What Time Magazine Doesn’t Understand about the Army

Two weeks ago Time Magazine published an article criticizing the Army’s inability to adapt to what it sees as a new security environment, where the U.S. is increasingly unlikely to engage in large ground wars and instead focus on limited encounters such as the recent raid to grab Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai in Libya.  In particular, the piece takes the Army to task for being too large and focused on fighting enemies that look like it does.  There’s little need for an army of half a million men and thousands of tanks, argues author Mark Thompson, when the country “is more likely to face enemies that are terrorists, insurgents and other small-bore bad guys than large standing armies.”  The obvious solution then, especially in an era of budget cuts, is to reshape the Army into a smaller and more mobile force centered around special operations forces.  But while Thompson’s argument is well intentioned, it makes a familiar mistake: trying to pigeon-hole the Army into one specific role.  The army has a diverse set of missions, which means it must be a complex and large organization.  The Time article glosses over this point and contributes to the confusion surrounding the Army’s future.

The first thing to realize is we have been down this road before.  After every war, the U.S. has demobilized and cut spending on the military.  While some of this is to be expected (and demanded), previous experiences show we have often cut too far, leaving the armed forces unprepared to fight the next war. The problem is that with every drawdown we shrink the size of the Army, but not our willingness to use it.  As a result, because we’re unwilling to pay for the army we need in the present, we end up paying an even higher price in the future.

The second fact to realize is that the name “U.S. Army” is misleading.  Our military may be commanded, staffed, and funded by Americans, but it’s actually the army for more than just the United States – it’s a global Army.  Unlike other armies of comparable size, the U.S. Army is tasked with defending more than just our borders; it’s forward deployed all over the world to provide security to allies and stability to entire regions.  This is because the Army is a key tool of U.S. grand strategy.  Since the end of WWII, the United States has acted to prevent any country from attaining hegemony in a region like it has in the Western Hemisphere.  To do this, Washington has worked to ensure the U.S. military is the dominant force in all areas of the globe, capable of dominating any combination of potential challengers.

However, U.S. strategy isn’t solely focused on domination.  Another key aspect of U.S. policy is co-opting key states and turning them into clients and partners.  After all, the best way to prevent a peer challenger is by converting aspiring states into allies that have a stake in the U.S. remaining the most powerful country in the world.  Here again, the Army plays a major role by providing security and stability to important allies all over the globe. As such, prevailing U.S. grand strategy uses the military as both stick and carrot.

The result of this policy is that the Army faces a wide variety of threats.  While the primary danger to the U.S. homeland may be terrorists, the same is not true for our friends in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and elsewhere.  The very weapons systems and personnel that Thompson advocates eliminating are the same ones that allow us to uphold our commitments to these countries. Some may argue these are commitments we shouldn’t be making, and that U.S. grand strategy should be changed to one favoring a smaller overseas footprint.  But many of the greatest benefits of our military flow from using it as a political tool. By acting as a global security provider, the U.S. is able to leverage its position of strength in support of countless political, economic, and military ends.  Drastically shrinking the Army and narrowing its focus to simply “small-bore bad guys” would undermine this highly successful strategy.

Third, the Army’s job is to be ready, not efficient.  Of course the military shouldn’t be a money pit, but it’s also not a business whose chief concern is money management. Shrinking the size and mission of the Army is only worthwhile if the nation truly cannot afford a large and diverse military or if the strategic environment permits it.  Neither of these things is true today.  The U.S. spent 4.4% of its GDP on the armed forces in 2012, hardly a budget breaking amount.  The main drivers of Washington’s deficits aren’t military spending, but rather the slow economic recovery, an inefficient tax code, and entitlements such as Medicare.  During the Cold War, the U.S. maintained an even higher level of spending without ill effect.  The U.S. has and can support a large and diverse military.

Likewise, the strategic environment facing the U.S. does not support the changes Thompson is proposing.  In addition to the earlier point about the Army being a global force and political tool, the U.S. still faces large, conventional threats.  Whether it’s guarding against a revisionist Russia in Europe or managing China’s rise in Asia, the United States must plan for a potential great power war, or smaller proxy wars, where conventional military strength will play a deciding factor.  And while nuclear weapons and economic interdependence make these scenarios unlikely, prudence dictates that Washington factor them into its long-term planning; despite their improbability, they carry the highest risk of devastation and must be included in national strategic preparations.

Fourth, as I pointed out in an earlier post on retrenchment, a large, powerful, and diverse military facilitates strategic flexibility, which is a hallmark of a great power.  This is a priceless gift, as it gives policymakers more ways to reach their goals.  A perfect example of the value of strategic flexibility can be seen in the evolution of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.  What initially started as a limited engagement focused on ousting the Taliban evolved over time to a mission centered on counterinsurgency operations and nation-building.  While the relative success of each of these strategies can be debated, the ability to pursue alternative strategies rests on the fact that the U.S. military is large and advanced enough to permit different approaches to a given problem.

Last but not least, it’s important to realize the Army has adapted to the post-9/11 world. As Thompson points out himself, the Army has more than doubled the number of special operations forces it has since 2001.  This is not to say that further increases in manpower are not warranted (they are), but it does refute the perception of the Army as an organization completely resistant to change and unable to adapt to future threats.

In sum, the central problem with Thompson’s analysis is that he doesn’t appear to understand the complex role the military plays in U.S. foreign policy and strategic planning. Furthermore, he is guilty of the same mistake he levels at the Army – that it is stuck in the past.  Thompson bases his argument for a smaller, leaner, and more mobile Army on the Pentagon’s experience in the Middle East since 9/11.  Yet as the U.S. pivots to Asia to focus on the rise of China, it is likely that the strategic environment facing the United States will slowly resemble something closer to a new Cold War, with containment and the balance of power the primary objectives, rather than a repeat of the past decade.  To focus the Army on fighting terrorists and insurgents could mean positioning it to fight the last war, rather than the next one.  Of course it’s impossible to know for sure what the future will bring, which is why it’s important to plan for as many scenarios as possible.  This is why you don’t throw out decades of experience and assets on a bet as risky as whether the U.S. will wage another large ground war in the future.  To do so would be irresponsible and it’s why Time Magazine doesn’t understand the Army.

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