A Reality-Based Army

Iraq and Afghanistan notwithstanding, our modern (and happy) reality is that war is on the decline. We need an army sized to that reality.

By Michael Cohen

Tagged Military

On May 12, 1962, retired Gen. Douglas MacArthur, frail and in poor health, walked to a lectern at the United States Military Academy and delivered one of the most remarkable addresses ever given by an American general. In a valedictory speech, he reminded the young cadets before him of their sacred and timeless responsibility to “duty, honor, country.” This obligation was a charge from which they must not waver. The Army’s calling to safeguard the country remained urgent and enduring, said the old general, since “only the dead have seen the end of war.”

These ideas—of duty, honor, and country, but equally of the immutability of war—have long animated U.S. military thinking. In the spring of 1962—a mere three years before the first American combat troops would be dispatched to Vietnam, and just months before the world came face to face with the possibility of nuclear holocaust—the unending nature of human struggle would have seemed so obvious as to be unworthy of interrogation.

A half century later, the verities of that time no longer seem so unshakable. In the years since MacArthur spoke at West Point, the world—and the nature of human conflict—has been dramatically transformed. Quite simply, we are living in an era of extraordinary peace and security.

Great-power war, which throughout history has been the most violent of wars, is in a seven-decade hiatus. Interstate war, or war between sovereign nations, has virtually disappeared from the global scene. In 2012, for example, of 32 conflicts in the world, only one was interstate. Our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan notwithstanding, recently there have been hardly any serious conflicts between two sovereign nations. What we have left are intrastate wars. Some, like the conflicts in Congo, Syria, and Iraq, have been quite deadly—but they are the exception, not the rule. In fact, wars have become demonstrably less violent and less bloody than they were just a few decades ago. On average, wars today tend to kill about 90 percent fewer people than violent conflicts did in the 1950s.

This change is one of the seminal transformations of our lifetimes. While war between states was once the defining construct of the post-Westphalian world order, that is no longer the case. Countries still contemplate war and arm themselves for it (though less than they used to), but very few are embarking upon policies that would increase the potential for it.

However, the Pentagon and, in particular, the U.S. Army have not gotten the memo. While in recent months military and political leaders have been debating the need for cuts in the Pentagon’s approximately $600 billion budget, the motivation driving the process has been tactical rather than strategic. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are ending; Congress is demanding that every branch of government tighten its belt; and growing public weariness with overseas wars is forcing the Pentagon to look for budget savings. Yet what is not spurring the shift in military thinking is a changed global security environment. The United States is an unrivaled great power, surrounded by friendly neighbors and protected by two oceans. It has no military peer and faces no serious security threats. Its political, diplomatic, and economic influence and its alliances surpass the reach of the great global empires of yore. Moreover, the world today, which is defined by open borders, greater political freedom, improving human development, and adherence to international laws and norms crafted in large measure by the United States, is one that exponentially increases American power. Yet rather than embrace this world of greater stability and diminished propensity for war, military leaders continue to look around the world—to borrow John Quincy Adams’s phrase—for “monsters to destroy.”

Earlier this year, when announcing a reduction in the size of the Army from a post-9/11 high of 570,000 service members to between 440,000 and 450,000 by 2019, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel declared that such “repositioning” was occurring even as “new technologies” and “new centers of power” were emerging in lockstep with “a world that is growing more volatile, more unpredictable, and in some instances more threatening to the United States.” The argument that the world is becoming more complex and thus more dangerous is practically de rigueur among foreign-policy pundits and policy-makers.

The opposite is true.

Since the military won’t do it, progressives must ask the questions that are the logical culmination of these larger global changes: Does the United States still need a big army? And if not, what does a smaller army look like?

A Receding Tide of War

This shift away from war as a tool of statecraft comes from a confluence of factors. Countries no longer view territorial conquest as advantageous; even if they did, the costs of invading and occupying the territory of another country have risen dramatically.

The other reasons for the decline in war are even more important, because they point to a future with fewer wars. For example, according to Freedom House, today there are approximately 117 electoral democracies; in 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, there were a mere 69. This matters because one of the few truisms of international affairs is that, by and large, democracies rarely fight other democracies and are far less likely to fight wars than non-democracies.

