Analysis: Only Massive Troop Cuts Can Save the Army From Budget Train Wreck
But the unspoken reality for the Army in this noisy campaign is that sequester might be the least of its problems. Because the Army benefited the most from the post 9/11 spending surge and the Pentagon’s budget tends to be equally divided three ways, it will have to downsize far more dramatically than the Navy or the Air Force.
After President Obama unveiled a new strategy in Jan. 2012 — which called for the military to shift its resources to Asia-Pacific and end land wars — the Pentagon announced it would cut 100,000 ground troops by 2017. But those reductions are not going to be nearly enough to get the Army’s fiscal house in order, analysts said.
Other drastic cost-cutting moves will be needed, they suggest, such as further reductions in the active-duty force, withdrawing the bulk of Army troops from Europe and Korea and terminating weapon systems that will be built to fight yesterday’s wars.
Even before sequester takes effect, the Army already is in a deep fiscal hole, officials point out. Its budget peaked in 2008 and has been on a steady decline since, but the Army has not adjusted its force size and its infrastructure accordingly.
The Army’s budget reached an all-time high of $275 billion in 2008. The projected funding for 2013 is $129 billion. A precipitous drop of 53 percent would be tough for any organization, under any circumstances. In the absence of sweeping restructuring, it is difficult to see how the Army can meet these funding targets without “fundamental change,” said Maj. Gen. Thomas W. Spoehr, director of program analysis and evaluation at the office of the Army deputy chief of staff, G-8.
Spoehr’s office prepared a 57-page PowerPoint briefing that shows, state by state, the potential economic toll that sequestration cuts would take. At stake for the Army is about $18 billion that it would stand to lose between now and September 30 if Congress doesn’t cancel the sequester and does not approve a full-year appropriation for fiscal year 2013.
“We are doing what-if drills on top of what-if drills,” Spoehr said Feb. 20 at the Association of the U.S. Army’s winter symposium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “Folks are so confused they can't tell what's real and what’s a what-if drill,” he added.
Spoehr cited analysts' estimates that sequester reductions would drive military spending back down to 2007 levels, which would still be substantial. But the Army as currently structured cannot live with 2007-level budgets as most of its funds are consumed by payroll, benefits and other fixed costs that have escalated since. He also pushed back on pundits' assertions that sequester cuts are manageable because the post-war Army would still be larger than the pre-9/11 force.
“We can't go back to the 2000 size Army without fundamental changes,” he said. “Even without sequestration, the Army is losing buying power.”
Experts predict force cuts — beyond those currently planned — will be needed in order to free up resources so troops are properly trained and equipped.
After U.S. deployments in Afghanistan end in 2014, the Army will have a tough time justifying the size of its force, even the reduced 490,000 active-duty strength that it projects for 2017, said Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “If the Army tells me, well, I need 40 brigade combat teams, I'll say, well, why not 36? If you say 36, I'll say, why not 32?” he said during a conference call hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations.
The American people generally will “agree we need an Army,” said Krepinevich. “But they won't agree we need an Army of 490,000, which is what we're planning to go to. … For them, there's no clear explanation why it can't be lower.” The trouble for the Army here is that “you're looking at a situation where there is no bottom. There is no floor to defense cuts.”
The prospect of the across-the-board sequester cuts compound the Army’s problems because, like all the other agencies, they will be cramming a full year's cuts into just a few months.
Before 9/11, the active Army was at 475,000. As per the current plan, by 2017 it will be 15,000 larger. “I think it's very hard to justify that when you look at the administration's strategy,” said Krepinevich.
The strategy focuses on three key regions where the need for large ground forces do not really exist, he said. The Western Pacific is mostly a Navy and Air Force theatre of operations. In the Persian Gulf, local countries don't want U.S. ground forces. European-based troops are a Cold War anachronism, and in the so-called developing world, there would be hardly a justification to send a large force. “Tell me why I need that size of a ground force when you've got this particular kind of situation,” said Krepinevich.
Also hurting the Army, which is manpower intensive, are unaffordable personnel costs, he said. “In order to recruit and retain a volunteer force where we could deploy hundreds of thousands of troops overseas, they had to substantially increase pay and benefits. And of course, once you do that, they're very difficult to undo. … [The Army] is ‘stuck’ with those pay and benefit increases.”
A study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimated that personnel costs increased by nearly 90 percent, or about 30 percent above inflation, since 2001 while the number of military personnel dropped by only about 3 percent.
A “grand strategy” for the U.S. military in these times of declining budgets has to consider cutbacks in overseas military presence that dates back to World War II, said Frank Hoffman, senior research fellow at the National Defense University.
“I would declare victory in World War II and would declare victory in the Korean War at this point in time and probably bring back more ground-force structure from overseas,” he said Feb. 13 during a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee’s intelligence, emerging threats and capabilities subcommittee.
“We have a million-man land army today, plus a 250,000-man Marine Corps when you bring the reserve into the picture,” he noted. “We need to stop doing some things we have been doing. And I would use naval forces and special operations forces to generate the degree of engagement and partnership that I think we should do,” Hoffman said. “We need more freedom of action to move around the world from crisis to crisis, because we're not going to populate every crisis with [Army] brigades or Marine forces and then leave them there for a decade or more.”
Hoffman cautioned against cutting too deep, however. “Plato had it right: Only the dead have seen the end of war,” he said. “We may not face another bloody century like the last, which was pretty bad, but the world remains a very dangerous place. … We have to be ready for a broad spectrum of conflicts that range from purely irregular and terrorist at one end to, perhaps, rising powers with conventional capabilities at the other, and then all the messy middle.”
Besides personnel and infrastructure, the Army should consider shedding weapons programs that have questionable utility in today’s world, Krepinevich said. He cited the Ground Combat Vehicle, which is being designed to replace the Bradley armored personnel troop carrier. “It's just not clear that this program, which is supposed to cost in the tens of billions of dollars, isn't going to do anything than give us a marginal improvement in capability,” he said. “And why you would spend all that money to get a margin improvement when there's really nobody racing against you in this area is a bit beyond me.”
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