure it is capable of meeting known threats. But short of that, the United States should not go forward with force reductions at the risk of its stated security goals.

Timothy M. Bonds is vice president of the Army Research Division and director of the Arroyo Center at the nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank Rand Corporation. Michael Johnson is a senior defense analyst at Rand.

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