Other metrics point in a similarly positive direction. Economic integration has enmeshed virtually every country in the world. Exports make up a growing percentage of gross world product, daily currency flows number in the trillions, and remittances from migrant workers are around $400 billion a year. As extraordinary as the decline in war has been, improvements in the global standard of living are even more substantial. In 1990, around a third of the world’s people lived on less than $1 a day; today, it’s closer to one in six—and that number continues to fall. People are living longer lives and have better access to education and health services. These advances all contribute to a larger trend of greater global security and safety.

There is another critical and oft-ignored reason to believe that the current era of peace and stability will continue: the presence of the United Nations, regional organizations, humanitarian aid agencies, nonviolent peace movements, and international NGOs. Each of these entities plays a critical role in serving as a check on war, by both limiting conflicts and resolving them when they break out. These institutions have also increased the price of war by raising the potential for economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, or even an international military response. Quite simply, the costs of military adventurism have increased as the benefits of starting armed conflicts have declined. So too, perhaps most decisively, have the chances of victory. A case in point is Russia’s recent seizure of Crimea, which has led to far greater costs for Russia—in the form of economic decline and diplomatic isolation—than benefits.

No country needs to be told this more than the United States. Blessed with the most powerful military in the world and seemingly limitless resources, the United States has accrued virtually no benefit from its repeated decisions to initiate military conflicts since the terrorist attacks of September 11. And the price tag has been stratospheric—by some estimates as high as $3 trillion in direct and indirect costs. If a country as powerful, respected, and feared as the United States can’t win wars, it’s hard to imagine any country that can.

The propensity of the United States to wage wars makes even less sense when one takes into account the nation’s unusual security position. The United States is the most secure global power in human history. We are allied with many of the largest armies in the world, and our military spending represents approximately half of all global military expenditures. Our alliances are geared toward containing both potential competitors like Russia and China and smaller nuisance threats like Iran and North Korea.

The threat of terrorism, while long overstated as a serious danger to the United States, has been so severely diminished that the most recent U.S. worldwide threat assessment expressed as much concern about homegrown terror as it did about Al Qaeda. For all the fears about international terrorism since 9/11, fewer than 20 people have been killed by a terrorist attack in the homeland since then. In the years since 9/11, Al Qaeda’s capabilities have been severely weakened, with its leader and top lieutenants killed, its safe havens eliminated, and U.S. defenses strengthened. In short, much of what scares us about the world today should not.

What Does the Military Do Best?

One might imagine that these changes would lead to a transformational shift in the way that the United States thinks about fighting wars. Yet 25 years after the end of the Cold War, the mindset that drove military thinking during that long twilight struggle persists.

Today, the U.S. Army is built to wage war against a military that looks, well, a lot like the U.S. Army. Its command structure, though reorganized in part around smaller brigade combat teams, remains largely unchanged from the Cold War era. It is almost the same size as it was in 2000. Its weapons systems are a byproduct of the Reagan-led buildup of the 1980s. “Look at what they call their ‘Big Five,’ ” says Paul McLeary, land warfare reporter for Defense News. “The M1 Abrams, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the Apache, the Blackhawk helicopter, and the Patriot Air Defense Missile system. They all came on line in the 1980s and were made with the Soviets in mind. Those systems will all be with us through the 2030s, at least.” What’s more, the Army has lagged behind other services in utilizing robotics and unmanned platforms, which reflects its longtime preference for manpower rather than new technology.

In reality, the U.S. military’s comparative advantage when it comes to tackling challenges like defeating terrorists, deterring adversaries, countering weapons of mass destruction, and operating in cyberspace lies elsewhere.

First, there is America’s unparalleled power projection capability. No other country in the world is able to move military assets around the globe as easily and as quickly, and with as much precision and lethality, as the United States.

