Thinning The Ranks By Sara Sorcher

National Journal
August 3, 2013

With two wars ending during an austerity crisis, the Pentagon plans radical troop cuts. But slashing too much too quickly could leave us unprepared for the next conflict.

When North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, the United States dispatched Task Force Smith to fight the first ground battle. Most of those infantrymen were woefully unprepared: They had no combat experience, had just weeks of basic training, and were armed with outdated weapons. It should not have been surprising, then, that 165 soldiers — nearly one-third of the force — were killed, wounded, or captured. After World War II, the Army had dramatically slashed troop levels, training, and weapons purchases.

The too-rapid drawdown contributed to the disastrous start of the Korean War — and the lesson remains on the minds of Pentagon leaders today as the military begins to shrink after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We cannot repeat the mistakes of the past,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has warned. Pentagon officials already have begun implementing $487 billion in reductions over a decade, and they face an additional half-trillion-dollar sequestration cut. Yet force reduction is a tricky business, and, if it’s not done right, the U.S. risks again sending ill-equipped, poorly trained, and undersized forces into the first battles of the next war — wherever and whenever that may be.

The Army will take the worst hit. In what senior leaders call the largest organizational change since the end of the Second World War, the Army is cutting 80,000 active-duty troops over five years, with an end goal of 490,000 soldiers — just above 2001 levels. It’s eliminating 12 brigade combat teams. With draconian cuts, as many as 110,000 more soldiers could go. The Marine Corps, which had 200,000 troops at its wartime peak, aims to reduce its active-duty corps to about 182,000; as many as 32,000 more Marines could be lost. The Air Force and Navy also need to trim thousands.

“Sequestration would force a precipitous downturn, where you have to take them out faster than you’d like to, and that would be hugely disruptive and result in a hollow force — where you maintain too many divisions, brigades, battalions, but not enough people to man them, so they are understrength and under-trained,” says retired Lt. Gen. Guy Swan, vice president of the Association of the United States Army. “You never want to hit that point…. But there’s a lot of pressure in Washington to drive the numbers down faster than you’d like.”

The military wants to downsize gradually, through attrition and reduced recruiting, to ensure that its leaner force can still fight effectively. Some cutbacks have already started. After a decade of loosened restrictions to encourage people to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, “they’re getting tight again on things like physical-training test failures, overweight soldiers, people who’ve had unfavorable personnel reports in the past,” says retired Army officer John Nagl, a Center for a New American Security senior fellow. Promotions are harder to secure than during the wars. And the Army announced it will tap colonels and lieutenant colonels for early retirement — reportedly up to 30 percent of a pool of 1,200 officers this August — while others wait years longer to earn the ranks of captain and major than their peers who were promoted in recent years.

While these actions may encourage the relatively low performers to leave, the downturn simultaneously makes it harder for the military to retain the talent it wants to keep. Usually, after serving 20 years, troops receive a pension and benefits. In past drawdowns, the military sometimes allowed people with 15 years’ service to retire early and get benefits or a onetime lump-sum payment option, says Nora Bensahel, deputy director of studies at CNAS. But such incentives can backfire. After the Cold War, more captains than expected chose to leave early, forcing the Army to promote less-experienced people to more-senior ranks — a problem that took years to correct. Top performers may seize these options to leave, because they have the best prospects outside the military — especially if they’re discouraged by seeing their bosses denied promotions or having to retire early. “We’ve lost a lot of talent [in] every one of these drawdowns,” Nagl says.

Another challenge is keeping troops engaged. “[More than] 80 percent of the current force came in after 9/11,” Swan says of today’s Army, weaned on multiple combat tours. Life in a garrison military is simply not as exciting, and sequestration is already compounding this problem. The Army is canceling expensive combat-training exercises. “If you don’t have those kinds of training opportunities, it’s really hard to convince the captain who’s coming up to the end of his service obligation out of West Point or ROTC, [who] commanded men and women in Afghanistan — and now all you have the money to do is turn wrenches in a motor pool … [that] that’s a career choice worth making,” Nagl says. The Navy will have fewer ships to command, fueling stiffer competition. The Air Force’s flying-hour cutbacks could prompt pilots to review their options. Across the services, troops will have a harder time getting the overseas tours they need to advance their careers. Military schools, such as the Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., will become more selective, potentially dampening promotion prospects for those not tapped, Swan says, comparing the wartime Army to a youth soccer team where everyone is rewarded. “Not every kid’s going to get a trophy.”

In today’s fiscal environment, however, analysts are skeptical that the military can afford enticements for troops to leave. Retiree benefits are so expensive that forgoing the yearly payroll would be a “frankly insignificant” savings in the near term, Swan says. Worst case, the military is left with the undesirable option of telling troops — even combat veterans — to take a hike. Those who stay may have grim prospects in the next conflict due to lack of training, says Daniel Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute think tank. “If a unit goes into combat, and 20 percent of the people are new and have never operated alongside each other,” he says, “it’s like a game of football where [the players] don’t even know the same plays. This becomes hugely dangerous.”

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