What is the “Right” Size for the Military Force? – Perspectives


BidenMapNapThe current Administration has requested and gotten approved cuts of 49,000 US Soldiers, in the Active Army alone.  In 2009, it began to cut 20,000 from the National Guard, quietly, without publicity.  This year, Fiscal Year 2012, which began on October 1, 2011, begins the Active Army’s implementation of the 1st cuts implemented by the current Administration.  This is not the first time in military history that the military has been reduced in size, but it is the first time that it has occurred during a war.  And the Secretary of Defense, along with members of the Joint Chiefs have warned that these cuts may not be over.

This begs the question: How big must the military be in order to succeed in it’s mission?  Well, the answer depends on the question of what the politicians expect our military to be able to do?  And here we need the historical context of how that has changed in the last 3 decades.

In the 1980’s, we faced an expanding Empire, that challenged the United States and Our Allies technologically, as well as exceeded our numerical capacity.  Our Allies in Europe and Asia understood the threat that Communism posed and helped bridge the numerical disadvantage, while we accelerated our technological edge and developed a Professional edge in Troops that volunteered to stand the wall, and in sufficient numbers dedicated their lives to that pursuit.  The mission was defined as the capacity to fight and win TWO prolonged wars/fronts simultaneously.

The enemy, the Soviet Union, possessed sufficient Nuclear Weapons, Biological Weapons, and Chemical Weapons, as did we, that any war would have likely have destroyed the bulk of North America, Europe, and Northern Asia.  Both sides understood that any war of weapons of mass destruction would result in Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), and were rational enough to want to avoid that lose-lose scenario.  Both sides also realized that a “Conventional War,” which at that time meant a war devoid of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), which wasn’t a commonly used term in those days, would almost assuredly turn into a war of WMD, if the two Superpowers confronted each other on the battlefield.  At times, each had leaders that were thought of as just crazy enough to use those Nuclear Weapons, and that served to keep the other side a bit unsettled.

The nuclear powers we face today cannot be trusted to understand that a nuclear strike against us would assure their own destruction.  Both Iran and North Korea are led by individuals that believe that even killing a few million Americans is worth the complete annihilation of their own people.  The Chinese are still rational enough to know that a Nuclear War is not in their interests, and count more on their leverage with our insatiable need for new loans than the threat of MAD.

Instead, the Superpowers fought “proxy” wars, where one or the other might be actively engaged, while the other trained and supplied its enemy’s enemy.  These wars occurred in Viet Nam, El Salvador, Nicarauga, Angola, Cuba, Grenada, Colombia, Peru, Brazil, and Afghanistan, sometimes with proxy vs. proxy and others with Superpower and proxy vs. proxy.  The closest we came to direct conflicts between the two Superpowers were Korea, Cuba, Germany, and Poland.  More than once, the Nukes were readied, as were the Conventional Forces, for WWIII, most times, without the public ever knowing. 

By the end of the 80’s, the anticipated winner of the Cold War battlefields was America and her Allies.  After 40 years of creeping gains of Communism, the United States had turned the tide.  It had evicted Communism from Grenada, El Salvador, and had the Nicaraguan Dictator against the wall.  The Soviets had lost their will to fight in Afghanistan.  The United States had amped up the Arms Race with technology and Troops to a point that imploded the Soviet economy.

Not only did we prove that we could beat their proxies, but that our proxies could beat theirs.  When the cowboy-President, Ronald Reagan, stood on a stage, in range of East German & Soviet rifles, and uttered the words: “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this Wall,” it sent shivers through the Soviet Empire’s leadership, and strengthened the resolve of the East German people, the Polish people, and all of the oppressed in Eastern Europe.  The World knew, President Reagan was just crazy enough to fight the Evil Empire if they attacked their own people, again.  The Soviet Empire fell under the weight of its own people and overstretched economy.

Without a perceived threat, and as we watched our potential enemies fall one by one, to their own people, the Allies determined that we should cash in “The Peace Dividend.”  We could cut back the amounts we spent on defense, as we were “entering a period of peace,” where no nation could realistically challenge us on the battlefield. 

