As U.S. soldiers pull out of Iraq this December, and with 33,000 more scheduled to leave Afghanistan by the fall of 2012, American land forces may find themselves the victims of their own success. The budget deal signed by the president in August promises big cuts in defense dollars, and the burden of leaner budgets is expected to fall on the troops. A key Pentagon review published last year signaled that the future belongs largely to the Navy and the Air Force; Libya seems a proving ground for the use of U.S. air and naval power (combined with that of their NATO peers) fighting to overthrow dictator Muammar Gadhafi without putting U.S. boots on the ground.
“Couple [those conditions] with statements by the president and the secretary of defense that imply a very limited mandate for using land forces in the future, and the Army and Marine Corps are in what I call, the ‘relevance fight,’” says Nathan Freier, a senior fellow at the national security-oriented Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
In a forecast paper, Freier and CSIS director Maren Leed wrote, “Outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates argued in February that future high-end engagements would principally be the purview of naval and air forces, implying that the Army and Marine Corps would be bit players at best in tomorrow’s wars.” The likelihood of the U.S. becoming involved in another Iraq/Afghanistan conflict is considered remote and politically unacceptable. Not only will forces be cut, but their mission will be called into question.
But supporters of a large land-based military promise a fight. “Numbers matter,” says Thomas Donnelly, who heads the Center for Defense Studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. He says the need for more troops became apparent as land forces were shifted from Iraq to Afghanistan. “We could not provide decisive land power in Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time.” His concerns go beyond Freier’s. “Since 9/11, we’ve been pushing ground forces to the brink. We’ve used everything that we have and used it a lot.”
In his view, land forces actually need to grow. “A too small, worn-down fighting force strikes me as a dangerous threshold.”
Freier call this “a historical break point, especially for the Army.” In an email, he wrote, “The human, fiscal, material and political cost of extended wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are forcing influential constituencies to question future Army/Marine Corps participation in the type of nasty ‘small wars’ we have witnessed over the last 10 years.”
Land forces may be losing out in other ways, too. The discussion now in the Pentagon is how to reduce our reliance on those land forces. After World War II, for instance, the Army stopped employing horses, and, beginning with the war in Vietnam, the Cavalry charged into battle using helicopters. The trend now is to swap soldiers for machines. When Iraq was invaded, the military did not use unmanned ground vehicles. Eight years later, there are more than 12,000 such ground systems in use.
“The only part of the defense budget that's growing right now is for unmanned systems and cyberwarfare,” says Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institute, a progressive Washington think tank.
Speaking at Brookings in July, Ashton Carter, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, made clear that the search was on for “capabilities” that would reduce the U.S. reliance on land forces. Many tasks in Afghanistan, he said, “don’t require either uniforms or physical presence.” He cited the example of drone warfare. Contingency contractors, he said, were taking over the delivery of services. “[C]ivilian contractor performance of nonmilitary tasks can compensate for lower force levels.”
Most of all, it was the August budget deal that put military spending in its sights, taking direct aim at land forces. The budget agreement calls for a bipartisan congressional “super committee” to come up with $1.2 trillion in budget cuts by November. Should the committee fail to agree on a plan, it will trigger automatic cuts, half of which must come from the budget line for “security spending,” which goes in large part to the Defense Department.
What those cuts will mean was debated even before the Aug. 2 debt ceiling deadline. A week before the final budget deal, as the Senate Armed Services Committee held confirmation hearings for the incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Martin Dempsey, confusion reigned. “What makes this budget discussion different,” Dempsey told the committee, “is that we’re doing all this while we’re still actively engaged in conflict. That adds a degree of complexity and a degree of uncertainty that we can’t discount.”
Dempsey had land forces on his mind. “If we try to artificially preserve manpower,” Dempsey said, “we will suffer the consequence in modernization, operations, maintenance and training. Conversely, if we just go after manpower, it won’t make any sense to have those resources in operations, maintenance and training.”
In the end, the final budget deal was so topsy-turvy that it may have been meaningless, says international relations professor Gordon Adams. What is more, the changes faced by the military were not due until 2013, after the next presidential election cycle. The entire brouhaha over defense was aimed at avoiding tough budget choices and pushing the decisions past the next presidential election cycle.
“The numbers in the budget are political numbers,” Adams said. “The warranty on this bill says ‘good for two years, after that come back.’”