Air and naval superiority is another major advantage. Because of the Army’s dominance, it is often forgotten that the United States at its core is a maritime power, and the key to its security is controlling the two oceans that bookend the country. On this count no nation can come close to U.S. military dominance: We have ten aircraft carriers (no other country has more than two), fleets in practically every ocean of the world, and advanced naval power. Indeed, the tonnage of the U.S. military is equivalent to that of the next 13 navies combined—and all but two of these other naval fleets are allied with the United States. The Air Force has the ability to quickly attack and destroy targets virtually anywhere in the world, and there is no country with an air force or anti-air assets sufficient to prevent the United States from gaining air superiority in a military conflict.

Finally, there is American technological superiority. The United States’s ability to “see” the battlefield via intelligence, satellite, and reconnaissance capabilities; its precision-guided munitions, and cyber and unmanned technology; and the development of new, technologically advanced military assets are unmatched. Each of these provides the United States with unique, asymmetrical advantages that no country can rival.

The U.S. military edge is also tied to its vast network of alliances, its nuclear weapons, the lethality of its special operations forces, and its plethora of bases (and basing rights) around the world. In virtually any conflict in which the United States may find itself, it will enjoy practically unparalleled control of the skies, the seas, and the cyberworld.

There is one place, however, where the American military advantage can be eroded: terra firma. To be sure, the U.S. Army is uniquely skilled at routing other armies—a fact that was evident in the first weeks of the Iraq War and, previously, the Gulf War. Where the challenge lies for military planners is in fighting asymmetrical warfare. When the Army is asked to wage counterinsurgency or conduct stability operations, it is forced to take on responsibilities that fall far outside its core competencies. For example, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Army could not focus on simply defeating the enemy, but also had to take into account how to win the proverbial hearts and minds of the population.

This creates an array of political problems. Troops on the ground are killed or wounded. They kill the enemy and civilians, too—sometimes in ways that have dire reputational effects for the United States. They get sucked into sectarian, ethnic, and ideological conflicts that they don’t fully comprehend, and lack the capabilities or political support to fully resolve.

They also drain resources at a far greater clip than practically any other military asset. As Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said to me, “Human beings are costly and becoming more so.” From 2001 to 2012, in fact, military compensation increased by 29 percent at the same time that military health care costs went up by 118 percent; much of that increase is localized in the Army. In all, nearly half of the Army’s budget goes to compensation and benefits. There is also the larger domestic toll. Long-term occupation and counterinsurgency fights in Iraq and Afghanistan not only brought with them uncertain outcomes, they’ve exhausted civilian leadership and the American people. Indeed, if any lesson should be taken from the past 12 years of military conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is not that the Army should get better at the “human domain” or “non-kinetic” elements of warfare (as some in the Army have suggested), but rather that it should avoid prolonged ground operations at all costs. It’s small wonder that then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in 2011 that any future defense secretary who advises the President to again send a big American land army into Asia, the Middle East, or Africa should “have his head examined.”

To an extent all too rarely articulated by Army leaders, the institution as a whole must shoulder a good part of the blame. While the Army was asked to perform the thankless job of pacifying a Sunni insurgency in Iraq, it was Army leaders, like Gen. David Petraeus, who extolled the supposed success of counterinsurgency efforts there and claimed that they could be reproduced in Afghanistan. These confident predictions were far from realized—and this fact alienated not only the American people but also the country’s civilian leadership, which also explains why support for the Army’s call for the largest possible active force is not being actively heeded on Capitol Hill or inside the White House.

Quite simply, in an era in which war is on the decline and in which modern warfare—when it does occur—is shifting away from the use of massive land power, the United States is better off devoting resources to areas where it has a comparative military advantage than plunging more money into maintaining a large active force.

Prepared for Every Contingency?

The Army has a simple rejoinder to these arguments: The threats to Americans are complex, multiple, and growing. A large active force reassures allies, builds partners, and deters future adversaries—or so the argument goes. Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, says, “If you get too small, I believe, you lose your ability to deter conflict.”

