TCS Daily

Lean 'n' Mean

By Melana Zyla Vickers - July 19, 2002 12:00 AM

In conflicts from Afghanistan to Kosovo to the Gulf War, there's been no mistaking the fact that the U.S. wages war more effectively than ever, with fewer soldiers than ever. It's no surprise, therefore, that the Pentagon sees the coming months as an opportunity to trim back military personnel.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld could move as early as this fall to cut some 80,000 troops across the services, according to reports this week about plans for the 2004 budget. The main reason: Personnel and operating costs take up almost two-thirds of the Pentagon budget, which is heavily strained. By cutting back from the total 1.4 million troops, the secretary can free up the sums needed to build the weapons and capabilities that will transform the military from a force designed to fight the Soviets to one designed to bring down future, powerful adversaries.

Letting go of people, particularly patriotic, loyal people, is never pleasant, though. Nor is it popular on Capitol Hill, where politicians reflexively equate "I support a strong military" with "I support the current military" or additions to it. So as the Secretary of Defense moves to cut troops and to explain why it's safe and necessary to do so, he'll need all the support he can get.

He certainly has logic on his side. Consider the military's recent experience with:

Ground Troops: In Afghanistan, some 7,000 Special Forces soldiers, Rangers, Marines and light infantry, assisted by local fighters, have largely rolled up the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces. The Army's remaining 470,000 soldiers, meanwhile, have been left cooling their heels. This situation is doubtless frustrating for the sidelined troops, but it has prevented unnecessary casualties.

Air Force: In Afghanistan, thanks to bombers that can carry a greater number of more precise munitions, U.S. war planners have had to depend on fewer flights by pilots over enemy territory than ever before. The Afghan war saw about 90-100 combat sorties per day at the height of the war, compared with 700-800 per day in Kosovo and 1000 per day in the Gulf War. While it's true that there have been fewer targets to strike in Afghanistan, that fact doesn't come close to explaining the change. It's driven by the last decade's improvements in the precision of munitions. Some 60% of munitions that planners used in Afghanistan were precision-guided, compared with some 35% in Kosovo and 7% in the Gulf War. Bombers, which exceed fighters in the number of munitions they can carry, improved the personnel-savings further: Bombers flew only 10% of the sorties in Afghanistan, yet struck 70% of the targets.

Navy: Since the beginning of the budget season that coincided with the Afghanistan war, the Navy has moved to perform one of its central missions - firing cruise missiles from the sea to targets deep inland - with far fewer sailors. It is reconfiguring Trident submarines so that they will be able to carry the Tomahawks, with the following savings in personnel: A Trident sub with some 150 sailors can perform 70% of the missile-firing job of a carrier battle group, which comprises 7,000 sailors.

Not all wars or adversaries are the same, of course, and the U.S. will need a military in the ballpark of a million-plus for a long time to come. But even the Pentagon's most liberal estimates about future wars require fewer troops than in the past. Consider that the most generous estimate of troops needed for an invasion of Iraq - 250,000 troops - is half the size of the U.S. force used in the Gulf War in 1991.

Ultimately, though, the main driver of the cuts is financial. The Pentagon is already $300 billion short of the money it'll need to cover its existing plans for 2008-2018, let alone to cover other changes needed for the Pentagon to transform itself. It has no choice but to seek savings wherever it can find them. And by cutting some acceptable, safe number of troops, budgeters free up not only paycheck dollars but also the operations dollars associated with those troops - the fuel they use, the wear on weapons, and other related costs. Consider that paychecks and benefits alone represent a quarter of the $380 billion defense budget, and it's easy to see how the savings would free up resources for much-needed transformation. It should give room for the Department of Defense to remunerate troops more generously as well. They deserve it.

Personnel cuts will also have another effect. If the military brass had fewer troops to work with, they'd be forced to think about using them the way recent wars have shown is possible, effective, and ultimately victorious. The generals' failure to think creatively in recent times has left civilian officials with the double task of overriding the military advice and doing their own, top-down planning. Yet the overstretched civilians could frankly use the help of some serious, forward thinking by the military brass.

Supporters of the military's current size will retort that there's a war on, and it's no time to be cutting soldiers - echoing the Secretary of Defense's own comment, made last October, that "Now... we do not believe is the time to be cutting manpower." But at that time, the Afghanistan war had barely started. Anyone who now reflects honestly on the fact that in the Afghan war, over 90% of U.S. troops have been nowhere close to the action, has to conclude that the military has both the need and the ability to re-direct some funds to longer-term concerns.

Opponents of Rumsfeld's plans are also likely to point out that the military suffers unduly from cuts. And indeed, quite unfairly, the military has been cut more than any other part of government in the last decade: Some 700,000 troops have been let go since the end of the Cold War, mostly in the early 1990s.

But resisting defense-personnel cuts on the grounds that the rest of the government is bloated is hardly sound thinking. The last thing Americans want is for their military to look like their federal bureaucracy. Rather, Americans want a lean, mean, fighting machine. Painfully cutting personnel is the only true way to make sure they'll have it.



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