March 5, 2012 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Shrunken Military May Prove Much More Costly

George C. Marshall measured men. While running the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Colonel Marshall carefully noted those students and instructors who exhibited potential for high command -- even though there were no high commands in the peacetime army.

Years later, when war came, Marshall was tapped as the Army Chief of Staff. And he knew exactly whom he wanted.

The Marshall men quickly rose to prominence. They rebuilt the service from a small cadre of professionals into a massed, disciplined army that fought and won from the jungles of New Guinea, to the Arctic Circle, from North Africa deserts to the Rhine River.

Marshall's personal preparations for mobilizing the American Army are often cited as a great example of how to prepare for future war. On the other hand, had America not gutted its military after World War I -- had it, instead, maintained the capacity to defend its interests worldwide -- the world might have been spared World War II altogether.

Regional conflicts in Europe and Northeast Asia might not have spiraled into a global struggle that engulfed millions.

The lesson Marshall took from the bloody struggle was that it had been a big mistake to put all our eggs in the mobilization basket. His maxim became: "To preserve peace prepare for war."

It's a lesson unheeded by this White House. Instead, President Obama has taken a page from the interwar years -- gutting the military in the name of austerity, even as war clouds gather.

Obama's recent strategic defense guidance calls for significant cuts in troops, planes, ships and other military capabilities. In a CYA move, the guidance also gave a nod toward "reversibility."

Translating Pentagon into English, it says, "If we guessed wrong and it turns out we really need a strong military, some future president will just have to rebuild the force."

Obama has marketed "reversibility" as a hedge in case the future brings something less than a best-case scenario -- say, the "reset" with Russia doesn't pan out, Arab Spring turns into a Reign of Terror or China becomes 1930s Japan incarnate.

In reality, however, "reversibility" drives up risk. Here's why. There is no such thing as a free lunch. To be able to reconstitute capabilities, the services must have the means to do that -- and "that" ain't free.

Each service has basically two kinds of forces. One is the "operating" force -- like what bombed Gadhafi and chased the Taliban in Afghanistan. The other is the "generating" force -- the troops that recruit, train, deploy, and support the operating force.

To build "reversibility" (the capacity to have a bigger operating force in the future), the services will need more generating forces. Today, over a third of the military is already in the generating force -- ranging from almost half the Navy to about 29 percent of the Army.

Since the military will shrink greatly under Obama's budget, the services can only have a bigger generating force by shrinking their operating forces. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno last week said the army might shrink from today's 45 combat brigades to just 32. That means far less military available to defend us -- probably less than there was under President Clinton, when the world was a quieter place.

A smaller operating force reduces the military's capacity to keep small problems from mushrooming into big ones. And when the big problem comes, there will be Hell to pay.

It will cost America a lot more in blood and treasure to rebuild our defenses then, than to maintain an adequate military now.

James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First appeared in The Examiner