Initially, we maintained the policy and goal of being able to fight two wars simultaneously, and winning.  There were still enemies of sphere of the old Communist Empire, North Korea, Cuba, and to a lesser extent, China, but given the number that had already crumbled, it was expected they would soon follow. 

The Bush Administration concluded this meant 12 Army Divisions, with only 100,000, not 250,000 stationed in Germany.  It was politically easier to reduce the number of Troops overseas than in the Congressional Districts of politicians, because Troops spend money on the local economy, even where those Troops are not liked.  Still, 6 fewer Divisions, meant there would also be fewer stateside bases, so an independent commission was set up to decide which weren’t needed anymore. 

Even those areas that displayed an open hostility had Congressmen like Leon Panetta fighting to keep  some of the Military, like the Naval Post Graduate School and Presidio of Monterey, in their districts, even as they salivated over the prospect of municipal governments taking over vast areas of Federal land, like Ft Ord, handed to them on a silver platter, after expensive government cleanups.  The Federal Government didn’t just give the land away, it spent billions before doing so.

China had been a pseudo-ally against their Communist brethren in the Soviet Union, but seeing the fall and failures of the Soviet Union, they struck out on a course differently.  They chose to implement limited capitalism but not democracy.  And when they crushed calls for democracy at Tianamen Square, the stalled, half-stepping response by the Senior Bush was sufficient to erase the memory of his bold actions in Operation Desert Storm. 

The collective memory of a stunning Victory in Iraq, soon turned into a festering wound, as President H.W. Bush was questioned for “not finishing the job,” as Saddam continued to posture, and denied he had lost.  The President who had seen his approval rate soar as a result of his resolve and reliance on General Powell and General Schwarzkopf to get the job done, saw it plummet as a result of his dithering on Tianamen Square, and the resulting economic downturn of decreased military spending.  Between the saber-rattling of Saddam, the dire economic predictions, his caving in to Congress on his pledge of “Read my lips: No New Taxes,” and the apparent reliance on polls to tell him what to do over Tianamen Square, the electorate turned against him and chose a replacement.

The Clinton Administration decided to cut the military more, from 12 to 10 Divisions, to close and give away even more Military bases, inside the United States, to promote a plan to “take care of Military Families,” which meant that spending in the Military went to stateside construction projects, rather than equipment, supplies, and training.  And oddly, while the Administration was expanding operations to pay for the give-aways of Military bases, it was forcing private owners of lands to “sell” it to the Government for “National Parks.”  It was costly on every front, both the giveaways to local government and the forced acquisitions from private individuals.

But even the Administration admitted that 10 Divisions weren’t enough to win Two Wars, simultaneously.  So, it developed the 1 + 1 policy.  This policy called for being able to win one war, while fighting the 2nd to a stalemate until the first war was concluded.  The danger of this policy was that should the first war start, everyone knew the 2nd would be fought only to prevent defeat, not to win.  So, anytime we committed to war, there would be a risk.  As we committed in Somalia, in Bosnia, in Haiti, and in Kosovo, we were cautious to not overextend to allow the North Koreans or others to think we couldn’t commit.  We maintained a proxy, half-stepping alliance in Taiwan, committed to selling them the weapons to defend themselves, but only enough diplomatic resolve to let the Communist Chinese know that an attack on the island nation would result in our defense of the country.

In the Middle East, every President since Carter was elected sought the elusive goal of being “The One” that brought peace.  It represented a chance at the Nobel Peace Prize that Carter had achieved by his partial success in negotiating away the Egyptian-Israeli part of the conflict.  Neither Clinton nor Obama seemed to grasp the concept of negotiating from a position of strength, but Clinton was able to convince both sides to a partial peace, born out of battle fatigue in the effected areas.  Bush Sr and Jr, had plans, but not the ability to convince the two sides to do more than stop killing each other while they were in office.

