“Don’t Cut the Army”
Joseph J. Collins
Eisenhower said that plans are nothing, but planning is everything. Plans are designed to change with circumstances. In bureaucracies, however, plans harden into concrete. We lose sight of the assumptions on which they were based, and they no longer match the changing strategic environment. The Pentagon’s plan to cut the active Army exemplifies this problem.
Plans to take the Army from its high of 570,000 to 490,000 today, and then to reduce it again to 450,000 soldiers seemed prudent a few years ago. The war on terrorism was fading; we departed from Iraq, and our forces were coming out of Afghanistan. Russia and China were competitors, but not behaving aggressively. Iran and North Korea were ugly regional powers, one nuclear, the other wanting to achieve that status, but none of that was new. Real negotiations with Iran were just getting underway. Propelled by war weariness, hope was breaking out all over.
Today, reality has changed and not for the better. ISIS dominates much of Syria and Iraq. The war has escalated in Afghanistan. The plan to end our military presence in Afghanistan at the end of 2016 no longer seems feasible. Iran has increased its influence and presence in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. As a bonus, Tehran has just inked a nuclear deal that will bring it dozens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief, a bonus for the Revolutionary Guards and the Quds Force.
In 2014, Russia took advantage of a weak Ukraine, seized the Crimea, and now threatens to take control of the Eastern Ukraine. It continues its close relationships with Iran and Syria. Russia is now studying whether it was right to let the Balkan republics leave the USSR, questioning whether these states --- occupied by Stalin’s army --- have a right to freedom and NATO membership. Beijing continues its relentless military modernization program and is attempting to turn the South China Sea into a Chinese lake. China’s aggressive cyberattacks grow bolder by the day. North Korea has become a dangerous combination of bellicosity and instability.
These geostrategic developments have not escaped the view of the incoming and the outgoing chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Marine General Joseph Dunford has called Russia an existential threat. Army General Martin Dempsey said in his valedictory interview in Joint Force Quarterly, that “my successor will have to deal with the reality of state actors who can now coerce and constrain us, as well as non-state actors…I don’t think the pendulum will swing entirely back to Russia or China as peer competitors, but I think the institution will have to adapt…” The security threats from non-state actors, regional powers, and peer competitors have all grown.
One segment of defense analysts believe that we can make up for our relatively small ground forces by maintaining a larger, more modern Air Force and Navy. They can see the outline of the next war; it won’t be a land conflict in the desert, but an air-sea battle, possibly in Asia. This view is highly questionable. To paraphrase Trotsky, we may not be interested in ground wars, but throughout the last century, they have been very interested in us.
Our inability to predict the time, location, and the shape of the next conflict has been a near constant. Despite the world’s best intelligence, we are often surprised or inadequately prepared for the work at hand. The only recourse is to maintain a balanced joint force, capable with our allies and partners, of meeting our objectives across the spectrum of potential conflicts.
Ground forces are a vital part of that joint force and our strongest deterrent against conventional aggression. While air and sea forces magnify the power of armies, wars happen on land and among people. Armies are the centerpiece of ground combat and dominate post-conflict stability operations. U.S. national security increasingly relies on training and advising our partners. That work too is done by soldiers and marines, and there are already too few of them. In particular, this mission falls heavily on U.S. special operations forces, and nearly 70% of them are in the Army.
In the immediate future, we will be calling on our ground forces to maintain a high level of readiness for short notice contingencies, establish presence in critical areas, continue their advisory and training efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, deter North Korean aggression, and enhance deterrence in a Europe noticeably frightened by a resurgent Russia. While we should do more in Iraq and Afghanistan, the increased threat in Europe is vitally important. At a minimum, the United States should resolve to station a reinforced heavy division in Poland to signal the Russians that Poland and the Baltic nations will not be treated like the Ukraine. U.S. soldiers should also bring much needed aid and training to Ukrainian forces. With all this on our plate, cutting the Army now makes no sense.
Dr. Joseph J. Collins is the Director of the Center for Complex Operations, National Defense University. He’s a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense and a retired Army Colonel. This essay represents his own views and not the official position of the Department of Defense, the Joint Staff, or the National Defense University.