Every October the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) holds its annual meeting and exposition at Washington’s convention center. It’s a huge event executed with military precision, highlighted this year by the unveiling of a new Army Operating Concept that will guide the development of the future force. But the AUSA meeting only lasts a few days, and when it is over soldiers will return to the task of managing their institution’s decline. The service is shrinking by 20,000 active-duty soldiers per year, its readiness for combat is eroding, and its plans for maintaining a technological edge over potential adversaries have largely collapsed.
The Army has seen bigger declines in the past. Ten years after the Union Army enrolled a million soldiers during the closing days of the Civil War, it had shrunk to a mere 25,000 men. The number of active-duty soldiers was reduced by over 90% after both world wars. So the possibility that the Army’s active-duty roster will contract from 570,000 personnel to 420,000 between the beginning and the end of the current decade isn’t earth-shattering by historical standards. What’s different today is that the wars aren’t over, and new challenges requiring “boots on the ground” are multiplying. From the Western Pacific to the Middle East to North Africa to Eastern Europe, the likelihood of U.S. involvement in new conflicts is growing.
And yet the Army shrinks. If this reduction in personnel was driven by the need to sustain a high rate of readiness in remaining units, or to invest in a new generation of war-winning weapons, perhaps it would make sense. The reality, though, is that everything is declining at once. Which means that one day soon, U.S. political leaders will either need to start backing away from longstanding commitments, or run the risk of suffering devastating defeats in overseas conflicts. We already know that air power and sea power can’t get at adversaries who have sought sanctuary among civilians unless they are backed up by ground forces — or our leaders elect to kill thousands of hapless noncombatants as they root out the enemy.
It wouldn’t take much to reverse the Army’s slide. In fiscal terms, three or four days of additional federal spending ($32-43 billion) per year would stop the rot. But help is not on the way. So here are the top five reasons why the nexttime a real war comes along, America’s Army probably won’t be prepared to prevail without wasting thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars.
1. A distracted, indifferent political culture. When conscription was ended during the waning days of the Vietnam War, President Nixon defused the biggest source of opposition to overseas military campaigns. What nobody understood at the time, though, was that an All-Volunteer Force might lose its moorings in the political culture. Although 24% of U.S. men and 2% of women are veterans, less than one-percent of the population currently serves in any branch of the military. Four out of five members of Congress have never served. So when Army leaders warn that congressionally-mandated spending caps are undermining readiness, many legislators don’t care as long as the military benefits their constituents receive are protected. They don’t feel threatened and they don’t grasp what lack of training or maintenance might mean in wartime. They will work strenuously to guard the jobs (votes) at local military installations, but many of them are more concerned with winning the next election than the next war.
2. Under-investment in new technology. The twin pillars of U.S. military success are training and technology. Other countries have bigger armies, but none surpasses that of America in proficiency or materiel. Unfortunately, the Army’s edge in warfighting technology is eroding because every presidential administration since the Reagan years has placed a higher priority on military entitlements than modernization. The Army’s annual budget for new equipment represents one-tenth of one-percent of the national economy, equivalent to about 15 days’ worth of sales at WalMart. One by one, all of the service’s next-generation combat systems have been canceled due to scarce funding, and Army leaders don’t expect to see adequate investment in new technology until midway through the next decade. At that rate, the fear Pentagon policymakers express that countries like China will catch up with U.S. warfighting technology is nearly certain to come true.
3. Under-utilization of reservists. Most of America’s soldiers don’t serve on active duty in the Regular Army; instead, they are members of the Army Reserve or Army National Guard. Reservists typically cost the government a fraction of what active-duty personnel do, drawing fewer healthcare, housing, and retirement benefits. Their main role is to serve as a strategic hedge if the Regular Army is overwhelmed, and in the case of the Guard to assist state governments in coping with domestic disruptions (natural disasters, riots, etc.). Nearly 300,000 members of the Army and Air National Guard were called to federal service during the war in Iraq, but today the Regular Army is at odds with its reserve component over the allocation of shrinking budgets. Lt. Gen. David Barno of the Center for a New American Security has pointed out that Guard members possess special skills is areas like cybersecurity and will soon have higher levels of combat experience than the Regular Army, but the full potential of the reserves can’t be tapped as long as Army leaders view them as rivals rather than partners.
4. Inadequate cross-cultural skills. Much of what’s gone wrong with U.S. military strategy in recent years is traceable to ignorance about the people and places U.S. forces were supposedly protecting. If soldiers don’t understand local languages or customs, they’re bound to make mistakes in the heat of combat. That’s especially true if political leaders view “boots on the ground” as a last resort when all else has failed, depriving soldiers of the opportunity to get the lay of the land before they must fight. The Army has a foreign area officer career track designed to build cultural knowledge, but those personnel typically serve in embassies rather than operational units; ten years after the 9-11 attacks, the service was still short of area specialists for the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. A Strategic Landpower Task Force found that successfully averting or prosecuting wars may depend on deploying soldiers to potential trouble spots long before hostilities commence so they can develop relationships and collect intelligence, but that would be asking an overstretched Army to send soldiers where they aren’t immediately needed.
5. Stifled imagination. Both the active-duty and reserve components of the Army are full of bright, highly motivated soldiers who bring unique insights to their service. However, Army culture often channels the imagination of these individuals into institutionally familiar areas that fail to address the full array of potential security challenges. Some soldiers end up writing requirements for future weapons that are too demanding to be affordable or even executable. Others are discouraged from investigating emerging threats that don’t match up with institutional priorities. For instance, how much thought is being given to the day when smart phones are used by terrorists to guide “improvised explosive drones,” or to how the Army would operate if communication links were shut down by electromagnetic pulses? Probably not much. The most important technological lesson of recent wars is that modest innovations can tip the scales of combat if placed in the hands of committed warriors, so the Army needs to consider all the unorthodox tools a future adversary might implement.
Although the main challenge the Army faces today in preparing for future wars is lack of adequate funding, some of these problems can be fixed with a minimal investment of new money. That’s important, because whether the Budget Control Act stays in force or is changed, there is no time in the foreseeable future when abundant resources will be available to recruit, train and equip America’s Army. The assumption stated at the beginning of the new Army Operating Concept that the service will have “resources sufficient to preserve the readiness, force structure, and modernization necessary to meet the demands of the national defense strategy” after this decade is more aspirational than realistic. So Army leaders need to be creative about how they can sustain preparedness. But maybe some of that creativity could be applied to telling our dysfunctional political system what the human consequences of being unready will be when the next war comes.