Our Troops were actively involved in Combat Zones in Iraq, Bosnia, and Kosovo on the day Clinton left office, but none of those were full scale wars.  General Shinseki had been pursuing a policy of converting Our Army from a force prepared for Conventional War, meaning Army vs. Army using bullets, bombs, and rockets, with front lines, to one of Peacekeeping, where there are no front lines, but an attempt to convince local forces not to attack each other.  Shinseki had attempted to remove armored tracks, Tanks and APC’s, and replace them with wheeled, light skinned armor that could withstand sniper fire as seen in Bosnia. 

The Administration had demonstrated a policy of relying on technology and airpower as the premier advantage in these small wars.  When Slobadan Milosevic folded as a result of an air campaign in the Kosovar wars, it was heralded as proof that airpower alone can win.  This concept failed to account for the air war in Desert Storm being insufficient by itself of convincing Saddam to fold, but the naysayers had said that air alone could never win a war, and General Wesley Clark had “proved them wrong.”

The disconnect between the Administration and the Troops he commanded also created political risk in committing them to the risk of the Ultimate Sacrifice.  Instead, the Administration relied on Cruise Missiles to punish enemies.  It demonstrated resolve, at a high financial cost, but avoided the potential of Flag draped coffins returning to America.  At a $1 Million each, they were liberally launched at Iraq, at Afghanistan, and an aspirin factory in the Sudan, effectively destroying $1000 mud huts, and killing Iraqi janitors cleaning the Iraqi Ministry of Defense.

Because the perception in January 2001 was that there was no massive enemy poised to strike, there was no political resolve to massively increase the size of the Military, or the Military Budget.  There seemed to be no pressing need to update the capacity of the Military to fight unknown or unexpected enemies.  The Military had found it’s most pressing mission to be the War On Drugs and at the turn of the Millennium was beginning to see results, as the political leadership had finally demonstrated resolve in Colombia, which had reduced the violence and influence of cartels and Communist Terrorists there significantly by 2003, though it had been a less public campaign for the previous decade.

And while Colombia is still fighting the Communist Narco-Terrorists, they’ve significantly decreased the size and effect of their enemies.  Unfortunately, the combination of victories in Colombia and American attention elsewhere has resulted in the cartels moving to Mexico, which is today as volatile as Colombia was in the 1990’s, and MUCH closer to our borders.  And that violence continues to spill over the borders.

As a result of 9/11, we took the war to the enemy.  And when the President asked for viable options to do so, many challenges arose.  It was a land-locked country with no truly friendly allies bordering it.  There wasn’t a beachhead to be taken.  Deals would have to be made with less than savory allies of varying degrees of interest in cooperation.  Hillary and Bush both reiterated that Nations were “either with us or against us,” and that bi-partisan resolve was sufficient to persuade Pakistan that they didn’t want to be against us.  Musharraf opened his airspace and a few secret bases  for us to operate against their former ally.  That came with secret strings to prevent negative responses in both populations: his and ours, but got the job done.

The War in Afghanistan was an “Unconventional War,” meaning that it was fought by a small number of Special Operations, fighting alongside Afghans.  It was not the kind of war General Tommy Franks liked or wanted, but it was the one that we could win.  Special Forces proved they still had it, in the kind of war they were designed to fight.  200 Special Forces Troops, primarily, from 5th Special Forces Group, along with Afghan allies, including Hamid Karzai himself, and many others later described as “War Lords” defeated the Taliban Government much faster than even the top Generals expected.  A significant amount of that Victory included the use of Air assets, to the point that many may have thought it was again air alone that won the war.  It wasn’t.

The “1+1” Strategy was working, because the War in Afghanistan was not a major conventional war.  We still had virtually the entire US Military available for a war.  And the Troops stationed in combat zones in Bosnia, Kosovo, and elsewhere were not sufficiently engaged by enemies to warrant either significant media attention, or concern that those were a true war.  More than 10 years after the Cease Fire in Iraq, Iraqi forces were still shooting at our pilots patrolling the No-Fly zones.

