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Cutting the Force While Growing the Force


While DOD/OMB have not yet released the complete Pentagon budget (the devil is always in the details), initial evidence — despite the spin — points to significant cuts. While I understand, and appreciated, Secretary Gates desire to “reform” the way DOD funds projects, I can’t help but get the sense that the rhetoric doesn’t jive completely with reality.

As has been reported, the 4% increase in defense spending proposed by Secretary Gates is actually 4% less than what the Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted; and, if taken alongside the fact that this budget attempts to fold in spending previously funded by supplemental war budgets, the supposed 4% increase is actually a $8 billion cut in defense spending. The Army is worst hit by folding supplemental spending into the base budget, as it was receiving the most ad-hoc funding for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Understandably, the debate surrounding the budget centers primarily on big-ticket items like fighter planes, carrier groups, and missile defense systems; all extremely important, especially since it’s imperative that we maintain overwhelming military superiority in a dangerous world. By default, I don’t see the wisdom in cutting anything that helps us control the skies, project force around the world, or shoot down nuclear weapons.

However, for me (and fellow infantry grunts), the most disturbing portion of the budget is the de facto cut (or non-increase, increase) in Army end-strength. Secretary Gates announced, “we will stop the growth of Army Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) at 45 versus 48 while maintaining the planned increase in end strength of 547,000.” Gates cited “better manned units” and “an end to stop-loss” as the reason for this change.

There are two important parts on this: 1) the “planned increase” to 547,000 soldiers in the Army was proposed under Bush, and will now be funded under Obama. This is a good thing, but not really a new increase; 2) cutting the number of proposed BCTs from 45 to 48, in order to fully staff them, is an admission that we don’t have enough soldiers to fully support the needs of the Army.

When the Army announced a plan to go to 48 BCTs two years ago, it did so based on projections of future operational needs. The transition to 48 BCTs was scheduled to be completed by 2013, and would allow the Army operational flexibility in a world where future deployments — in substantial numbers — will certainly be called for.

The question is — why must we need to cut the number of BCTs to ensure they are fully staffed? Why not maintain the goal of 48 BCTs, and instead increase the size of the Army to ensure they are fully staffed?  This would be a mission-based, capabilities-based approach to Army manning. Instead, the only reasonable explanation for this cut is that the Army has run up against its top line and is forced to make cuts. The Obama administration needs to make cuts in the budget somewhere, and has decided the DOD is the place to do it.

Obviously this budget will change when it hits the Congress, and hopefully they will make manpower a priority. As I wrote about last week, there is already a proposal in the Senate to fund an additional 30,000 soldiers, and hopefully a House counterpart is in the works. Such an increase would not only support the manpower needs of the Army, but also provide additional jobs into the economy (hey, why not?). (And, just a historical note from Max Boot, the active-duty Army was 700,000 soldiers strong in the early 1990s).

To borrow from a friend in the Senate, “if the new priority [for Gates] is supporting the warfighter, how can SecDef justify what is in effect a cut to the Army’s budget and a freeze on recruitment. Dwell time has not improved, deployed strength is going up, and the Army is about to lose its central modernization program without gaining any new troops in return.” I couldn’t have said it better myself, and I hope the Congress will address these concerns.


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