In 1991, at the end of the Cold War, there were 710,821 active-duty soldiers in the Army. By 2001, that figure was down to 478,918. That 32 percent decline severely limited our options for a military response to 9/11, practically dictating that the forces sent to Afghanistan and Iraq would be too small to pacify two countries with a combined population of nearly 60 million. The result was years of protracted conflict that put a severe strain on an undersized force.
Today, the Army is up to 566,045 active-duty soldiers, an 18 percent increase since 2001. That is still too small — a force that size has too little “dwell time” at home and places too much stress on soldiers. It also imposes constraints, helping to curtail the size of the force we send to Afghanistan even though more troops could do the job with less risk.
But now we learn from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that the force is going to shrink again. Last week, he announced that, starting in 2015, the Army is going to lose 27,000 soldiers on top of an already-planned cut of 22,000. That will bring the active-duty strength down to 517,000. The Marine Corps will lose 15,000 to 20,000 personnel. So our ground-combat forces will be deprived of 70,000 troopers, or almost 10 percent of their strength.
At practically the same time that these overall cuts were being unveiled, Gates was announcing that 1,400 more Marines are headed to Afghanistan — a deployment that was made in response to events on the ground in order to build on prior success. The fewer troops we have, the less capability to respond to such eventualities or emergencies.
It is not just troop strength that is being reduced. Weapons programs have already been eliminated. Now the Marines’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle is due to suffer a similar fate.
Individually, you can make the case for any of these cuts. But collectively they set a worrisome pattern, especially when our biggest foreign competitor, China, is in the midst of a rapid arms buildup that includes fielding a stealth fighter much faster than previously predicted and a new ballistic missile dubbed a “carrier killer” for its ability to target American aircraft carriers.
U.S. defense spending remains far higher than China’s, and our defense capabilities remain far greater than anyone else’s. But our commitments are much greater. We have to worry about Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, China, Russia, North Korea, Yemen, Somalia, al-Qaida and myriad other current or potential threats, whereas China can devote all its might to the western Pacific. We will be hard-pressed to resist Chinese designs for regional dominance when our Navy has only 287 ships and is still shrinking.
In defense of these cuts, Gates cited the need to address our “extreme fiscal duress.” The duress is real, but it will not be solved by cutting a defense budget that accounts for less than 20 percent of all federal spending. Demobilization after previous wars has cost us severely. We experienced that problem as recently as 2001. But at least in the past we waited until a war was actually over to spend the “peace dividend.” Now we are announcing cutbacks while the fighting is still going on. Luckily, there are Republicans in Congress who understand these cuts are dangerous. They should reject them, and the other reckless cuts in a military budget that’s already stretched awfully thin.
This article appeared in The Weekly Standard.