‘The Army needs to get a clue’: The US military’s fight over money isn’t really about China

Army MRAP logistics support vessel Hawaii
US Army Sgt. Seth Rutter guides a vehicle aboard a logistic support vessel in Waipio, Hawaii, February 22, 2021.

  • The US military’s shift toward countering China has kicked off a competition for resources among its branches.
  • The Navy and Air Force are seen as likely to get most of the funding for operations across the vast Pacific.
  • Now the Army is trying to fend off a “budget grab” – a losing battle, military officials and experts say.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In the summer of 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, newly elected President Franklin Roosevelt announced he was going to slash the US Army’s budget.

Roosevelt’s decision was not unexpected, for he’d entered office pledging that economic recovery was dependent on personal sacrifice – including a fifteen percent pay cut to all federal employees. If federal employees were making sacrifices, he calculated, then why not the Army?

Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the then-US Army Chief of Staff, vehemently opposed the cuts, but knew that he couldn’t win in a stand-off with the popular president. So while MacArthur worked behind-the-scenes to reverse the budget decision, he swallowed it in public.

But in studying the numbers given him by the White House, MacArthur realized the only way to meet Roosevelt’s budget goal was to either cut his service’s request for new weapons – or gut the US Army officer corps.

It wasn’t actually much of a choice: The Army could always buy new weapons, MacArthur reasoned, but it couldn’t always buy new officers. Then too, cutting senior personnel would mean depriving his service of some of the best young officers in its history, including Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, and Omar Bradley.

MacArthur made the right decision: Eisenhower and his cohort provided the best combat leaders in World War II and, arguably, the best combat commanders in American history.

Army James McConville
Gen. James C. McConville, then the Army’s vice chief of staff, with 1st Armored Division soldiers at Fort Bliss, Texas, July 22.

Of course, 2021 is not 1933 – this is not the Great Depression and Joe Biden’s defense budget does not envision military cuts – but MacArthur’s decision has particular resonance now, as the Army debates whether to spend its money on buying more soldiers or buying newer weapons.

In March, we got our answer. During an address to the service’s powerful advocacy arm, the Association of the United States Army, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville announced that he favored buying new weapons.

While assuring AUSA members that “people are our number one priority,” McConville went on to say that, in fact, they’re not. Instead, the Army is prioritizing a new suite of capabilities – long-range precision fires, a next generation combat vehicle, monies for new vertical lift capabilities and more missile defense assets.

As crucially, McConville has abandoned his previous commitment to increase Army end strength to 550,000 soldiers, an increase from the approximately 485,000 currently in uniform. McConville confirmed that decision on May 11, when he announced a cap on Army end-strength.

But McConville’s announcement might not be the final word on Army strength. According to acting Secretary of the Army John Whitley, it’s likely that the Army might be in line for even steeper personnel cuts, depending on the budget priorities laid out by the White House in its yet-to-be-released 2022 defense budget.

Testifying before the House Appropriations defense subcommittee last week, Whitley confirmed that “there is a lot of risk” to the Army’s bottom line in the new budget, a view confirmed by Texas Republican John Carter, who speculated that, when the final defense budget is decided, the Army would take “the lion’s share of the cuts.”

Which is to say that when Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks and her boss, Lloyd Austin, receive the service’s final budget numbers (sometime over the next two months), they are likely to shift resources from the Army into the Air Force and Navy.

US Army Extended Range Cannon Artillery Paladin howitzer
The US Army’s Extended Range Cannon Artillery during testing at the Yuma Proving Ground, November 18, 2018.

Their logic seems unassailable, even for Army partisans: The American military’s “pivot to Asia” has left land forces on the outside looking in, the service is facing increasing challenges in attracting new recruits, the nation’s grindingly slow, but certain, retreat from the Middle East has downgraded the need for Army counterinsurgency resources, and the Pentagon’s new-found love affair with cyber and networked battle systems has left the Army scrambling to remain relevant.

“This is a service in search of a mission,” a senior Pentagon official says. “When the US does any sabre rattling, it’s going to rely on the Air Force and Navy, not the Army. The Army has a pretty small sabre.”

McConville knows this better than anyone, as his service’s recent history shows.

Back in 2009, Air Force Chief Norton Schwartz and Chief of Naval Operations Gary Roughead signed a secret memorandum committing their services to “joint forces integration” to meet what they viewed as the emerging challenge to American military primacy – especially in the Pacific.

The Army responded by accusing the Navy and Air Force of a “budget grab,” but initiated their own pivot: In 2014 the service created a Pacific Pathways program that increased the number and tempo of training exercises with Pacific military allies.

It also launched a crash program to identify new weapons systems relevant to the Pacific environment (long-range precision fires is the poster child of the effort), and inaugurated newly formed security force assistance brigades to relieve regular Army units of combat advisory missions.

In addition, most recently, it created three “multi-domain task forces” to target ships, satellites, network precision fires and engage in cyber warfare.

Not surprisingly, the first MDTF (which was the centerpiece of McConville’s March 16 transformation plan), has been deployed to the Pacific.

