Magazine | March 24, 2014, Issue

We Few, We Very Few

Chuck Hagel’s defense cuts would imperil the nation

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s proposed Defense Department budget for fiscal year 2015, unveiled in late February, has set off a firestorm of outrage, and for good reason.

Of course, in one sense, its long list of cuts only extends the defense cuts President Obama has been making since he took office — some $480 billion worth — in addition to those imposed by the Budget Control Act, which will eventually add up to another $600 billion when and if the moratorium on the cuts in the Ryan–Murray budget deal expires.

From that perspective, we’re simply on the same track as before: toward a Navy smaller than it was before World War I, an Army smaller than it was in 1940, and an Air Force that is smaller than it’s been at any time since World War II and is acquiring fewer new aircraft than it did back in 1915. That’s an Air Force less able to sustain missions because it can’t replace planes lost to breakdown, accident, combat, or retirement — and already from 2008 to 2012, the Air Force retired 700 more planes than it purchased.

But these cuts represent something different. They deliver a lasting blow to our force structure and ensure that our military won’t be able to fight any conflicts larger than Iraq or Afghanistan anytime soon — perhaps ever, unless we see a massive shift in political will to rebuild an American military that Obama has been steadily tearing down.

Hagel supporters will claim that this is a necessary shift, after Iraq and Afghanistan, to a leaner force that’s equipped for the high-tech wars of the future — which assumes, of course, that our future wars will be high-tech. Yet Hagel still insists that his budget leaves us the world’s leading military power, one that can “defeat any aggressor.”

That is patent nonsense, and it’s important to realize why.

Here is the most significant number: Hagel’s plan will shrink the U.S. Army from its current 520,000 active-duty personnel down to 440,000 to 450,000, about the same size as Vietnam’s or Turkey’s.

Again, Hagel defenders argue that this just returns the Army to the force level we had before 9/11. That actually should be a source of alarm, not reassurance — especially when Secretary Hagel himself admits he is “diminishing our global readiness” in a “world that is growing more volatile, more unpredictable, and . . . more threatening to the United States.”

An Army of 440,000 to 450,000 troops is demonstrably too small to handle any wars larger than Iraq and Afghanistan, which at their peak stretched a force of 570,000 to the breaking point. Despite the years of headlines and heartbreak those wars brought, they were actually fairly small-scale, guerrilla-type conflicts, especially compared with a head-on collision with China in the Pacific or with Iran in the Persian Gulf, or even with a nuclear-armed, ballistic-missile-equipped North Korea on the Korean peninsula.

No one has bothered to explain how an Army smaller by 120,000 will handle those crises, or a ramping up of Cold War tensions over Ukraine that requires putting American boots back on the ground in Western Europe.

Again, critics will argue that we will still have our Reserves and Army National Guard units as a backup. But in fact the term “reserves” has become a misnomer. Those part-time Reservists and National Guardsmen have evolved into the full-time support and logistical backbone of our current force, as a manpower-starved Pentagon has increasingly shifted those burdens onto them. In 2012, in fact, the Army National Guard made up 32 percent of Army personnel, 38 percent of the Army’s operating force, and 11.5 percent of the baseline budget of the entire Army. Cutting its numbers will directly affect the viability of the standing force that remains.

Yet that is precisely what the Hagel budget envisages, a 5 percent reduction in National Guard units and a similar cut for Army Reserves. If an enemy wanted to make sure we had no way to relieve and replace combat troops in a prolonged campaign that demanded the maximum from our Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines simultaneously, this would be a way of doing it.

In fact, the Hagel budget leaves us with only one answer in the case of a protracted conflict: the draft. It was the draft that enabled us to surge from 280,000 men in 1940 — the last time the Army’s numbers were this low — to 1.46 million a year later. But those draftees entered a standing force that, after World War I, was prepared and ready to train a large conscript expansion. Quite apart from the pressures that would make reimposing a draft political suicide today, no one currently serving in uniform below the rank of general remembers how to work with draftees, or has knowledge and experience in training and motivating unwilling bodies torn from civilian life and thrust into a full-time military routine — let alone combat.

#page#And even in World War II, it took two years before those draftees were ready to fight and win a modern war. No such leisurely time frame exists today. Since Vietnam, the bedrock of our national security has instead been a large and highly trained military force of professionals, with salaries and benefits meant to attract as many of the best and brightest as possible.

Yet cuts in those incentives are in the budget as well, including reducing the subsidies for service commissaries — which means military personnel will pay more for food and clothing — and making them and their families pay more for their health care. By turning the military into a less attractive career, we will make it harder to hit the minimal numbers needed to keep the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines even at these reduced levels.

Finally, it’s no good insisting that we’ll just have to learn to avoid conflicts that require large numbers of boots on the ground and stick to the ones we can resolve with a Navy SEAL team or two (the Hagel budget, we note, boosts spending for Special Ops) and a couple of Hellfire-missile-wielding drones.

The sad fact is that we don’t choose wars — the myth of Iraq as a “war of choice” notwithstanding. They choose us. As the greatest defender and representative of freedom on the planet, we are automatic targets for every thug and authoritarian regime, and under Obama they’re all feeling bolder and more confident of success than ever.

Moreover, historically, armed conflicts for the United States have tended to come in twos, not one at a time. There was Europe and the Pacific in World War II; Korea, then Vietnam, and the Cold War in the Fifties and Sixties; and Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade. It isn’t simply American military dominance that this Obama budget “puts into question,” as even Hagel admitted in his press conference. It’s America’s ability to defend its interests around the globe when Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea all know we lack the means to deal with two major crises at the same time. How will Obama or some future president decide, when a looming war in the Middle East coincides with a major aggressive move by China in the East China Sea, which is the priority conflict requiring American mobilization and which he or she will have to let slide?

It’s far more likely that, after examining the risks, a future commander-in-chief will, like Buridan’s mule, choose neither — delivering a blow to American power and prestige that will encourage our enemies and discourage allies such as Japan and Israel.

The bottom line is that, while the rest of the world, including our biggest foes, is busy arming, we are disarming. In that sense, it’s ironic that Hagel concluded his press conference by quoting Henry Stimson — the secretary of war who had to ramp up the sadly diminished military that his predecessors, just like Hagel, had left him on the eve of World War II. The line was to the effect that Americans must learn to live “in the world as it is, and not in the world as we wish it were.” In fact, this budget does the exact opposite. It is an exercise in utopian fantasy — or perhaps, even worse, in political grandstanding, in which Obama and his advisers are using the budget to scare Republicans into going along with more tax increases, or lifting automatic sequestration, to prevent these cuts from going through — and to fix the blame on Congress if they do go through.

Hagel would have done better to remember the words of Douglas MacArthur, who, as Army chief of staff in those dark pre-war days, saw the impact of similar cuts on our forces and warned, “From the dawn of history to the present day it has always been the militant aggressor taking the place of the unprepared.”

This budget moves us closer to being unprepared for war than we’ve been since Pearl Harbor — and as close as we’ve ever been to being unable to see a war through.

– Mr. Herman is the author of, among other books, Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II. He is currently working on a biography of Douglas MacArthur.

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