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December 22, 2008

How Big An Army Does America Need?
Posted by Michael Cohen

Several weeks ago, the New York Times offered a maddening editorial calling for a 90,000 troop expansion of the armed forces - truly an idea in search of a strategic rationale. (Why again does America need a 750,000 soldier army?)

But on Sunday the Times really went overboard with an editorial calling for this expansion of the military to be paid for with cuts to the Navy and Air Force.

The United States enjoys total dominance of the world’s seas and skies and will for many years to come. The Army and the Marines have proved too small for the demands of simultaneous ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are the forces most likely to be called on in future interventions against terrorist groups or to rescue failing states. Reducing the Navy by one carrier group and the Air Force by two air wings would save about $5 billion a year.

There is much here to chew on. First, the U.S Navy and Air Force represent this nation's most significant asymmetrical advantages; we have absolute control over the global commons (namely the air and the sea). Diminishing America's advantage in these two areas is quite simply a bad idea. But, taking funds from the Navy and the Air Force and using it to expand the ground force. That is a terrible, head-shakingly bad idea.

It is our large ground force that provides the most limited military advantage for the United States - and if anything, when deployed, can serve as a real liability to U.S. strategic interests. It is far more difficult and extraordinarily expensive to mobilize our ground forces (not to mention, quite difficult to get them out), they quickly become fair game for insurgents and guerrilla attacks (as we've seen in Iraq) and is a blunt instrument when scalpels are generally more effective in confronting the transnational and non-state challenges of the 21st century. Indeed our Navy and in particular our Air Force are often far better for dealing with these threats.

Think for a second about the last three wars the U.S. has fought. The Iraq War, a manpower-heavy, counter-insurgency focused conflict, has been a quagmire. Not only is our Army ill-equipped for long-term deployments so too is the country as a whole. But then look at Kosovo, Afghanistan, even the first Gulf War. In each of these conflicts, the Air Force took the lead, with far more positive results.  While I realize that each of these wars are unique and not necessarily comparable, if there is a lesson of the post-Cold War era, it is that air power and to a lesser extent naval power represents America's greatest strategic advantage. Now, why the New York Times would think that building up our ground force at the expense of a cheaper and generally more effective investment in the Navy and Air Force is difficult to comprehend.

What's even harder to understand is the Times' argument that the U.S army is going to be "called on in future interventions against terrorist groups or to rescue failing states."

Again, while other methods would seem more appropriate in dealing with both of these threats does the New York Times really believe that the country is ready for another massive deployment of U.S. troops? It's nearly impossible to imagine such an event occurring in the near-term. Unless the U.S is prepared to once again send 250,000 troops into harm's way then there is little necessity for building a ground force of 750,000 troops. How much additional security will America receive from 90,000 additional troops and at a cost of $110 billion over 6 years? Very little.

And the notion that our army is most likely to be called on for rescuing failing states or even waging war against terrorist groups strikes me as foolish strategic thinking. If the past five years has taught us any one thing it is that there are many better tools in the arsenal to deal with both of these challenges. If anything our army should be the least likely option to be called on -- or at the very least should be the option of last resort.


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I mean, I think the argument is that cuts to Air Force and Navy spending will not drastically diminish our dominance of air and sea. How many F-22s do we need?

And while I agree it's unlikely (I hope) to see another massive troop deployment anytime soon, it's no secret that a key tenet of COIN is having enough troops. If you'll recall, many more prescient estimates of troop requirements for Iraq called for 600,000+ soldiers.

Why again does America need a 750,000 soldier army?

But Michael, aren't you fond of defending the use of contractors and other hired guns? Wouldn't a larger army obviate the need to bring in private contractors - with all the jurisdictional and mission related problems that accompany them?

The fact that "we have absolute control over the global commons" is absolutely a bad idea. It has led to fruitless military campaigns, diversion of funds needed domestically to useless military spending, out-of-control corporate welfare, the dependence of congressional representatives on Pentagon largess, global hatred and the nation's bankruptcy among other things.

"Future interventions against terrorist groups or to rescue failing states" will only be abetted by this false reasoning which seems to be a mainstay here on Democracy Arsenal.

Eric, I will try to write a longer post on this, but a larger army of 90,000 troops would have no impact on the use of contractors since almost all of these new troops would be combat soldiers, which of course is a task never done by contractors. The use of contractors to fulfill menial jobs in the army, as well as logistics is unlikely to change and in fact only strengthens the argument for a smaller combat force. Many of the skills that soldiers are being currently trained for, whether its counterinsurgency of phase zero operations or nation-building are better performed by diplomats and civilians and not the uniformed military.

The US military in fifty years has never been used as counterinsurgents but as insurgents, that is in overthrowing established governments and then as unwanted occupation forces.

I'm sorry, Michael, but there are just fundamental flaws in the assumptions of your piece. Before I discuss numbers, your conclusion that "the Air Force took the lead, with far more positive results" in Gulf War I, the Kosovo campaign and the OEF/ISAF in Afghanistan. For starters, the use of air support is just that: support to ground forces.

While there is much talk about the "air war" of Desert Storm, that alone did not eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait. It was the effort of several Army divisions -- units that did in fact engage in combat and did incur casualties -- that actually defeated the Iraqis. The Iraqi army didn't surrender to a passing A-10, did it?

In Kosovo, it's convenient to omit the fact that the U.S. Air Force was effectively the close air support for the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). The Air Force and Navy aircraft took out key Serb artillery and armor units that enabled the light infantry KLA to make the gains it made in the quick time it did in April - May 1999.