Army Multi-Domain Task Force soldiers
Members of the Army’s Multi-Domain Task Force, or MDTF.

But at least for a few senior Pentagon civilian officials as well as senior retired Army officers, the new initiatives reflect the Army’s bid to be a part of the Asia pivot. It’s not clear that the bid is working.

America’s major Pacific partners, including Australia, have shown little willingness to host a permanent Army presence in their nation and most of the Army’s recent Pacific Pathways training efforts have focused on island nations with few military assets (like Micronesia and Palau).

The Army’s plan to field new weapons systems has also met with skepticism. One retired colonel who has advised McConville describes the Army’s effort to develop over-the-horizon artillery capabilities as “designing a bigger catapult,” while another defense analyst scoffs at the Army’s initial plans to develop a new vertical lift capability.

“In any future war, anything flying under 50,000 feet will be destroyed in the first five minutes,” the analyst tells Responsible Statecraft, “and McConville knows it.”

This same defense analyst asks the question that he says is likely to be posed by Hicks and Austin when they view the Army’s final budget numbers: “What happens to the Army when it doesn’t have anyone to fight?”

The likely result of this, defense budget experts speculate, is not only that the Pentagon’s focus on China will mean a focus on the Air Force and Navy – at the expense of the Army – but that if McConville wants to fund modernization (new weapons) and readiness (with increased small-unit training), he will have to do so with budget numbers that will yield a cut in Army end strength.

Such a choice has, in fact, been on offer since at least October of 2020, when retired Marine Col. Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, provided a detailed breakdown of the Army’s budget choices: “In an environment of constrained resources,” he concluded, “the Army will need to cut existing Brigade Combat Teams if it wants to build new units and procure new systems. So far it has been unwilling to do this.”

Cancian confirmed his views in an interview at the time: “I simply don’t see how the Army doesn’t come under the ax,” he said.

US Army recruits basic training
US Army trainees wait to be in-processed at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, October 30, 2019.

So it is that Army end-strength is now seen as the “low hanging fruit” for those calling for cuts in defense spending. For good reason: Just as military personnel numbers eat up a large portion of Pentagon outlays, cutting personnel, too, is the easiest way to save billions.

A recent proposal circulated among members of the House Armed Services Committee called for cutting four infantry and two armored brigade combat teams, and their support personnel, for a savings of approximated $18 billion. The bottom-line figures mean a 12% reduction in the Army, yielding a final force of 390,000 soldiers.

The proposal goes on to note that, since the current number of 31 Army brigade combat teams stand at 80% manning levels “a cut of 12 percent would have no impact on combat capabilities.”

The claim seems more than notionally true: The Army maintains trip-wire deployments in Europe (just over 25,000 soldiers), South Korea (under 20,000 soldiers), the Middle East (estimated at just under 2,000 soldiers) and Afghanistan – where the US Central Command is currently overseeing a redeployment of some 2,500 soldiers.

“The Army needs to get a clue,” the senior Pentagon official who spoke to Responsible Statecraft says. “It’s not that the US military is pivoting to Asia. It’s that it’s pivoting to the Air Force and Navy – and has been for the last 10 years.”

As crucially, and though this factor has remained largely unstated in the defense media, there is a sense that what the Army is objecting to has nothing to do with American strategy, or which service is best positioned to add value to future defense needs.

Rather, what the Army fears is that the Air Force and Navy will begin taking a larger share of the nation’s defense dollars – and at their expense.

Army soldiers jungle Hawaii
US soldiers conduct squad operations at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, February 17, 2021.

The Army’s objections are a perfect expression of what is wrong with the military-industrial complex: The conflict is not over who is best positioned to fight who, but over who gets what.

Then too, and most recently, it’s become apparent that senior Army officers realize the threat to their service’s budget comes not only from its sister services but also from defense intellectuals who view the Navy and Air Force as front-line responders in the Pacific – with the Army relegated to a support role.

Some of the Army’s arguments smack of desperation. Writing in War on the Rocks on May 6, Lt. Gen. Charles Flynn and Lt. Gen. Laura Potter pleaded that a future Pacific conflict in which the Army plays second fiddle would be a mistake.

“U.S. air-, cyber-, and spacepower are essential to securing American interests in the Indo-Pacific,” they wrote, “but we are unaware of any historical example where a war ended at sea or in the air – or in space or cyberspace for that matter. Does the United States compete in those domains? Absolutely. However, war is won, and peace is preserved, on land.”

That’s nonsense.

The War in the Pacific, in World War II, ended when the Japanese government decided it could no longer win without a Navy (which had been destroyed, though not by the Army), nor prevail against the onslaught on air corps bombers that were burning down their country. The denouement was delivered on two of their cities by US aircraft.

Even US Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, whose troops defeated the Japanese in New Guinea and the Philippines, realized his victory was possible only because his soldiers were delivered ashore by Navy transports, defended by Navy aircraft carriers and protected by an air corps that shot the Japanese out of the sky.

Or, as one retired senior Air Force officer told me several years ago: “The Army needs to realize that the Pacific is blue, not green.”

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