Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Monday announced plans to shrink the Army and Marine Corps over the next five years.
By 2019 – barring another war – the active-duty U.S. Army will reduce its end strength from 490,000 to a range of 440,000 to 450,000 soldiers, the smallest it has been since before World War II.
The end strength announcement was part of the larger budget roll out where Hagel announcement the Pentagon's proposed 2015 fiscal year defense budget highlights. Congress still needs to sign off on the proposal before President Obama can approve it.
The Army currently numbers just over 520,000 soldiers. At 450,000, it would have 30,000 fewer soldiers than it did before the 9/11 attacks. Hagel further warned that the Army would have to shrink to 420,000 soldiers if sequestration cuts are not rescinded by Congress.
Hagel said the Army no longer needs such a large standing force following the change to the defense strategy shift that determined the U.S. military will no longer size its force for prolonged stability operations. The defense secretary also said the reduction to defense spending also played a role in cutting Army troop numbers.
"Given reduced budgets, it is also larger than we can afford to modernize and keep ready," Hagel said during a Pentagon press briefing.
However, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said slashing the Army's end strength number to 420,000 soldiers is too large a risk.
"We're all willing to take a risk, but none of us wants to take a gamble," Dempsey said at the Pentagon briefing with Hagel. As for the possibility that Army strength could go down to 420,000, Dempsey said "I'm telling you, 420 is too low." The Marine Corps would also see its end strength shrink under the proposed budget. Hagel proposed reducing the Corps from 190,000 Marines to 182,000. If the sequestration cuts are re-imposed in 2016 as they are scheduled to do, the Marine Corps would shrink to 175,000.
The announced reduction to end strength didn't come as much of a surprise. The Army's 450,000 figure was put out on Feb. 11 by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno during a panel discussion before the Council on Foreign Relations. Odierno said 450,000 soldiers was the smallest the Army could go without seriously crippling its ability to respond to crisis around the world.
"The end strength numbers come as no surprise because the Pentagon has been talking about them for a while. What DOD needs is an end to sequestration and to know what the bottom is so they can plan appropriately," said Joe Davis, national spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Hagel also said that Army Special Forces would grow – from the current strength of 66,000 troops to 69,700. The reason for growing Special Forces, he said, is that they "are uniquely suited to the most likely missions of the future."
The reserve forces would be trimmed by about 30,000, including 20,000 from the Army National Guard and 10,000 from the Army Reserve by 2019. That would still leave more than a half million men and women, with 335,000 in the Guard and 195,000 in the Reserve component.
Odierno warned during a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations that downsizing the Army had its share of risks. He said reducing end strength just because the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were coming to an end didn't always make sense.
"It's easy to say, ‘I just don't see us having another conflict again,'" he said. "Well, I heard that in 1980. I heard that in 1990. And I heard that in 2000. And yet, we're constantly engaged."
Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defense for Manpower, Reserve Affairs and Installations during President Reagan's first term, said too much is being made out of the fact that, in terms of personnel, the Army by 2019 would be smaller than any since 1941.
"If you take a look at how technologically more sophisticated the Army is now prior to 9/11, and what its mission is – relying more on special operations forces and drones," a smaller numerical force does not carry grave risk, Korb said.
"But if you should get involved in a large land battle for any reason, you've got another 500,000 people in the Guard and Reserve if you need them, and they did a pretty good job in the [Iraq and Afghanistan] wars," he said.
- Bryant Jordan can be reach at email@example.com