June 26, 2013


On Tuesday, the Army announced its plans to hit the reset button on its force structure, cutting its headcount by 80,000 soldiers from 570,000 to 490,000, effectively taking the force back down to pre-9/11 levels. As Sydney Freedberg correctly points out, the Army will do this by reshuffling its deck of battalions and making cuts to certain manpower pools where it has parked troops who are wounded or in transit. If these cuts are fully implemented, the Army of 2019 will look a lot like the Army of 1999, with about 10 divisions comprised of 33 (or so) combat brigades.

That's a technique, to use an old Army expression of skepticism. Unfortunately, these cuts do not go far enough to insulate the Army from the dawning age of fiscal austerity, and even deeper cuts in the future. And, by embracing such modest cuts now, the Army is missing a huge chance to leverage this crisis moment to embrace more fundamental change. This is the moment for the Army to fix its anachronistic business model, including its obsolete system of pay and benefits, and trim its bloated network of bases. The Army should also reexamine its mix of active and reserve forces to better leverage its part-time soldiers. And as the largest service, it must also invest more heavily in unmanned systems to break the link between cost and manpower that shackles the force. Troop cuts are but one part of the equation; they are necessary but not sufficient.

As it exits the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Army retains roughly the same basic operating model it had before 9/11. The service recruits, trains, equips, and maintains large land formations of soldiers with lots of heavy equipment. When called upon, this force deploys overseas to fight, or do things other than fighting like peacekeeping or humanitarian assistance. The Army lives on bases around the world, although this footprint has increasingly domesticized over the past 10 years, with many troops relocating from Europe and Asia to stateside bases. And the Army does its job with a mixture of full-time active troops and part-time reserve troops, the latter divided between the federal Army Reserve and the state National Guard.

Consequently, the Army now finds itself between the pincers of two harmful trends: The defense budget is declining at the same time that the internal costs of the Army's obsolete business model are escalating beyond control. Over time, these trends will gradually squeeze the Army to the point where it cannot afford to recruit, train, pay, or equip the force at anything approaching the levels to which the force has become accustomed -- let alone actually conduct costly operations abroad. The Army surely needs to cut troops -- but it's not clear why the Army settled on 80,000 as the final number. It may need to cut significantly more in order to make ends meet. And, in addition to troop cuts, the Army must now also embrace fundamental change in four areas: compensation, the active and reserve force mix, bases, and increased use of unmanned systems.

Since 9/11, as our colleagues wrote in a recent report titled "The Seven Deadly Sins of Defense Spending," military compensation has grown by 52 percent, more than double the pace of income growth in the private sector. Likewise, the costs of the military retirement system have ballooned as well because of an antiquated model in which the Army and other services pay people for 60 years (or more) to work for 20 years, and provide generous healthcare and commissary benefits that far exceed anything in the civilian world. If the Army wants to avoid becoming a benefits company that occasionally kills a terrorist, to use Arnold Punaro's memorable phrase, it must slow the rate of growth for military cash compensation and rely on targeted pay increases or bonuses when necessary to support recruiting and retention. The force must also increase cost sharing for its vaunted Tri-Care insurance program and leverage the Affordable Care Act to further share the burden of treating military families and retirees. The Army cannot change this system alone, but as the largest service, it can and should lead the way to a more sustainable manpower model for the U.S. military.

And if the goal is to save money, then in addition to troop cuts, the Army should also lead the services in finding more and better ways to leverage its reserves. One recent Pentagonreport pegged the cost of a reservist at less than one-third of an active servicemember. Nearly 900,000 reservists have been mobilized since 9/11, mostly in support of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, with reservists at one point making up nearly half of the force deployed to Iraq. The reserves have matured during the past 12 years of war into a much more capable and resilient force, albeit one with great strain (especially in the area of employer relations, as illustrated by the thousands of complaints filed with the Labor and JusticeDepartments by reservists regarding alleged violations of the law protecting mobilized reservists). Given the reserves' performance in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the enormous cost disparity between active and reserve forces, the Army should look for ways to increase its reliance on the reserves. In addition to operational and cost benefits, such a move could bring civil-military relations benefits as well because of the extent to which the reserves are better integrated into American communities than the active force.

The current fiscal crisis also offers an opportunity for the Army to downsize its incredibly inefficient basing structure. Although the Pentagon -- with President Obama's support -- asked Congress for one or two more Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) commission cycles, the historical mechanism used to close bases, Congress demurred for political reasons. The Army should ask again, and make the only argument that can break the current political logjam in Congress over basing: that basing inefficiencies will cost the Army valuable training dollars that could save lives in future wars.

Finally, and recognizing the enormous costs associated with the manpower-centric Army of today, the Army must now invest more heavily in unmanned systems and concepts that will produce the Army of tomorrow. Over the past 100 years, the "American way of war" has evolved to increasingly substitute technology for labor, to send a machine instead of a man. The technology exists today to field unmanned tanks, artillery batteries, and logistics convoys, to name just a few. Today's Army leadership should embrace these new technologies and find ways to better incorporate them into the force. This might start with a grand challenge to design and build unmanned tanks, or a large-scale simulation at the National Training Center which pits a manned tank formation against an unmanned one. The time to invest in these technologies and concepts is now, not immediately before or during the next war. The current fiscal crisis may provide a window of opportunity to do so because of the enormous potential that unmanned systems offer to reduce manpower costs.

It's possible (but unlikely) these troop cuts are a bluff, a gambit that Congress will react negatively to the threat of furloughing troops and closing bases, and respond instead with more military funding. It's also possible (and more likely) the proposed cuts are merely an opening round of negotiations with Congress -- and that the final troop count will settle somewhere between the Army's current strength and its proposed slimmer self. If so, either proposition carries enormous risk. In this fiscal environment, Congress may well call the service's bluff -- or take these voluntary cuts as a sign the Army has enough fat that it can cut even more.

Historically, changes like those described above have not happened without military leaders standing up and stepping forward, because of the enormous political influence they wield by virtue of their positions and the extreme deference on Capitol Hill to the uniformed military leadership. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army chief of staff, and his colleague Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, must seize this opportunity to do more than reshuffle their battalions. The Army of the future will bear as much resemblance to today's force as today's force bears to the Army that fought the Vietnam war. But the nation's oldest service will not get there from here if it continues to embrace such incremental change.