Analyst: Despite Drawdown, Army Can Handle Threats from Russia, ISIS

Soldiers in formation salute as cannons are fired on Wiesbaden Army Airfield, Germany, to mark the occasion of the casing of the 1st Armored Division colors. (U.S. Army photo)

The U.S. military's largest service is downsizing but still has enough troops to deal with adversaries ranging from Russia to ISIS militants, an independent analyst said.

The Army last week detailed how it plans to cut 40,000 soldiers by fiscal 2018 in part by removing almost a brigade's worth of personnel from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska. While the news was welcomed in some quarters in Russia, the service separately announced plans to send another brigade's worth of heavy equipment to Europe to counter Russian aggression in the region.

Even as the Army downsizes its footprint in the U.S. and abroad, the end of the massive ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan leaves plenty of troops to respond to contingencies, according to Laicie Heeley, a fellow at the Stimson Center who specializes in budgeting for foreign affairs and defense.

"We have the manpower to deal with this," she said.

Troop Levels

The Army plans to cut its active-duty force from about 490,000 soldiers today to approximately 450,000 soldiers by fiscal 2018 in a massive restructuring largely driven by automatic spending caps known as sequestration, according to Brig. Gen. Randy George, director of Army force management.

If sequestration remains in effect, the active-duty component will shed another 30,000 soldiers and shrink to 420,000 soldiers by fiscal 2019 -- a level of troops that George said wouldn't be adequate to respond to threats around the globe.

"The resulting force would be incapable of simultaneously meeting current deployment requirements and responding to the overseas contingency requirements of the combatant commands," he said, echoing similar statements made by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno.

By comparison, at the time of the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., the Army had slightly more than 480,000 active-duty soldiers, according to Census figures. The figure climbed with the wars over the ensuing decade, peaking at more than 560,000 soldiers in 2010, according to Pentagon statistics.

Russian Threat

"We're not dealing with the same level of need for troops that we were five years ago and that even includes any new developments to deal with Russia," said Heeley, who will discuss the war budget during a July 22 forum at her organization in Washington, D.C. "The issue is, right now we're not in the kind of combat that we were and the need is not as great."

Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, President Obama's nominee to be the Pentagon's second-highest ranking military officer, this week said the al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, "does not threaten us at home."

And while Selva and Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, Obama's nominee to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, named Russia as the main national-security threat to the U.S., the Pentagon's recent plans to deploy more weapons to Eastern Europe appear more symbolic than strategic.

The Defense Department is sending to Europe more than 1,000 combat vehicles, including about 250 M1A2 Abrams tanks, as well as M2/M3 Bradley fighting vehicles and M109 Paladin self-propelled howitzers. Odierno last week reportedly said the Army wants to deploy to the region another brigade's worth of heavy equipment.

Even so, the Army is in the process of cutting its European presence to about 30,000 soldiers -- down from a Cold War peak of about 300,000 soldiers.

--Brendan McGarry can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com

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