In 2002 and 2003, the new focus on providing a technological advantage to the Ground Forces had still not had sufficient opportunity to outfit 10,000 Troops in Afghanistan with Body Armor or Armored HumVees, let alone advanced radios.   Suddenly, the advent of a war without a front created an urgency in the American population, for body armor to be available to the Troops and for HumVees to be armored.  It didn’t matter that the HumVee was not designed as a combat vehicle or that there had never been wide spread use of body armor in modern battle.   Suddenly it was “Bush’s Fault” that he had not ordered it, not Clinton’s, or Bush Sr’s, or Reagan’s, or Carter’s that no one had thought to increase the personal protection measures that had not been on the battlefield since the days of Knights, Swords, and the advent of firearms that had rendered personal Armor ineffective.

But a new concern was on the horizon:  Everyone knew that Saddam had Chemical & Biological Weapons, WMD, and was pursuing nukes.  Nancy Pelosi, Bill & Hillary Clinton, and others in both parties confirmed that this was no secret to them.  Fewer knew that Saddam and bin Laden had pursued an unholy alliance based in the animosity between Bill Clinton and Saddam, a limited alliance of convenience, but many knew that Saddam had been supporting Hamas and Hezbollah, along with any other terrorist in Palestine for decades.  Saddam even complained that his unwavering support of terrorists against Israel went unthanked by his Arab neighbors.

Fewer still would note that the unholy alliance of convenience had resulted in Saddam sponsored terrorist training camps in Fallujah and Nasiriyah, because such an alliance made little sense through Western logic. And though this is documented, from times prior to Bush, many still deny it.

When Bush Jr convinced Congress, with bi-partisan support, to authorize the use of force in Iraq, it was the opening of the FIRST Conventional War in the 1+1 policy.  The +1 contingency wasn’t Afghanistan, which was considered won, but with North Korea.  The +1 fear was Liberia, Serbia, Syria, Libya, and Iran.  Iraq was a conventional war, and it too led to Victory faster than the Generals expected.  Iraq was won very fast.  Saddam’s forces put up more of a fight than in 1991, but still crumbled against a superior force of a smaller size than 1991. 

Our Military was smaller in 2003 than in 1991, and we committed 1/4 as many to take a much greater piece of Real Estate, with the understanding that Iraq was a more advanced country, more ready to take over its future.  SecDef Rumsfeld was effectively demonstrating his long held belief in the “small footprint” policy in winning wars. It was the very opposite of the Schwarzkopf Strategy of “Overwhelming Force” that had won the first time, but we also had a much smaller force to draw from.

By the end of 2003, we had won two wars, one Conventional and one Unconventional, while seeing the effects of our resolve work to remove the atrocious dictator of Liberia through “battleship diplomacy,” and see the old belligerent, Iran, get very nervous, and quiet with US Troops on two borders.  Soon Qaddaffi would voluntarily give up his own WMD program, and even Kim Il Jong made overtures to appease the world of his own programs.

Though stunned by the response of the United States, the primary enemy in the Global War On Terror not only recovered, but had a long term plan.  They determined that Iraq would be the central battlefield.  It was more advanced and more important, strategically and historically than the land lost in time, Afghanistan.  The long term plan of the enemy was not a new strategy, and was based on American history in Viet Nam, the rallying cry of war protesters since their victory in defeating American resolve in that era. 

The strategy was used in Somalia, by an enemy we didn’t know we were fighting: Al-Qaeda, and their Victory over Our Politicians was far quicker than they had imagined.  The strategy was patience, of accepting tactical defeat, and in simply outlasting American Memory and Resolve, of taking massive losses on their part, and inflicting a few losses on ours for long enough that American Politicians could convince the American People that it wasn’t worth it anymore, or vice versa.

