Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s plans to reduce the size of the U.S. Armed Forces have made a lot of headlines this week.
Obviously, the decision to cut the military’s size down to “pre-WWII levels” has been very controversial. While Hagel himself has said that the cuts reflect the coming transition away from 13+ years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some numbers before we go on:
– 522,000: the current number of active-duty soldiers serving in the Army, the largest armed service. This is down from a wartime high of 570,000.
– 490,000: the number of active-duty soldiers to which we are set to shrink by 2015.
– 440,000 to 450,000: the number of active-duty soldiers we will have if Congress approves Hagel’s proposed cuts.
The DoD recommendation also lays out plans to cut the A-10 “tank-killer” aircraft and reduce military benefits to meet new spending requirements. The changes are partly intended to allow the military to invest more in cyber warfare programs and marine projects.
(Also, the National Guard would shift to have a greater focus on domestic disaster relief, which I think sounds cool.)
Obviously, this decision has been very controversial. Critics argue that the new proposed personnel numbers would make it impossible for the military to fight wars in two theaters, which has been a cornerstone of U.S. military doctrine for years.
On the other hand, in 2011 the U.S. spent more on defense than the next thirteen nations combined, with many of those being our allies. Hagel himself has said that these cuts would leave the Army “weakened, but still ready…this army force would be able to win in one combat theater while defending the homeland and helping an ally in a second theater.”
Other sources have described the new force numbers to be “capable of defeating any enemy but too small for long foreign occupations, and would involve greater risk if US forces were asked to carry out two large-scale military actions at the same time,” according to The Telegraph. To some people, that is great news, while others will doubtless believe that this move, if it succeeds, will leave us inexcusably vulnerable to threats and destroy jobs.
My first thought on this will not be surprising to any of you who have read my writing before: I think we can most certainly afford to cut down on our defense spending, and that, as other writers have pointed out, this will hopefully lead to fewer “wars of choice,” or invasions like Iraq, made to serve interests not directly related to national security. (Anyone who reads this and thinks that the Iraq invasion was conducted for the right reasons, please just go ahead and read Fair Game.)
That said, I am not convinced that Hagel’s proposals, even if passed by Congress, truly reflect President Obama’s promised shift “away from a permanent war footing.”
As some of my favorite journalists, including Jeremy Scahill and Mark Mazetti, have pointed out, the past decade or so has seen a remarkable shift to using drones and covert special forces raids to carry out America’s Global War on Terror in secret.
Currently, only about 1% of the American population serve in our all-volunteer force, a fact that has led to less public debate on the use of force – fewer people have a personal stake in sending our troops overseas. (For more on this issue, check out Rachel Maddow’s excellent book Drift.)
So while I am in favor of downsizing our military and decreasing our exorbitant defense spending, this move should be matched by a change in doctrine, one that forces more accountability in determining when, where and how America uses force abroad. Otherwise, this shift will only reflect a deeper divorce between the public will and the exercise of American military power.