To protect its strategic interests and deter China, America needs a strong, balanced joint force that includes a capable Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Space Force. The overall Army budget has fallen by nearly 11 percent since FY 2018, drastically impacting the service’s readiness and ability to procure new assets. Congress should take a closer look at the FY 2023 budget and work with Army leaders to determine the impact of these cuts on the service and take corrective action.
As this paper is being written, Russian President Vladimir Putin has amassed over 100,000 troops across the border from Ukraine in either Russia or Belarus, organized in approximately 60 battalion tactical groups plus support formations. The equipment in these Russian formations is modern and includes such items as T-72B3 tanks with modern thermal sights and surface-to-surface Iskander-M rockets with ranges up to 500 kilometers.
While Ukraine is not a member of NATO and the U.S. is under no obligation to respond to an armed incursion by Russia, it would be instructive to consider how well-prepared U.S. Army forces are and the time that would be required to mount a credible response. The answer would likely be troubling.
Russia’s posture and behavior would seem to contradict those who would argue that the U.S. has a diminished need for an Army (and should thus shift Army resources onto the maritime and air domains).
As a great power and to deter adversaries, particularly China, America needs a strong, balanced joint force that includes a capable Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Space Force.
Since the significant increases of fiscal year (FY) 2018 initiated by President Donald Trump and supported by Congress, the overall Army budget has fallen in real terms by 10.9 percent. (The FY 2022 budget has yet to be appropriated, therefore this paper uses the defense budget as submitted by President Joe Biden.)
The resulting loss of real buying power has pressured all elements of the Army, but the impacts have fallen most heavily in Operations and Maintenance (–13 percent), Procurement (–32 percent) and military construction (–61 percent) accounts. This trajectory is unsustainable for the Army if it is to remain relevant in great-power competition, now and into the future.
The cuts in buying power that have occurred since 2018 impact the ability of the Army to accomplish its missions. When considering the FY 2023 budget request for the Army, Congress should explore these issues, press Army leaders for a clear picture on the status of the Army, and fund the Army to the level at which it can properly train and equip its formations for great-power competition.
Operations and Maintenance Impacts
Army Operations and Maintenance Accounts are down 13 percent in constant dollars since FY 2018. Some of this reduction can be attributed to a reduction in direct war and enduring costs as a result of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, but the impacts to Army training and other programs are evident.
In FY 2018 the Army’s goal was to train Brigade Combat Teams (BCT) to a level approaching full readiness (94 percent), described by the Army as “BCT(-).” By FY 2022, intense downward budget pressure had forced the Army to abandon that goal, which is currently to “focus on squad, platoon and company level training to achieve highly trained companies.”
This change heralds a return to the poor readiness rates the Army experienced between 2015 and 2017 when Congress was warned only three of the Army’s BCT’s were ready for immediate fighting by the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, General Dan Allyn. Company-level readiness is what the Army has historically expected from National Guard BCTs, not Regular Army. The reduction to a goal of company-level readiness for BCTs has not been publicly discussed.
Further, the Army is increasingly conducting its decisive action training at home station, versus at combat training centers (CTCs), which used to represent the “gold standard” for Army training. In FY 2018 the Army budgeted for 19 rotations at either the Joint Readiness Training Center, National Training Center, or Joint Multinational Readiness Center (the so-called “dirt” CTCs). By FY 2022 that number had declined to 15, a reduction of 21 percent.
Budget cuts caused the Army to scale back its signature Defender-series of exercises designed to practice reinforcement of the European and Indo–Pacific regions. Starting in FY 2023 the Army will only conduct one Defender exercise per year instead of two. Despite forecasts of a very difficult recruiting year for FY 2022, the Army was forced to cut its funding for advertising and recruiting by $51 million.
The impact of the loss of buying power in the Army’s Operations and Maintenance Accounts is driving the service to accept reduced levels of readiness and potentially placing their recruiting mission in jeopardy.
Army procurement accounts are down in funding by 32 percent in real terms from FY 2018. The Army has endeavored to protect their 31+4 modernization programs from cuts, but the price for fencing those programs from cuts has been drastic reductions in procurement in nearly every other Army modernization program. While the “31+4” signature modernization programs are indeed important, it takes thousands of distinct pieces of equipment to field a modern Army.
A comparison of what was projected to be procured in FY 2022 (in the FY 2018 budget request) versus the procurement quantities requests in the FY 2022 budget reveals across-the-board cuts have been made. Significant reductions were made in the aviation portfolio: 18 fewer AH-64E Apache, seven fewer UH-60M Blackhawk, and seven fewer CH-47F Chinook aircraft are requested, based on what was projected to be procured in FY 2018. The planned procurement of the Joint Lightweight Tactical Vehicle was cut by more than half. The Paladin Integrated Management howitzer planned procurement was cut by over half. The Joint Assault Bridge procurement was cut by more than half. (See Table 1.)
It is largely the same Army it was in 2018, when the Army made its estimates for procurement in FY 2022; what has changed is the Army’s ability to procure new systems, creating a situation in which Army equipment is aging more rapidly than it is being replaced.
Military Construction and Family Housing
Military Construction and Family Housing accounts are down 61 percent in real terms since FY 2018. The $1.7 billion requested for FY 2022 represents the smallest amount requested for these accounts in constant dollars since 1963. Under this level of funding Army facilities are aging far faster than they are being replaced. In 2016 the Army had 139,458 buildings with a plant replacement value of $295 billion. At the FY 2022 level of investment, the Army would replace its facilities every 173 years, far longer than any building can last.
The Army, like the other services, has underfunded military construction when fiscal constraints required it, but the current sustained low level of funding is unprecedented and is adding to an enormous facilities liability. The risk being accepted in the military construction accounts means that the Army will be faced with an ever-growing number of failing facilities.
Army leaders have consistently stated that the Army is too small to execute the 2018 National Defense Strategy at less than significant risk. Since the strategy was published the world has become more—not less—threatening to U.S. interests.
The current Army Chief of Staff General James McConville has stated, “The total Army needs to be larger and fully resourced with timely, adequate, predictable, and sustainable funding to reduce the risk.”
To reduce risk, the Army had a plan to grow by a modest amount per year until it reached 500,000 soldiers in the active component. In 2021, however, General McConville announced that due to funding pressure, all plans to grow the Army were on hold. At current funding levels, the Army has no choice but to remain at 485,000 in the active component, even though it entails significant risk.
- Examine the FY 2023 budget documents and closely question Army leaders to explore the impact of four successive years of inflation-adjusted budget cuts on the service. They should specifically focus on the areas of Brigade Combat Team training and readiness, Combat Training Center rotations, and support to training programs.
- Examine funding levels in the FY 2023 Presidential Budget Request for equipment modernization for the Army in other than the 31+4 “signature” systems. Congress should ascertain whether too much risk is being accepted in those areas.
- Require a report on the Army’s ability to rapidly deploy and counter a major land attack, resembling that which might be expected should Russia choose to attack one of the Baltic states.
Strategic Insolvency at Hand?
The Army has the reputation of accepting any task and endeavoring to accomplish it with whatever means are provided. That is admirable, but the same attribute may lead it to understate the impact that current funding levels have on its ability to accomplish its missions. Congress owes the nation a full accounting of the readiness of its Army.
Thomas Spoehr is Director for the Center for National Defense, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.