WASHINGTON — "I think we’re going to do pretty well in the budget, sir."
That was Adm. William H. McRaven of the Special Operations Command (SOCOM), probably one of the few senior Pentagon officials who could say that to the House Armed Services Committee last week about President Obama’s fiscal 2015 budget, being delivered to Congress on Tuesday.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has already announced that SOCOM will grow to 69,700 troops, from 66,000. He told reporters last week that otherwise, the new budget will propose force reductions "in every military service, active and reserve, in order to sustain our readiness and technological superiority and to protect critical capabilities like special operations forces and cyber-resources."
Hagel is considering current and future international threats and continuing a restructuring that began under secretary Robert Gates. Terrorism still tops that threat list, along with instability in allied or friendly governments. There no longer will be 120,000 or more U.S. troops carrying out stability operations in one or more foreign countries over five or 10 years, as in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Instead, as McRaven told the House panel, the basic approach will be, "How do we help build partner capacity so that the host nation can take care of its own problem?"
The United States will have "a smaller and more capable force, putting a premium on rapidly deployable, self-sustaining platforms that can defeat more technologically advanced adversaries," Hagel said Feb. 24.
Under this plan, the size of the regular Army would go from 520,000 to 440,000 troops, the Army National Guard would be at 335,000 and the Army Reserve at 195,000, for a total as low as 970,000. It must be noted that McRaven gets all his personnel from the services, which also provide him with some logistics and transportation. So although SOCOM is growing, its numbers come out of the reduced size of the individual services.
With today’s focus on Crimea and Ukraine, who thinks that Russian President Vladimir Putin weighed the proposed future size of the U.S. Army in his decision making? The main response to Putin’s actions is for the United States and its Western allies to bolster the new Ukrainian government economically and apply sanctions on Moscow.
For example, the French could delay delivery this year of the first of two Mistral-class helicopter carriers for which the Russians are paying $1.6 billion. Sea trials were planned for this month.
Hagel’s other current security concerns include Syria, Iran and Iraq, with North Korea always looming. As the main U.S. combat troops withdraw from Afghanistan, it will join the list.
What deters North Korea, besides South Korea’s 655,000-person army and 4.5 million reservists, is America’s missiles and air power. Those assets, not an invading land force, are Washington’s military threat to Tehran’s nuclear program. In short, the overall size of U.S. forces is not a key consideration.
So what’s the objection to an Army of 440,000 active troops? Mainly, it has nothing to do with military issues. Reducing the size of the Army and the Air Force raises domestic political issues such as having House and Senate members with bases in their districts recognize that it’s time to cut excess facilities. It has been estimated that 20 percent of all military facilities are superfluous, with the Air Force base structure largest at 25 percent.
The new budget will contain a request to begin the Base Realignment and Closure process in 2017, an item that Congress rejected in the past two Pentagon budgets. What’s different now, Hagel said last week, is "if Congress continues to block these requests (for BRAC), even as they slash the overall budget, we will have to consider every tool at our disposal to further reduce infrastructure." In short, he will figure out how to do it without Congress.
Political campaigning and just plain anti-Obamaism are behind some of the criticism of the so-called "shrinking Army." Take the claim that the Army is headed to pre-World War II levels.
In 1940, the regular Army was at 243,000 troops, the Army National Guard at 226,837 and Army Reserves at 104,228 — a total of 574,065. But with a world war looming, Congress in September 1940 passed the Selective Service and Training Act, and by July 1941, with the National Guard integrated into the regular Army and more than 600,000 draftees inducted, the overall force was near 1.4 million. That included about 150,000 members of the Army Air Corps.
Since the proposed Hagel Army will be at 970,000, and with the Air Force at roughly 500,000, the numbers are roughly the same as after the 1941 draftees are counted. Those concerned about numbers might consider instituting Citizens’ Military Training Camps, a form of national service that was practiced between 1920 and 1940. It permitted qualified men — although it now should include women — to have basic military training over four summers without being called up for active duty. Those who completed the course could apply for active duty.
Of course, force numbers in this age of technology are only one measure of fighting capability. Today’s soldier has far greater protection, mobility and firepower than his predecessors, and that’s why McRaven’s force is becoming a center of this country’s military planning.
For example, SOCOM has a Tactical Assault Light Operator-Shooter (TALOS) development program, sometimes called "the Iron Man suit." It’s meant to give a soldier lighter but more efficient full-body ballistic protection, with embedded antennas and computers that offer real-time battlefield information, according to a February article in Stars and Stripes. It also will have heaters and coolers to regulate temperatures and sensors to monitor heart rate, body position and hydration levels. If the soldier is wounded, the suit "may be able to administer the first oxygen or hemorrhage controls," according to the article.
McRaven is quoted as saying, "If we do TALOS right, it will be a huge comparative advantage over our enemies and give the warriors the protection they need in a very demanding environment."
That’s why smaller Army numbers won’t count as much as they have in the past.
Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post and writes the Fine Print column.