A day after the Army announced plans to cut 40,000 soldiers, Defense Secretary Ash Carter stood in front of troops at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and was asked the question on everyone's minds:
"With the inevitable fight with [the Islamic State] and the increased Russian aggression, coming at a time of a 40,000 troop drawdown, do you feel that we're prepared to fight another war on two fronts?"
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Fort Bragg is home to the 82nd Airborne, which just deployed hundreds more of its paratroopers back to Iraq. Almost all of the soldiers in attendance raised their hands when Carter asked how many had served in either Afghanistan or Iraq.
It's not just the reduced troop numbers that will limit the military's ability to react. The brigades the Army is cutting hover at only a 33 percent readiness rate, and those rates won't be improving for the next several years — the same anticipated timeframe of the 40,000 cuts.
"Today only 33 percent of our brigades are ready, when we believe our sustained readiness rates should be closer to 70 percent," Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno told the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee in March, saying that "under our current budget, Army readiness will at best flat line over the next three to four years."
The Army lacks the funds to improve readiness due to sequester-related budget cuts, and is therefore choosing a path that each of the services has pursued to avoid a "hollow force" — cut numbers. And it's far easier to cut people than platforms. For example, the Navy has tried to lay up its cruisers to spend that money on improving the readiness of the rest of the fleet. The Air Force, meanwhile, fought for years to retire B-1s to improve the readiness of the remaining Lancers, and is trying to retire its fleet of A-10 attack aircraft. Congress resisted those cuts.
On the other hand, the first step in the Army cuts — dropping to 475,000 soldiers by the end of fiscal 2016 — has been approved by both chambers.
"The Army has already eliminated all of its major modernization programs, so its most expensive weapons system is now its people," said Mackenzie Eaglen, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "This move is really a last resort and shows how tight funds truly are."
The nation's security strategy calls for the ability to field enough troops, ships, vehicles and aircraft to simultaneously defeat one major regional adversary while deterring aggression from another. Since 2012, as the Army has shed 80,000 soldiers following the end of operations in Iraq, it has repeatedly told lawmakers it can meet the nation's security strategy even as it warns it will be assuming additional risk to carry out that mission.
At Fort Bragg on Friday, Carter told the troops that at a level of 450,000, the Army will still be able to answer the call.
"We can do more than one [of the pillars in the security strategy]," Carter said, but then in a telling rephrase, added, "we have to be able to do more than one."
Part of that resilience is expected to come from agile, smaller forces, and the hard lesson learned that a large land force has not been the answer so far.
"I have no doubt that this force could take out [the Islamic State] — the trick is getting defeat to stick," Carter said. To do that, "there have to be local people who hold territory and ultimately govern territory. We learned that in Iraq."
For now, according to the Army, anything below a force level of 450,000 is its "red line." Below that, the military will face "significant risk" in its ability to defend the nation.
As outgoing Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee this spring, at 450,000, "there is no slack left … There is no margin of error, nor any buffer built in [for] strategic surprise."
If sequestration forces further cuts to 420,000 level, as the Army has warned, "the resulting force would be incapable of simultaneously meeting current deployment requirements and responding to the overseas contingency requirements of the combatant commands."