A New Army Drawdown: This Time Is Far Worse

Paratroopers with the 173rd Airborne depart Lielvarde Airbase, Latvia, at the conclusion of Exercise Steadfast Javelin II, on September 8, 2014.

U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Michael T. Crawford

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Paratroopers with the 173rd Airborne depart Lielvarde Airbase, Latvia, at the conclusion of Exercise Steadfast Javelin II, on September 8, 2014.

We know we cannot predict the future, but we know our Army—active, Guard Reserve, civilians and contractors—will be needed again and again as we move forward. By Ret. Army Gen. Gordon Sullivan

Prevailing wisdom, which often isn’t at all wise, holds the Army shouldn’t face any problems downsizing because we’ve been down this road before. That’s wrong. As one who served as the Army chief of staff during the post-Cold War drawdown, I can say, unequivocally, this time is far worse.

An era of escalating and accumulating strategic risks creates challenges for Army leaders at every level of command, and should concern every politician and every citizen. While our nation has faced complex security threats before, today’s situation is much different. Any attempt to suggest our experiences were comparable could lead to serious misunderstandings.

The post-Cold War period was difficult as the demand for a “peace dividend” and related manpower reductions totaling about 40 percent of the Army, including active, Guard, Reserve and civilian personnel. This created a turbulent four years in which we tried to improve efficiency, prepare for a digitized battlefield, and fundamentally reduce our dependence on forward-based forces. The future was unclear. After many years of optimizing our capabilities against a well-defined threat, we reacted to a number of unanticipated contingencies—Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti, the Balkans, Hurricane Andrew—while trying to transform our Army into a CONUS-based force capable of rapid deployment and decisive victory anywhere in the world.

Compared to today, I had some important advantages.

First, most of the forces being inactivating were in Europe, not in someone’s congressional district. The communities feeling the heaviest impact of downsizing were not part of “main street America,” so the dislocation suffered by soldiers and their families had minimal impact on America’s social and economic fabric. Unemployment was low, the “dot.com” boom had not yet turned to bust, so everyone was confident that the fine young people who left our ranks would easily integrate into civilian schools and jobs. Operation Desert Storm had produced relatively few physical or psychological casualties, so there was no unusual burden on health services.

Second, the Army went out of the chemical and nuclear weapons “business.” We had to invest significant sums to destroy the chemical weapon stockpile that had been accumulating for decades, but the bottom line in that sector of the budget was favorable: abandoning those capabilities freed up significant force structure and dollars. There are no comparable categories in today’s force.

Third, there was significant bipartisan support for significant defense spending. The services were encouraged to invest in systems such as the C-17 and fast roll-on, roll-off ships that would improve the strategic mobility of our Total Force. The Gulf War provided glimpses to political leaders of the value of harnessing digital technology in force modernization—not only in weapon systems to retain our battlefield edge, but in logistics systems that would reduce the in-theater “footprint” and ease the strategic mobility challenge. I see little evidence such political support for essential defense programs exists today. In fact, it seems like nothing happens until an election, and after elections things often get worse.

There are areas where today’s Army leaders may enjoy an advantage over my situation. In 1990, we feared a tough, bloody war when we responded to Iraqi aggression into Kuwait. Few remember our preparations to deal with vast numbers of conventional and gas-contaminated wounded. Since that image was so widespread, and because we did not hope for a rapid victory, we insisted that National Guard brigades scheduled under long-standing threat-response plans would have to receive additional training at the National Training Center. While other National Guard units and lots of Army Reserve units deployed to the theater of war and performed well, those combat brigades did not get a chance to participate.

This left extremely bitter memories in the National Guard community. I could do a few things to offset those memories. Downsizing active forces in Europe and reducing forward-based war reserves freed up many of the most modern tanks, armored personnel carriers, and helicopters that the Army National Guard needed, but at the same time we were modernizing the Guard we were taking out part of its force structure, so suspicions and hard feelings persisted.

Today’s situation is remarkably different. The National Guard and Army Reserve have been integral parts of the sustained effort in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, and elsewhere. In every case, units have received the training they needed before deploying, and they have performed well in tough situations. Instead of depriving the Guard of opportunities to prove itself, we have almost worn it out. Twenty years ago, the Guard was eager to be among the “first to fight.” If there can be a long pause before the next call comes, I expect to see that eagerness return. But the current leadership is faced with a world where such a pause seems unlikely to occur.

The current leadership is faced with a world where such a pause seems unlikely to occur.

My view of today’s world is that we are witnessing a confluence of events that have created security and defense risks that must be acknowledged and addressed. Russia’s destabilizing initiative in Crimea and Donbas (and the accompanying rhetoric justifying support for Russian ethnic minorities in the borderlands) is enough to keep most security analysts awake at night. Add China’s energetic actions around contested Pacific Islands and the resulting tension with neighbors big and small, and it seems as if “Great Power competition” is as serious as it ever has been.