According to Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos, it has been “proven for centuries” that it is “impossible” to avoid long land wars. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey argues that “there is hubris in the belief that war can be controlled,” and that the world today is as dangerous as at any point in his lifetime. In late March, Odierno and Secretary of the Army John McHugh told Congress that sequestration-driven cuts that lead to a “projected end strength level” of 420,000 active force troops “would not enable the Army to execute the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance.” On the other hand, they said that force strength of 450,000 and reserve strength of 530,000 (rather than 500,000) would work, albeit “with significant risk.” In short, according to Odierno and McHugh, 980,000 troops are needed to fulfill the Army’s mission—but cut that by 6 percent, to 920,000, and it’s time to run for the hills.

These statements are so vague in their portrayal of peril—and in their description of potential adversaries—that they are practically non-negatable. How does one respond to the notion that history proves that long land wars—like death and taxes—cannot be avoided? Or that decisions about when countries go to war are not subject to evolution and change? If one holds a determinative view of human nature, then these predictions make sense. Otherwise, they are self-interested fantasy.

It’s not surprising that that Army would take the view that being prepared for every possible contingency is essential and would seek to maintain an all-weather force. But there is no reason for policy-makers to adopt the Army’s thinking. As Charles Knight of the Project on Defense Alternatives told me:

Military leaders always have a rational interest in more capability in order to reduce risk by increasing options and flexibility. That interest is, however, a narrow professional interest and is therefore one very important reason that the question of “how much is enough” must not be decided by the military. Civilian leaders have to take responsibility for that decision.

Indeed, budgeting by its very nature is prioritizing. When governments create a budget, they are weighing costs against risks and making trade-offs between competing policy considerations. Can I cut higher education funding to pay for expanded pre-K? If I want to build more high-speed rail lines, do I take money out of the highway construction fund? Those trade-offs generally represent a decision based on where a finite sum of money can do the greatest good. But when it comes to foreign threats, military thinkers adopt a zero-tolerance approach—and all potential risks are considered serious and must be prepared for.

While the lion’s share of blame should be laid at the feet of civilian policy-makers, military leaders must bear responsibility as well. As Kori Schake, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, wrote earlier this year on the website “War on the Rocks” about the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon is simply refusing to think about balancing risk:

[I]n what areas can we afford to reduce our margin of error, and where would unacceptable dangers be incurred? What missions ought we to stop doing and stop preparing for in order to ensure we are able to meet our highest priorities?…While the press statements emphasize greater risk in carrying out…strategy, there’s no actual discussion…about how risk is assessed.

For example, one of Odierno’s expressed fears is that the United States might need to respond to the collapse of North Korea by sending troops to the Korean peninsula—or, worse, repel an attack. The U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command has envisioned a need to deploy 530,000 soldiers to North Korea if the governing regime there collapses. In the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan—and when the President can’t even get support for lobbing cruise missiles against Syria—this is not even in the realm of serious possibility.

There is talk about the threat from Iran or Syria, but no one is talking about a ground war in either country. If Pakistan were to fall apart and its nuclear weapons were to become insecure, we would surely have to respond in some fashion. But would it make any sense to send a massive ground force to a country where anti-American attitudes are rife?

What about China, the country most likely to pose a security threat to the United States? China’s land force is shrinking and, according to Taylor Fravel, a professor at MIT and an expert on the Chinese military, is oriented toward defending the nation’s borders—and not in an expeditionary manner. “The Chinese tend to focus on naval and air capabilities,” says Fravel. “They aren’t really focused on U.S. land power as a deterrent.”

Indeed, there is little compelling evidence that the size of the U.S. military or even the use of American military force does much of anything to shift the strategic calculus of other nations. For example, with or without a big army, Russia would almost certainly have seized Crimea because it is well understood that American strategic interests—irrespective of how many boots are on the ground—would not be furthered by getting into a shooting war with nuclear-armed Russia. An attack on a NATO ally or perhaps a country like Japan, with which the United States has clear security guarantees, would likely elicit a military response—and this, too, is well understood (or at the very least feared) by potential adversaries.

Beyond these considerations, decisions about the use of force must be informed by their potential impact on the United States’s global standing, its relationships with key allies, and, perhaps above all, the domestic political fallout. The Army’s doomsday scenarios fail the simple test of linking the use of American military force to these larger strategic and political interests.

