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How Much Army Do We Really Need - And For What?

Earlier this week, my editor called my attention to a recently released Congressional Research Service report entitled "How Big Should the Army Be?" When he does something like that, it's a pretty good indicator that he wants me to write about it.

The report notes that the Army's authorized active strength is projected to drop to 475,000 by the end of this month. That number is the lowest since World War II, whence considerable angst on the part of defense hawks.

House and Senate versions of the FY 2017 Defense Authorization Act propose modest increases and decreases respectively. Since, on current evidence, neither version is likely to be enacted, still less resourced in the budget, 475,000 is where the Army likely will remain unless and until Congress and the next president can come to terms on a budget.

Meanwhile, speaking Wednesday to Philadelphia's Union League, Donald Trump promised to increase the active Army to 540,000, roughly the level prevailing during Afghanistan's "surge." 

Independent cost estimates for that and other Trump force proposals range from $450 billion to $900 billion over 10 years. Those estimates don't trouble defense hawks, but do trouble deficit hawks, who doubt the realism of Mr. Trump's suggested means of financing the increases, ranging from the ever-popular reduced waste and duplication to chasing tax cheats. 

But the underlying question addressed by the CRS report is less how much Army is affordable than how much we require and for what. Notes the report, "The role that the U.S. military generally - and the Army specifically - ought to play in advancing U.S. interests is the subject of considerable debate." As a recent Stars and Stripes article commented, "DOD is still trying to figure out what it needs to be ready for."

The debate in question revolves principally around two issues: what enemies the Army should be built to fight, and how it should be sized to fight them. Both issues also continue to be hotly debated inside the Army. 

Concerning the first, defense hawks argue that the reemergence of great power threats from Russia, China, and eventually Iran resurrects a conventional military challenge not seen since the end of the Cold War, even while unconventional threats from terrorism to insurgency persist undiminished.

In turn, that has revived an old and internally divisive question: can an Army designed primarily to fight and win a conventional war against a technological peer such as Russia treat unconventional threats such as ISIS and the Taliban as lesser included challenges?

Clearly, a negative answer argues for an Army large enough to furnish units manned, equipped, and trained specifically to deal with one or the other. Framing unconventional threats as lesser included challenges largely obviates that requirement.

Closely associated with that issue is the question whether, even in a conventional war, the Army should be sized to conduct prolonged occupations of hostile territories ‡ la Iraq after 2003. Such occupations are intrinsically manpower-intensive, especially if they must be conducted while the fighting itself is still in progress.

Currently, the approved defense planning guidance specifically abjures such occupations, and it's hard in any case to imagine occupying any significant part of Russia, China, or Iran for very long even in a conventional war. But an affirmative answer once again would argue for a larger Army.

The second issue is even more contentious. Opponents of a larger Army and the budget costs that it would incur point out that advanced technology has steadily increased the Army's firepower-to-manpower ratio, an enhancement still further enlarged by greatly improved joint force integration.

The result, they argue, is that each fielded Army unit is enormously more lethal than its predecessors. Thus, today's combined arms brigades, the Army's primary units of tactical account, arguably furnish more combat capability than a World War II division. 

Critics object that ground combat requirements don't scale linearly. Instead, the demands for manpower increase geometrically with the scale of the contest. That's even more true of a hybrid battle of the sort we've seen recently in Ukraine, in which conventional and unconventional threats mingle indiscriminately.

Finally, there's a more subtle but perhaps even more telling objection to relying on more firepower to substitute for manpower. For better or worse, the past half-century has seen a steady increase in the restrictions placed on Western armies' use of firepower.

Those restrictions became publicly controversial in Afghanistan, where critics complained that overly strict rules of engagement were endangering U.S. lives. 

One can only speculate whether the U.S. would be as scrupulous in a war against a major power. But to the extent that such constraints persist, the case for a larger ground combat force strengthens commensurately.

A larger Army would relieve some of the urgency to resolve these issues, but only at a considerable cost to other pressing claims on scarce defense resources.

Whether that would be prudent is not the least of the challenges that will face America's next president.

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