The compromise version of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act approved by the House Dec. 8, and by the Senate Dec. 15, is a general win for national defense: it contains additional funding for needed equipment, delays premature retirement of capable systems, and steers clear of contentious social issues. But one provision in the bill appears to be flying under the radar: the legislation precipitously shrinks [PDF] the US Army by 33,000 soldiers, a six percent decrease in just one year. The cut locks the Army into a downward spiral that will ultimately jeopardize US national security.
Maybe we should not be surprised. Last June, the Army’s Vice Chief of Staff, Gen. Joseph Martin, predicted at a Congressional hearing that due to extreme recruiting challenges, the Army might be down to as few as 450,000 soldiers by the end of fiscal 2023—well below their 2022 authorized strength of 485,000.
What is surprising is that the Army then apparently asked for the cut. A report cited a Congressional staffer saying the Army approached Capitol Hill and requested their active duty strength be cut to 452,000 soldiers in 2023.
It’s not entirely clear why. It could have been that the Army was worried about asking for pay and benefits for soldiers they feared they would not be able to recruit, and then would have to subsequently forfeit those billions of dollars. Another explanation conforms to the old axiom that it’s better to under-promise and over-deliver, rather than the opposite. By cutting their end strength now, the Army may be able to avoid the negative publicity that accompanied 2022’s failure to meet their goals.
Both explanations are likely correct, but the unfortunate results of this cut will be with the nation for years. Moving forward, the Army, already deep into its worst-ever recruiting period, will have less manpower and money to try to turn around this crisis.
In this high-tech world, there is often a temptation to rely on digital means and campaigns to attract volunteers. But most experts agree it is the personal interaction between a recruiter and a prospect that often seals the deal. With this cut in strength, the Army will have less flexibility to deploy more recruiters to America’s towns and cities. It will also have commensurately smaller recruiting goals with no incentive or ability to try to make up for lost ground.
Even more puzzling is that the Army had barely begun their efforts to try to fix the recruiting crisis. Army Sec. Christine Wormuth’s new recruiting task force hasn’t finished its work, nor has the service had time to field any new initiatives or programs. Good data on why young people aren’t attracted to the military are still hard to come by, even as there is data that shows there are real challenges with attracting able-bodied men and women to the armed forces.
Nevertheless, cutting Army end strength to only 452,000 soldiers locks in the service’s worst projections for recruiting, forestalling any possibility to achieve greater-than-predicted success.
It also increases risk for the United States.
Between 2006 and 2007, the nation needed more ground forces than were available. The Army had to scramble to increase its size. It grappled with the need for more equipment and facilities. It made painful trade-offs to grow by lowering standards. It found that it took at least two years to field brigade combat teams from scratch.
If, after this cut to the Army, the nation once again finds itself needing a larger Army, that will not be easily accomplished. As a rule, it’s always much easier to cut than to grow.
Pundits will argue that the world is different now and America would be crazy to get engaged in wars that require large amounts of ground forces. Yet the world has a way of surprising the unprepared.
Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates famously reminded West Point cadets the United States has a perfect record of predicting where the country would fight next—“from the Mayaguez to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq, and more—we had no idea a year before any of these missions that we would be so engaged.”
This cut of 33,000 soldiers in one year could equate to the loss of as many as eight brigade combat teams, critical combat power for an Army that most of its leaders and external experts already believe is already stretched too thin for the nation’s needs. After all, last three Army Chiefs of Staff have testified to Congress that their service is too small to meet the needs of the National Defense Strategy.
Maybe the recruiting crisis is indeed insolvable, and the Army and the other services must continue to shrink to the point of irrelevance. But by prematurely cutting the Army, we may never find out what was possible in 2023. A better choice would have been to start solving the problems that are impacting recruiting with the help of DoD, Congress, and the White House.
This piece originally appeared in Breaking Defense