Among the smaller states we find the ongoing challenges of Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela compounded by the “Arab Dawn,” civil war in Syria, and the dramatic rise of ISIS. Any one of these could quickly erupt into a contingency requirement that would require forming a new coalition to build beyond the capabilities of U.S. armed forces. The great power tensions project into the regional issues, rendering the United Nations less capable than it might otherwise be in orchestrating a “consensus response” to crises as they erupt, reminding us that US leadership in coalition building will surely be needed.

Whenever it is called upon, we can be sure that the Army input to that coalition building effort will be welcome and substantive. Any crisis we face in the future will call for boots on the ground. Most of those boots may not belong to U.S. Army soldiers, but our Army leaders will influence all of them in important ways. It helps that many leaders of foreign armies are graduates of U.S. Army schools. Many foreign soldiers have been aided by U.S. Army advisory teams in learning modern tactics or in employing weapons manufactured in the United States. Those efforts are on-going and widespread, and they are among the most important initiatives our Nation has sustained over several generations. In every region around the globe our Army-to-Army programs thrive and provide tremendous potential pay-off for the relatively small sums invested.

Any crisis we face in the future will call for boots on the ground. 

Today’s soldiers executing the training, advise and support functions are far superior to my generation. We were justifiably proud of the results we achieved as advisors to South Vietnamese soldiers and units, but today’s advisors draw upon the U.S Army’s training revolution of the 1980s to sustain far better approaches to training. They have mastered the Soldier Qualification Tests necessary to perform effectively in any occupational specialty, they know how to train to standard, and they know how to develop training evaluation programs at the unit level that can assure that appropriate levels of proficiency have been achieved.

One of my major worries, which I know is shared by current Army leaders, is that a unit engaged in this sort of training will suddenly be thrust into a conventional operation. Without time out from advisory duties and for a reconfiguration of teams, weapons, and equipment, units will be unprepared to function properly. Without an additional interlude to restore team skills and confidence levels, no unit would be able to perform adequately.

One of my major worries, which I know is shared by current Army leaders, is that a unit engaged in this sort of training will suddenly be thrust into a conventional operation. 

This risk is entirely different than the “mission creep” issue that haunted us in Mogadishu and other contingencies 20 years ago. Mission creep forced commanders to recognize the explicit and implicit tasks in a changing mission and then review their mission essential task list. If new or different resources were necessary to achieve the new mission, higher headquarters needed to address the need, and everyone had to address the risks involved in the interim. With a fundamental shift from one type of mission to another, higher headquarters will need to insert entirely new teams configured to satisfy the new mission, e.g. conventional operations vs. advisory duty. With a smaller Army, we may not be able to meet that need.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno has already expressed worries, telling Army Times he has a “grave concern” about meeting broad-ranging and ill-defined contingency requirements in the future. We need to recognize the burden he carries. As a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff he must respond to the emerging “real time” requirements of the regional and functional combatant commanders, but at the same time he must look out for the potential capabilities of the future force.

His balancing act is different than mine was 20 years ago. We came out of short conflicts in Panama and the Gulf thinking that we could find relatively quick solutions to the problems our political leaders handed us. The premature “Mission Accomplished” banner on an aircraft carrier a decade later was an introduction to a demanding new world where there no longer appear to be quick solutions. The need to sustain military forces in remote, hostile environments for long periods of time appears to be a characteristic of the foreseeable future, so leaders can’t satisfy today’s requirement without consideration for tomorrow’s needs—whether in the same theater or somewhere else against a radically different threat.

We know we cannot predict the future, but we know our Armyactive, Guard Reserve, civilians and contractorswill be needed again and again as we move forward. The key to future success is to keep all units in the Army trained to the highest possible standard for a broad range of missions while maintaining our readiness to deploy and employ those units anywhere in the world. That’s a tall order. It requires a broad range of skills that doesn’t diminish as the Army becomes smaller. Those skills can’t be developed overnight, so we need the foresight to continue to inculcate them even when they are not in great demand, and we need sufficient rewards to retain soldiers who have achieved proficiency even if that proficiency is not tested on a distant battlefield.

Today’s Army leadership can design the appropriate force for our uncertain future. The need for every element in that force must be clearly articulated in ways that our citizens can understand. AUSA is committed to help spread the message that we cannot keep cutting force structure and the budget without consequences and increased risk. The American public might not support a bigger budget and an Army of no less than 590,000 people. However, if and when the Army is committed, the American people expect success, they expect victory and they expect a win.

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