March 06, 2014

The Ghosts of Armies Past

The U.S. Army, like the nation as a whole, is facing difficult new strategic challenges.  Thirteen years of constant warfare will end in 2014, when the last U.S. combat troops leave Afghanistan – marking the end of the longest war in U.S. history. At the same time, the battles in Washington continue over the future role and size of the Army.  As Tuesday’s defense budget briefing confirmed, active-duty Army end strength is scheduled to drop from 490,000 troops to 440,000-450,000 under the FY15 budget and could go to 420,000 (or lower) if sequestration remains in place.  There will be similar pressure on the Army’s budget topline.  

Yet such challenges are far from unprecedented.  Throughout its history, the Army has repeatedly weathered cycles of drawdown – often more severe than the Army faces today – and rebuilding, with varying degrees of success.  As the Army seeks to manage the current drawdown, it should look to important lessons from its past.

In the 1930s, for example, the United States retrenched from the world after the carnage of World War I, plunging the Army from a wartime end strength of over 4 million to a Depression-era active-duty force of around 200,000. In response to this precipitous reduction in end-strength, the service prioritized investments in education and leader development, focusing on rebuilding its intellectual capability for warfare.  During this time, most Army officers spent extensive periods of time in school – both as students and, often, as teachers. George Marshall served as an instructor at the Army War College and the Infantry School, as well as in the Illinois National Guard. And Marshall, Omar Bradley, Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton all attended the Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth.  Such investments paid off in growing a generation of officers who went on to win World War II.

Following WWII, the U.S. Army again saw a substantial decline in manpower – from the wartime peak of nearly 6 million active-duty personnel to the 1948 trough of 554,000 – and budget. Though these trends were momentarily reversed during mobilization for the Korean War, the 1950s Army faced serious questions about the continuing relevance of ground combat in the nuclear era. President Eisenhower, a former Army 5-star general, shifted substantial defense resources to fund the rapid growth of U.S. strategic airpower and the beginnings of the space competition (in 1955 alone, the Army saw a 30% reduction in its budget, while the Air Force budget remained relatively constant; the following year, the Army saw a further 9% reduction of its budget, while the Air Force budget grew by 17.5%).  Echoes from both of these periods can be heard in today’s discussions of roles and missions, budget share and the future of land warfare.

The Army again faced profound challenges following the conclusion of the Vietnam War and the 1973 shift to the All-Volunteer Force.  During this time, recruiting difficulties and the failure of military salaries to keep pace with inflation resulted in a notable decline in education levels and an increase in less than honorable discharges. These consequences were particularly hard felt in the Army, which, the Congressional Research Service has reported, “signed up so many poor-quality soldiers during the late 1970s that 40% of new recruits were separated…for disciplinary reasons or unsuitability prior to the completion of their first enlistment.” This period, often described as one in which the U.S. military was a “hollow force,” serves as a stark warning of the consequences of inadequate resourcing and decayed standards.

The 1980s ushered in a period of self-reflection and adjustment for the Army, which charged a number of its senior leaders with examining and reversing the trends of the previous decade. Then-Major General Maxwell Thurman, for example, proved instrumental in improving Army recruiting and training practices and championed reforms that increased efficiency and unit readiness. In addition to these reforms, the Army benefited from both the Reagan defense build-up and the renewed focus on the defense of Western Europe.  Indeed, it was this focus that ultimately led the Army to adopt AirLand Battle, a warfighting doctrine based on deep attack and precision weapons that eventually came to animate the service’s entire system of conventional warfare.

The end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, however, generated a huge strategic shift, leading to major reductions in defense spending.  The Army absorbed a 38% cut between 1991 and 1999, while the Navy budget declined by 31% and the Air Force by 25%.  These cuts in end-strength, along with increasingly frequent troop deployments, seriously taxed the military and revived concerns about a return to a hollow force.

Today, the Army once again faces problems of constrained resources and questions of relevance.  With its rebalance to Asia, the United States has shifted away from the 20th century continental model focused on the defense of Western Europe to a 21st century maritime model oriented around the security of the Western Pacific.  This shift can be seen in the adoption of the AirSea Battle Concept, an approach designed to counter anti-access and area denial threats.  It is heavily reliant upon air, sea and cyber power and is often perceived to have diminished the Army’s role within broader strategy discussions (efforts to promote a “Strategic Landpower” initiative aside). 

Despite the tenor of the current policy debate, however, both the uncertainty of the future security environment and the inherent unpredictability of war suggest the continued need for ready and capable ground forces that can address unexpected threats.  History has repeatedly demonstrated that wars cannot be won solely by the technological superiority provided by the Navy and Air Force.  As the Defense Department seeks to adapt to impending reductions in its budget and uniformed end strength to prepare to meet the complex challenges of the future, it would do well to heed the lessons of the past.  For the Army, strong leadership, creative thinking and careful organizational management will be essential if it is to continue to maintain a force that is second to none.  With money, mission and manpower in flux, the time for bold new ideas has arrived. 

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