What happens when ‘demand’ for the Army exceeds its ‘supply’?

In a piece written for AOL Defense, Nathan Freier, a senior fellow at CSIS and a retired U.S. Army officer, implores policymakers to think carefully about “known unknowns” before taking an axe to the Pentagon’s ground forces.

Employing former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s now-famous taxonomy, Freier asserts that the Pentagon, in keeping with its long-established culture, is now making thorough preparation for its preferred “known knowns.” These include China’s rising military power and Iran’s regional ambitions (addressed by the new Air-Sea Battle Concept), North Korea (presumably another network-centric targeting exercise), and post-al Qaeda terrorism (to be managed by the growing CIA-JSOC partnership). For all of the “known knowns” the Pentagon has its plans well in hand.

But what about the “known unknowns,” what Freier terms the “unacceptable disorder” that all serious planners realize the world will toss up and which Freier asserts U.S. ground forces will inevitably have to deal with? How do these unwelcome, unmanageable, and murky situations figure into the Pentagon’s plans?

Freier has a list of scenarios that policymakers don’t want to think about but which seem even more inevitable than the “known knowns”:

What options should the United States retain to respond to contagious violence in the Middle East? What might the United States have to do in case of civil war in Mexico or Cuba, regime collapse in nuclear-armed North Korea or Pakistan or the violent disintegration of Russia? Further, what role, if any, might U.S. forces play in containing unfavorable turns in the Arab Spring -- an Egyptian civil war, resurgent violence in Iraq, or an Iranian proxy war against the Gulf Arab states? Finally, what if the Arab Spring itself is only the vanguard of a more generalized global trend where other important governments prove more vulnerable than many expect to sudden social and political unrest?

Presumably extrapolating from the historical record, Freier implies that U.S. policymakers will not be able to resist eventual intervention in cases like these. And he believes that stabilizing these situations will require a lot of U.S. boots on the ground.

Facing off against Freier’s warning is a recent report from RAND that discusses how the Army might go about cutting its budget and how deep such cuts might get. In order to establish a medium-term floor for the Army’s expenditures, RAND examined the three previous postwar drawdowns since 1950. If these previous “peacetime” levels represent the lowest floors past policymakers have permitted, today’s Army could face up to a 50% cut in its funding. According to RAND, personnel funding could decline 42%; operations and maintenance 52%; and procurement 74%.

Here we have two lines of extrapolation colliding. Freier makes a defensible forecast of the demand for U.S. ground forces, based on the past behavior of U.S. policymakers. Similarly, RAND uses policymakers’ past postwar drawdown decisions to calculate a possible floor for the Army’s force structure. It foresees an Army suffering a decade-long procurement holiday and a force structure smaller than the 1990s.

Analysts like Freier and RAND are left to murky extrapolation because the chaotic policy environment in Washington has left them with nothing else to go on. Serial continuing resolutions, delayed budget sequesters, economic instability, and unresolved debates about America’s future role in the world mean that defense planners have little stable guidance on which to formulate plans. This state of affairs won’t be fixed until at least the next general election – and maybe not even then.

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Umm, the RAND Report manages to exceed the CNAS budget scenarios in vacuity and lack of precision. I cannot help note the "FCS was cancelled, therefore there is no major Army procurement worth cancelling left" argument. They could have argued that the Army needs a baseline, especially with regards to force structure, that is higher than the (downward) historical trend line describes. It would not be a difficult argument to make, but the report did not make that argument, or any other argument that I could discern. And I couldn't help furrow my eyebrows when they stated that JFCOM was part of the "military bureaucracy" not part of the "generating force" or that the force structure "reduction" option is to give back two combat aviation brigades that it has yet to stand up, or that:

"To reach $35 billion, another 180,000 active duty soldiers would need to
be cut along with 30 percent in Army National Guard and Army Reserve force strength. If the Active (Regular) force drops to 480,000 soldiers, the Army’s size in 2000, the military personnel cost would be around $47 billion."

