2021 is shaping up to be challenging for the Army. Recent years have been hard enough: The Army’s budget has been flat since FY2018, which means that, in real terms, it has suffered a decline of over $13 billion in buying power when considering inflation.
These pressures have already forced the Army to make tough choices, including constraining end strength growth, chopping procurement quantities, and paring non-essential programs. In essence, the Army has already been in a budget-cutting mode for the last three years.
Now, with predictions of continued flat defense funding and an emphasis on re-building sea power in the Indo-Pacific to counter China, some say the Army is in for even tougher days ahead. No less a figure than Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—and former Chief of Staff of the Army—predicted a budgetary “bloodletting” in which ground forces would be sacrificed to fund the other services.
“Look, I’m an Army guy,” Milley said last month. “And I love the Army…but the fundamental defense of the United States, and the ability to project power forward [are] going to be naval and air and space power.”
There is some recent precedent for the Army bearing the brunt of Pentagon budget cuts. Consider the last time the Democrats controlled the White House: In the last years of the Obama administration, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (a Republican) and others were pushing the Army down to an active duty end strength of 420,000—today, it’s around 485,000—to free up money for other non-defense priorities.
But the landscape is radically different from the situation facing the nation in 2014-2015. Back then, national leaders were hoping for a post-Iraq-withdrawal peace dividend and were slow to come to terms with Russian aggression in Ukraine or Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, while the Army itself was still wrestling with its changing role. But over the last few years, the Army has re-imagined its modernization programs, which are now solidly grounded in a warfighting concept aimed at countering rival great powers.
To fund those programs, the Army has already scoured its budget. As a result of these famous multi-year Night Court efforts, all the low hanging fruit has already been picked. That makes the job of aspiring external budget cutters harder—even as the need to replace the Army’s 1970s-era equipment has only become more dire.
Finally, there is a bipartisan consensus now that did not exist five years ago, a consensus that China and Russia pose significant threats that cannot simply be ignored and that competition with those countries is a global struggle, not restricted to mainland Asia or Europe. This drives the need for a modern, capable Army, able to defend US interests anywhere they are challenged.
For all those reasons, predictions of a major “bloodletting” from the Army are off the mark. An objective view of the facts reveals that defense department funding—including the Army’s—cannot be further cut without creating an unacceptable risk to the country. Even Congress seems to grasp this: A legislative proposal in early 2020 to cut Defense Department funding by 10 percent was defeated by overwhelming numbers.
To rebuild the armed forces that the nation needs, current and future Pentagon leaders must resist the temptation to start infighting amongst each other and instead focus on the need for overall adequate defense funding. That will be difficult. In almost every past defense downturn, the services have resorted to attacks on each other to grab a larger share of a shrinking pie. That would be a mistake with grave consequences—not just for the military itself, but for the nation.
This piece originally appeared in Breaking Defense