Finally, having been to Afghanistan, what struck me most was how capable U.S. ground forces are, in any clime and place, throughout the country. Contrast that with aircraft, which can be severely curtailed in use depending on the weather (as in winter right now). Ironically, it has been the overreliance use of larger ordinance from higher altitude CAS instead of "only" artillery support that has resulted in the reports of civilian casualties that critics of the Afghanistan simultaneously decry.

Bottom line, no objective is taken until you have a 19-year old rifleman standing on it. No amount of bombing will change that fact.

Don, I'm sorry but you're just plain wrong on the facts. U.S. involvement in Vietnam was a counterinsurgency mission: maintain the status quo of a divided Vietnam (a la Korea) by defeating North Vietnamese invasion and a popular uprising sponsored and supported by the NVA. You can look at Special Forces missions that take place today in Latin America (Colombia and Venezuela immediately come to mind) to defeat leftist insurgents (FARC) and narcoterrorists. There is nothing that air power can do in these missions except provide resupply.

Michael, you wrote that "while other methods would seem more appropriate in dealing with . . . threats does the New York Times really believe that the country is ready for another massive deployment of U.S. troops?" and "Unless the U.S is prepared to once again send 250,000 troops into harm's way then there is little necessity for building a ground force of 750,000 troops." I think, again, your analysis assumes that 1) all U.S. Army and Marine personnel are interchangeable (why else focus on the simple number of people in uniform versus what they actually do?) and 2) that in a crisis it will be possible to just raise an army as time before.

For good and for ill, we have a standing, professional army: better educated, trained, equipped and experienced than any other in the world. A lot of that training and experience comes from years of soldiers and marines doing their respective jobs; it cannot be learned or relearned overnight just because the country demands it. In short, as we learned to our detriment with the massive downsizing of the military following WWI and WWII (I won't include the Cold War because the culture and nature of the military had changed considerably since in the 1990s and was similar to today's professional military), by the time you realize that you need more forces, it's already too late.

We currently have 140,000 troops in Iraq alone. Those forces forward deployed are made up of National Guardsmen, Reservists, as well as active component personnel. You need a large pool of personnel to maintain that manning in theater, have enough troops training to prepare for that mission, and allow those who have returned to rest, reset, and retrain before they return or are sent for other contingency missions.

Right now, there is a debate at the Pentagon and throughout the national security community about where the lion's share of DoD funds should go. Resetting and replacing current equipment (including aircraft) worn down by OIF/OEF deployments? Providing better services to those in uniform and their families? Continuing investment into R&D for the latest futuristic weapons?

As economic realities hit home at DoD as well as the rest of the government, I believe that the choice is clear that the high-cost, high-maintenance, high-end Navy and Air Force systems will have to give way to providing the best equipment and training to those who are directly in harm's way and face the real prospect for future contingencies.

Finally, it is the mission of DoD to be prepared to respond to the Nation's security requirements when they are asked; not to begin preparing for those threats and contingencies only after asked. I know that President Obama and his cabinet understand the need for full-spectrum military options regardless of current commitments. Nothing provides this better than the Army and Marine Corps. The Air Force and Navy will continue to be good for rides and for providing support.

The ground adventures that you seem to favor would not be possible w/o command of the sea and air, which is why the US invariably picks on small countries with neither, which in turn proves the point.

As far as "it is the mission of DoD to be prepared to respond to the Nation's security requirements when they are asked," except for the occasional full-on invasion that's a joke. The Pentagon answers to no one in advancing the American Empire. Case in point: There is now a massive military building program taking place in Korea AFTER the Pentagon's decision that North Korea no longer presents a threat.

The part about "the Nation's security requirements" we won't even address in this discussion; they have proven to be bogus.

Don, seriously. "The Pentagon answers to no one in advancing the American Empire"? With black helicopters, no doubt.

You mistake "command of the sea and air" as an end in of itself, rather than a means to an end. I don't know what "point" that proves, or if there was a point you were making to begin with.

Sea and air forces serve as a support to the ground maneuver forces, just as intelligence, logistics, communications, etc., only serve to enable the fighter on the ground (in tanks and on foot) to seize the accomplish their mission.

Whatever your own proclivities, the fact remains that DoD answers to the President and the civilian government, not the other way around. That the current civilians in power don't agree with you with regard to "the Nation's security requirements" doesn't change this fact; it only highlights how far off the rails our civilian government has taken the military and the country. And who knows that security requirements you're talking about, friend.

I can only conclude by your ludicrous post that you have no firsthand experience in either military affairs or policymaking in general. These discussions are always very simple and black-and-white when you are on the sidelines. That is why a basic premise of Michael's post (a focus on simple numbers instead of duties and specialties) is over simplistic. Don, your silly hyperbole and over-the-top rhetoric is a poor substitute for a serious discussion.

Merry Christmas. Have a good’un.

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the fact remains that DoD answers to the President

Sure, right out of Civics 101. The truth is different.

Here's SecDef Gates, Dec 14, 2008, destroying the Iraq SOFA, which Bush (w/o the Senate) negotiated with Iraq and which calls for ALL US forces to be out of Iraq in three years:

"We're going to have to be out of the cities, out of populated areas by the 30th of June. That represents a really significant change of mission. And it calls for us to have all of our combat units out by the end of 2011. . . And the president-elect, as everybody knows, has talked about 16 months, but he's also talked about the drawdowns being responsible, and he's also talked about wanting to listen and hear from commanders on the ground. . . . And I think the president-elect means exactly what he says. He wants to do it in a responsible way, a way that is safe for our soldiers and with the advice of our commanders."

I can only conclude by your ludicrous post that you have no firsthand experience in either the real world or policymaking in general. The Pentagon calls the shots, obviously.

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