One despairs to find anything resembling an estimate of how many brigades or divisions would be left in this scenario, or how the traditional "send the tankers to the reserve component" argument would turn out here. With these numbers, you don't even get close to 30 combat brigades in the active force, and a 30 percent reduction in the reserves is, well 30 percent of the current baseline, not 30 percent of the current baseline plus the 18 to 24 brigades you are taking out of the force. (Admittedly,I am making some broad assumptions here.) And when the report says,

"the Army may choose to cut parts of the force that are easier to regenerate should it face a crisis, its analysis of various future scenarios may indicate that some parts of the force are overstructured and may be reduced without considerably increasing operational risks, or it may choose to cut some of its most expensive organizations"

Are we expected to imagine that tankers and artillerymen and helicopter crews are just that easy to "generate" so no problem cutting these back, 'cause infantrymen and rangers are cheap and easy to deploy into all these small wars, without "increasing operational risks". Or is the apparent contradiction really a not-so-subtle tradeoff, wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

It just gets more stupid, the more one thinks about it.

The nature of the next war is beyond computation as the variables of technological innovation, accident, and the totally unrealistic assessments of the players are more often than not random. Once upon a few centuries ago, the pace of change in society, science, and politics could be narrowed down to decades.

The P-51 was ordered by the British as a replacement for the P-40s they bought. North American said they could do better and produced the original P-51 with an Allison engine without supercharger as USAAC doctrine didn't see the value of high altitude interception.

The British replaced the Allison with a Rolls Royce, and some air crew added more fuel tanks, and the bomber stream to Berlin could be escorted all the way to Berlin which triggered the most productively destructive period of the bomber offensive in WW2.

Some sergeant on the D-Day beaches cut up some of Rommels barricades and the Bocage no one had predicted was cut to pieces in the breakout from the beaches.

A modification of the UH-1 Huey combat taxi was done by Bell by making the seats in line instead of in tandem which slimmed down the Huey, added a gun mini-gun and more rockets and the Cobra took to the air against doctrinal strictures.

The cultural assessment of the US by both the Japanese held us as a mongrelized, over indulgent, sybaretic, and weak. The Japanese figured we would come to the table once the US Pacific Fleet was sunk, and the Philippines taken proved correct, except that the table was on the Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

Our assessment of the Japanese held by field commanders before landing on the beaches of scattered Japanese held islands led them to predict a few days or hours to clean them up ... at Tarawa, Saipan, Okinawa, Iwo Jima, et al.

The higher the assessment of future wars is made, the more likely it is to be drastically wrong. Wrong not only because of the instability of paradigms, but because the higher they go, the less in touch with ground reality (even if airborne) they are. Thus the need for stable forces to conduct stability operations was defeated by rotating forces for personnel reasons than tactical or strategic. Only the spectacular efforts by the training establishment to laterally kept the forces up to near real time in the shape of the battles for next week

The school system used to be a barrier against the flag pole effect of the inveterate tinkering and meddling by Pentagonoisie in search of a better OER to survive. It is the Constitutional duty of the Congress to raise armies and to provide for it's regulation. Thus there should be direct links to the school system and major commands to Congress to keep them in the loop lest we stumble of on another misadventure.

We used to lose battles, but win wars. Since DoD was established, it has been the other way around

Robert, you wrote:

"Analysts like Freier and RAND are left to murky extrapolation because the chaotic policy environment in Washington has left them with nothing else to go on. Serial continuing resolutions, delayed budget sequesters, economic instability, and unresolved debates about America’s future role in the world mean that defense planners have little stable guidance on which to formulate plans. This state of affairs won’t be fixed until at least the next general election – and maybe not even then."

True.

However, this differs from previous years only in the presence of Freier in the mix. RAND has been there before, several times, and Washington has been in that mode all of my rather lengthy adult life...

IF the next election throws the majority of incumbents out, Congress may get the message and change for the better -- I'm far less hopeful Washington per se will or even can cease its totally dysfunctional ways...

More than the next election will be required to change that -- I doubt it will happen unless we face a major existential challenge.