The fact is, if the U.S. ground force is unlikely to be fully mobilized for the next war, and if the Pentagon’s own strategic guidance makes clear that the United States is out of the counterinsurgency and stability operations business, why do we need an oversized and extremely expensive active force to defeat enemies that don’t currently exist, and to fight wars that are highly unlikely to occur?

Never Say Never

America still needs a land-power force. It just needs one that looks far different.

While global trends point away from interstate war and toward greater peace and stability, the same could have been said on September 10, 2001. Military planners must take into account the lack of predictability in global affairs and in the decision-making of civilian leaders. One must exercise humility in moving too far in one direction—militarizing either too much or too little.

This is why the United States should reduce the active force, but protect itself against unexpected conflicts by expanding the size and capabilities of the Army’s reserve component, which currently consists of the Army Reserve and National Guard. (The former is more in line with the active force while the latter serves two masters—the federal government and governors—and is constituted as a separate land army.)

The reserve component is a critical part of the Army’s overall force structure, representing approximately half of the total force. Traditionally, it has served as a strategic backstop to be used only in case of major U.S. conflicts. That role must continue.

Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, the reserve component has seen its obligations increase—and that should continue as well. During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the reserve component became an essential element of the force footprint in both theaters. Since 9/11, nearly 900,000 Reserve members have been mobilized, of whom nearly 600,000 came from the Army Reserves and Army National Guard. More than 1,000 were killed in the line of duty.

The Army’s experience in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated that the reserve component can and should be fully integrated with the active force, that it is more than a complement to the active force, and that the Army can afford to transfer greater operational responsibility to these units. Above all, their performance counters the longstanding perception within the Army that cutting the size of the active force would leave the United States unprepared for future conflicts (if they occur). According to Gordon Adams, professor of international affairs at American University, “The current reserve force is one of the best reserves we’ve ever had,” and can be relied upon more.

Of course, the Army cannot move all of its key capabilities to the Reserves. Reserve forces do not have the same training or unit cohesiveness as active members. So the extent to which they can be relied on for quick mobilization and deployment or even combat operations is something that, if possible, will only come from an overhaul of the reserves’ training and ethos. Nonetheless, relying more on the reserve component can allow the active force to focus on the discrete tasks for which it is best equipped, such as quickly projecting lethal power and carrying out combat operations and special operations. The Reserves, on the other hand, are well-positioned to meet less combat-oriented operational requirements, including peacekeeping (as they have done in Sinai and the Balkans), building partner capacity (particularly in the realm of police training), civil society support (areas where they already dominate), cyber operations, and other such functions.

The Reserves also provide the Army with significant cost savings. Currently, the Department of Defense maintains 39 percent of its end strength in the Reserves—for a cost that is equal to 9 percent of the overall Pentagon budget. An in-depth 2011 study of the costs of active and reserve personnel found that “a Reserve Component service member costs less than 1/3 that of an Active Component service member.” This is hardly a surprise, given that most Reserve members receive health care from their civilian employers and require no military housing, schools, or commissaries, among other benefits.

To date, however, the Army has done an incomplete job of considering the role of the Reserves in the total force. In the recent Quadrennial Defense Review, the Reserves are treated with frustrating vagueness. The Army is also resisting an idea being pushed forward in Congress by the Reserves and the National Guard to create an independent commission to look at the proper structure of the total force.

There remains a view among Army leaders that the Reserves are “weekend warriors,” poorly equipped and incapable of taking on additional requirements. But in an era of diminished conflict and budgetary pressures, treating the Reserves as an afterthought represents a misallocation of resources and a failure of vision. Army leaders could take a lesson from the UK, which expanded the size and responsibilities of its reserves in 2011, as well as Canada, Australia, Japan, many Western European nations, Israel, and even China, all of which rely heavily on their reserves. The Army could also look to the Air Force. As Phil Carter, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said to me, “Air Guard readiness and performance is now virtually interchangeable with the active Air Force for some units. And that is because the Air Force decided to make it so, by investing in additional training time, full-time Air Guard personnel, maintenance, et cetera.” A similar shift in the Army would mean increased training regimens, improvements to local armories and equipment, and higher pay, but the costs would almost certainly be less than continuing to maintain an oversized active force.

