How much can we lighten up the US military before it is unable to do its job?
Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth recently said her service must “ruthlessly prioritize” its “transformation efforts.” To that end, she said, the military “is going to have to take a hard look at everything we do and everything about how we do it.”
That sounds reasonable … unless you consider that since 2018 the military has already painfully cut billions from its budget to preserve readiness, maintain minimum size, and fund critical modernization programs.
If, as Secretary Wormuth suggests, further cuts are in sight, it could leave us once again with a âhollow army,â unable to respond effectively when the nation calls.
Three years ago, under pressure to collect money, the military began conducting what it called “night court” exams. These reviews have gone âprogram by program, activity by activityâ to make difficult compromises to find money. In 2018, the military reallocated around $ 25 billion to higher priority programs. The military has continued this practice every year since.
Last year, the military released a list of 41 program shutdowns and 39 program cuts made to preserve the appearance of a modernization program. The military’s proposed budget for 2022 reflected even more cuts, including cuts to valuable unit training funds, cuts to the popular Joint Light Tactical Vehicle program, and cuts to major helicopter modernization programs.
This spring, Army Chief Gen. James McConville candidly admitted that three years of “grueling nighttime drills” had taken their toll. âThe first year we took the low fruits and we got to the middle of the tree (the second year),â he said. â(Now) we’re at the top of the tree. There is no more fruit in this tree.
Just to keep up with inflation and preserve some semblance of preparedness, the military’s 2022 budget was to be $ 180 billion. Nonetheless, in its first year, the Biden administration chose to ask for just $ 173 billion, a $ 7 billion reduction in purchasing power. Secretary Wormuth’s remarks hint that further cuts may be underway.
In light of the Chinese threat, some suggest the Navy and Air Force shares in the Pentagon’s budget should be increased at the expense of the military. The problem is, we have “been there, done this”. Since 2008, when the army bore the costs of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, its budget has steadily declined. In the 2022 budget request, the Army’s share is 24.1%, against the Navy’s share of 29.5%.
Still others suggest that the military should shrink in size, downsizing to save money. This suggestion ignores the fact that the military is already almost as small as it has been in modern history and that every army chief in recent times has warned of further cuts. The bipartisan commission to review the 2018 national defense strategy (which included the current Deputy Secretary of Defense and Controller of Defense) unanimously agreed that “the United States needs a bigger force than today if they want to achieve the objectives of the strategy. “
Of course, the Army must continue to turn in on itself and ensure that every dollar it spends provides significant combat capability. Budget stewardship is essential to maintaining public confidence and building the best possible army. The reality is that there will never be enough money, even in a wealthy country like the United States, to fund all military needs, and tough decisions will always have to be made.
But America can afford strong national defense. Even Congress – famous for its conflict and parochialism – seems to understand the critical need to fund the military. This year, the House of Representatives vigorously rejected efforts to reduce the defense budget.
The Senate Armed Forces Committee did the same. Indeed, Congress could end up adding around $ 25 billion to President Joe Biden’s anemic defense budget request, which would go a long way in deterring potential conflicts with adversaries such as Russia and China.
Before the military begins another round of “ruthless prioritization” it would do well to take a look around the “neighborhood”. China, Russia, Iran and North Korea have all embarked on a meteoric modernization of their military forces. The army has not kept pace. Once cut too far, it takes a long time to push back an effective army. As a nation, we will regret it if we allow our army to wither away.
Retired US Army Lieutenant General Thomas Spoehr is the Director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.