In 1991, at the end of the Cold War, there were 710,821 active-duty soldiers in the U.S. Army. By 2001, that figure was down to 478,918. That 32 percent decline in active-duty strength severely limited our options for a military response to 9/11, practically dictating that the forces sent to Afghanistan and Iraq would be too small to pacify two countries with a combined population of nearly 60 million. The result was years of protracted conflict that put a severe strain on an undersized force.
Eventually even Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was compelled to admit that the force was too small. Today the Army is up to 566,045 active-duty soldiers, an 18 percent increase since 2001. That is still too small—a force that size has too little “dwell time” at home and places too much stress on soldiers. It also imposes constraints, helping to curtail the size of the force we send to Afghanistan even though more troops could get the job done with less risk.
But now we learn from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that the force is going to shrink again. Last week he announced that, starting in 2015, the Army is going to lose 27,000 soldiers on top of an already planned cut of 22,000. That will bring the Army's active duty strength down to 517,000—still larger than it was in 2001 but far smaller than it was in 1991, and not big enough to meet all of the contingencies for which it must prepare. The Marine Corps will lose 15,000 to 20,000 personnel. So our ground combat forces—the most heavily deployed forces since the end of the Cold War—will be deprived of 70,000 troopers or almost 10 percent of their strength.
We wish that President Obama, who forced these cuts on Gates and the Defense Department, would explain what in the international situation gives him confidence that we can meet all of our security commitments with so many fewer grunts. The president thinks that most of our troops will be gone from Afghanistan by 2015, but how certain is he that the drawdown will occur as envisioned? How certain is he that Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia won't be the staging ground for another 9/11, thereby requiring another massive commitment of U.S. troops? How certain is he that we won't face a war on the Korean Peninsula or in Iran or in some other land where we cannot currently envision sending American forces—any more than anyone could have envisioned on September 10, 2001, that America would eventually have 100,000 troops in Afghanistan?
The reality is that neither the president nor anyone else can offer such assurances. In fact, at practically the same time that these overall cuts were being unveiled, Secretary Gates was also announcing that 1,400 more Marines are headed to Afghanistan—a deployment that was made in response to events on the ground in order to build on prior success. The fewer troops we have, the less capability to respond to such eventualities or emergencies.
It is not just troop strength that is being reduced, either, although those are the most worrisome cutbacks. Weapons programs have already been eliminated—e.g., the best-in-the-world F-22 stealth fighter. Now the Marines' Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle is due to suffer a similar fate. Individually you can make the case for any of these cuts; it is hard to argue that we cannot defend the United States without the F-22 or the EFV. But collectively they set a worrisome pattern, especially when our biggest foreign competitor, China, is in the midst of a rapid arms build-up that includes fielding a stealth fighter much faster than previously predicted and a new ballistic missile dubbed a “carrier killer” for its ability to target American aircraft carriers.
U.S. defense spending remains far higher than China's and our defense capabilities remain far greater than China's or anyone else's. But our commitments are also much greater. We have to worry about Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, China, Russia, North Korea, Yemen, Somalia, al Qaeda, and myriad other current or potential threats, whereas China can devote all of its might to the western Pacific. We will be hard pressed to resist Chinese designs for regional dominance when our Navy has only 287 ships (down 45 percent from 1991 when it had 529 ships) and is still shrinking.
In defense of these cuts, Secretary Gates cited the need to address our “extreme fiscal duress.” The duress is real, but it won't be solved by cutting a defense budget that accounts for less than 20 percent of all federal spending. Demobilization after previous wars has cost us severely. We experienced that problem as recently as 2001. But at least in the past we waited until a war was actually over to spend the “peace dividend.” Now we are announcing cutbacks while the fighting is still going on. That's indefensible. Luckily, there are Republicans in Congress—and, dare we say, some Democrats—who understand these cuts are dangerous. They should reject them, and the other reckless cuts in a military budget that's already stretched awfully thin.
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