The controversy and debate over the US Army’s ongoing troop cuts are continuing, with passions flaring on both sides of the argument. That’s only to be expected. The world is still a dangerous place, and any move to reduce the USA’s military strength needs to be looked at very critically. Is it a safe thing to do? Does it expose us to any extra risks and, if so, what can we do to mitigate them? Politicians don’t always ask these questions in their rush to save a few bucks and that’s cost us dearly in the past. The USA entered both World Wars with understrength units and a lot of obsolete equipment; back then wars lasted long enough that we could remedy that, but the pace is a lot faster today and we need to be ready for what the British call a “come as you are war.” If we don’t have it on Day One we’re going to have to fight without it, and as weapons of mass destruction proliferate, that can lead to unacceptable risks. So what do these cuts really mean for our security?
Let’s start off with some good news. The Army isn’t cutting across the board. In fact, some branches are even expanding. These include special operations forces, military intelligence and cyberwarfare specialists, as well as missile defense. The value of extra Special Forces operators is obvious; the Army will be able to project precise force even better than it can now. Intelligence is also vital against a terrorist-centered adversary, and boosting the strength of the MI brigades makes sense. Cyber attack and missiles are emerging threats, and as Israel has recently shown, being able to defend against enemy rockets makes a huge difference.
The real impact of the cuts will be in maneuver formations and their support units, where the overall number of deployable brigades will fall by around a dozen. These reductions will be made by cutting brigades from division structures instead of axing whole divisions, so a lot of flexibility is retained – divisions can be rounded out with brigades task orged from other formations before they deploy. The manpower cuts should allow the Army to preserve training budgets, making it easy to snap a brigade into a new division without too much adjustment. It’s also likely that the readiness of brigades will increase slightly as overall manpower quality rises slightly. Standards across the US Army are high overall but inevitably there’s some dead wood, and the reductions give personnel officers a chance to do some pruning. It’s significant that personnel director Maj Gen Seamands says “about two-thirds” of those selected for separation would be great candidates for the reserves. The other third, we can assume, the Army just doesn’t want.
Where the reductions will have a negative effect is in sustainability. Even with the lower number of brigades, we’ll be able to put in a battle-winning force that no other nation can stand against. The situation would be different in a long-running operation like Iraq or Afghanistan, though. With fewer brigades available, rotation intervals would have to shorten, and that’s never good for troop morale.
Overall the reduction, while undesirable, will leave the US Army still firmly at the top of the heap and with the capability to take on any likely mission. If the administration plans on getting involved in any long wars, however, it will need to be looked at again. No matter how good a unit is it can’t be in two places at once – a fact politicians sometimes seem to forget.