Finally, moving battle-tested soldiers from the active force to the Reserves will allow the Army to retain the talent and skills developed by its active force over 12 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since these changes could be spaced out over several years and brought about by attrition as well as reduced recruitment, the direct impact on the force could be minimized, and would certainly pale in comparison to other major drawdowns, like the ones that followed World War II, the Vietnam War, and the end of the Cold War—the last of which saw a 35 percent drop in the active force between 1989 and the late 1990s.

The final disposition of the active force, whether it is as high as 450,000 or as low as 290,000 (as some have suggested), is of far less importance than changing the mindset about the use of the active and reserve components—and moving away from the idea that the active force should be capable of responding to every possible contingency.

A Changed World

Cuts in the active force will, over several years, bring cost savings. That money should be allocated toward the strategic assets that represent the United States’s greatest comparative advantages today: the nation’s naval fleet, the Air Force, and information technology.

Beyond these investments, the Army must explore other ideas for reform. One priority should be the development of unmanned platforms such as tanks, artillery batteries, and convoys. If ever there was a time to invest in new technology rather than personnel, it would be now, when the budgetary pressures on the Army are the greatest and the likelihood of a prolonged war is the most remote.

Next, the Army should look more closely at what Columbia University professor Richard Betts calls a “mobilization strategy,” which means developing “training, research and development, organizational structures and their maintenance, and all of the infrastructure for military power that can be used as a base for rapid buildup when conditions change and the world situation deteriorates” (if it does). Rather than investing in new weapons systems or, worse, building out new platforms that may become antiquated by the time the next war occurs, the Army should ensure that it has the logistical and organizational capabilities to respond to foreign crises quickly and with lethal force. The focus should be on speed rather than mass.

The Army should also think more seriously about new configurations for the active force. One worthy of consideration is the MacGregor Transformation Model (MTM). Developed by retired Army Col. Douglas MacGregor, the MTM would convert current brigade combat teams into combat groups of 5,000 to 6,000 soldiers organized around discrete missions (strike force; maneuver or ground operations; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; and sustainment). These units would operate under joint command, meaning they would combine air, naval, and ground capabilities. They would also cut out key elements of the chain of command, which would allow units to operate with greater speed and flexibility—and thus would provide the same level of firepower at a fraction of the cost.

Finally, the United States must look to its global partners to pick up the burden. During the Cold War, America provided security guarantees to key allies around the world in the fight against communism. But a quarter century after the Cold War came to a close, these guarantees remain, even as the world has become more peaceful. Nowhere is this truer than in Europe, where we continue to provide the lion’s share of NATO’s operational capabilities—even though the actual security threat to the continent is hard to decipher. More than ever, the United States must look seriously at ways to share the responsibility of maintaining global peace and security with like-minded nations.

But the most important shift for policy-makers—both on the civilian and military side—is to recognize that the world in which they came of age no longer exists. War has not fully disappeared and, tragically, it will not. But the inclination of countries to go to war is in historic decline. Consolidating these gains and building on them must be the primary focus of U.S. foreign policy now and in the future. That means building and strengthening the global architecture of international alliances and institutions that deter conflict, spur economic integration, and drive human development.

In an era of diminished conflict, the nature of competition between nations will inevitably continue its shift from the world of war to the realm of economics. The United States will likely not face off against China in the South China Sea; it will do so in the arenas of manufacturing, production, and investment, and with the strength of its workforce rather than armaments. This is where the United States must invest its resources: in education, health care, green technology, infrastructure, and in response to real security threats, such as the continued rise of the oceans due to climate change. Today, a stunning 57 percent of the federal discretionary budget goes to military spending. This makes no sense. Preparing for the 1-percent chance of another war and maintaining an outsized military force to fight it is neither prudent nor efficient—and if maintained, it will make it impossible for the United States to do far more necessary nation-building at home.

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Michael Cohen is a national political columnist for The Boston Globe.

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