The shift was to inflict a civil war by riling up old animosities in their target population: Iraqis.  It built on any belligerent they could find: Shi’a, Sunni, Kurd, Tribal Smugglers, or Ba’athist.  The remnants of the Ba’ath loyalists of Saddam may have been the natural enemies of Al-Qaeda, but Al-Qaeda was more than willing to help them stir up problems, through their other common unholy ally: Syria.  Soon, the Shi’a were exacting revenge on the Sunni’s for the years of abuse under Saddam.  And when the Sunni exhibited patience with it, the Shi’a terrorists began attacking their own to get both sides more riled.  This 2nd or 3rd war in Iraq took the Coalition by surprise, as had the mass looting of Iraq by common thugs in the aftermath of their new Freedom.

It took a few years, for America, including the Military, the Politicians, and the Public to come to terms with the sectarian violence in Iraq.  And more than one General in charge figured the violence would flame out if we simply didn’t take sides.  Interfering in “Green on Green” violence was forbidden in the early years of both fronts.  Green on Green violence meant that neither side was our enemy, nor our allies.  They were 3rd party disputes, and we didn’t have a dog in the fight.

It took 6 years, before the Bush Administration decided that “Nation Building” was an important part of winning.  He had campaigned against the policy in 2000, and it was at the darkest hour of the War in Iraq, when General Petraeus was chosen as the man with the plan to turn things around.  It was called “COIN,” and had just been re-written.  Adopting the Petraeus Plan was in many ways an admission he had been wrong.  It was an admission that McCain had been right in his calls for more Troops, that the opposing party had been right for its policy of Nation Building, that the situation in Iraq was spinning out of control.

If the political opposition had been intellectually honest, they would have endorsed the new strategy, as being built on their own policies of Nation Building, but instead they attacked Petraeus as “Betrayus” and called him a liar, when he presented the facts to Congress.  The Presidential Candidates used the hearings as a political campaign stop, rather than in using the event as an opportunity to find the truth about the operations.  And even after the plan was demonstrated as a success, the attacking politicians failed to admit the failure of their slogans, even as they called on Petraeus to provide them with their own victories, with the bonus of accepting a demotion to do so.  He always proved to be the bigger man, and obliged them, for the sake of his Nation.

Counter-Insurgency wasn’t a new concept.  The manual had been there for a long time, but the Petraeus Plan was a different kind of Counter-Insurgency.  It included Nation Building, as well as an aggressive offensive against the enemy, even if it avoided the term.

Strangely, by 2008, some politicians were actively campaigning for Iraq to pay back the United States for their new Freedoms.  I say this was strange, because that call originated with the same politicians that had previously called it a “war for oil,” and openly or by implication, accused our own government of fighting in Iraq to expand an empire, or to steal their assets.  It seemed rather strange to me that they would then openly call for Iraq to pay the United States, giving up the moral high ground, and open the door for world-wide propaganda, proven by such demands.

Politics effect the battlefield, almost universally in a negative manner, and the political campaigns of 2004 to 2008 were no different.  Between the time Congress had in bi-partisanship approved a War in Iraq and the war had started, one party had turned against it, and the 2004 campaign used it as a wedge issue.  By 2006, the public had largely turned against it, based more on slogans than reality.  It had been claimed, repeated, and was believed that Troops in Afghanistan had been decreased to send to Iraq.  It wasn’t true, but it made for a good campaign.  Politicians ignored 25 arguments they had supported in 2002 for the war, as well as their own stated convictions for the 1 they claimed was disproven.

It was good enough to change the party in power from 2002 to 2008.  The party that campaigned against the War in Iraq, that campaigned for retreat from the war, took complete power in Washington in 2009, and not even the POTUS could change that direction he had set in place on the campaign trail.  He was able to ignore his campaign promise to pull ALL Troops out within 18 months, but he was unable to convince the Iraqi Shi’a government to reconsider an agreement for US Troops to stay past the 36 month mark.

Strangely, it was the War in Afghanistan that was the bigger contention.  He had campaigned on it as the “Good War,” yet in office he demonstrated reluctance to support the Generals in charge of it.  General McKiernan never saw the Troops he requested to win it, before he was fired for failing to toe the party line of apology for actions of Troops doing what the Afghan village had asked them to do.  General McChrystal soon found himself on the outs with the politician he had voted for, and having to fight for less than the bare minimum he told the POTUS he needed to turn it around.   In many ways, his attempts to declare a public policy of restraint, while endorsing aggressive maneuver behind the scenes worked against him.  But when the POTUS that put him there failed to give him the time of day, he resorted to getting the message out any way he could.

The political debate had changed from fielding a force that was prepared only for COIN operations, rather than Conventional Wars, to one of fighting a Counter-Terrorism war rather than a Counter-Insurgency war.  The irony of it was that only 8 years earlier, the party of the Vice-President was arguing for Nation-Building and VP Biden was now the senior politician arguing against it, while the party that campaigned in 2000 against Nation-Building was putting up a weakened defense for COIN in Afghanistan.

So, with the “Total Army Force” (Active, Reserve, and National Guard) being reduced by 69,000 between 2009 and 2014, is it possible to still achieve the policy objectives of the National Command Structure?  If one assumes that the new policy is to fight only in the Counter-Terrorism spectrum, and only within Coalitions in Conventional Wars, maybe.  If one relies on drones, rather than humans on the battlefield perhaps.

But what would that mean and is it even feasible?  Our primary allies in Europe drew down their forces long before we did.  The European Union has meant that the chance of war in Europe is a remote possibility, and they can afford a smaller force than when the Soviet Union loomed across the Fulda Gap.  There is more turmoil within the individual nations of Europe than from their neighbors.   The Cold War finally brought relative peace to Europe, something not even WWI could do.

But the operations in Libya demonstrate the fallacy of relying on Coalition Allies for our own security.  Within weeks, our European Allies had run out of ammunition and even when they pretended to be operating alone, the US had to provide logistics and intelligence, as well as ammunition.  And the challenges of Afghanistan itself demonstrate many of the problems of War by Committee of Nations.  The Brits and Germans train Afghan Police according to their model, while the US has a different perspective on the concept of Police Operations.

And the experiment of drone based Counter-Terrorism in Yemen and Pakistan demonstrate the weaknesses of using that as the basis for Foreign Policy.  There is a time and place for Counter-Terrorism, which is to say surgical strikes that ignore the sensitivities of the host nation, but there is great danger in ignoring the sovereignty of allies, even reluctant allies, by saying that a pilotless plane is not an invasion of their airspace.  On a small scale, they may accept with a wink and a nod that the attacks are killing a common enemy, but when overused, they are forced to respond to the outcries of their own citizens at the lack of sovereignty and control of their own skies.

The Pakistan experiment since 2009 has seen unfavorable opinions of the Paki people towards the United States go from multi-decade lows to multi-decade highs, not simply because we took OBL, but because that was preceded by a drastic increase of attacks within their borders by unmanned drones.  Had they not been previously disposed to find fault in American actions, they would have accepted the necessity of taking out OBL as they did when we captured Khalid Sheik Mohammed.  Had we “played” it right, the Paki Politicians would have claimed the drone attacks as the actions of their own military, out of necessity for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

And the Yemen experiment continues to demonstrate that American allies can’t trust our Politicians, as does the Egyptian experiment, even when they are fighting for their very existence against our most  obvious enemy, Al-Qaeda.  Counter-terrorism is in many ways a necessary American arrogance, but it cannot be the exclusive covert policy of the United States, for the defense of Our Citizens and National Interests.

 So, if the National Strategic Policy is to conduct only Coalition Wars, or just Counter-Terrorism operations, then it is possilbly achievable with a much smaller, poorer equipped force, but given the fact that Our Allies can be as fickle as our own politicians, and Counter-Terrorism operations can be counter-productive, we cannot rely on that as our National Defense Policy.  Cutting Our Force, in the middle of increased, not decreased uncertainty in the world, is the WRONG policy.  It is not just dangerous, but straight up stupid.  If we cannot protect our beans, with bullets, someone will take our beans with their bullets.


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