Given budget pressures and widespread disillusionment with the outcome of the American counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, critics contend that the United States does not need a large, active-duty Army but should instead rely on other nations and reserve forces. As land power advocates and the Army’s leaders push back, debate rages. This is not simply a quibble over budget figures. Rather, it reflects a monumental strategic decision. Choices made today about the Army—and the rest of the military—will determine the options available to American presidents years and even decades from now.
A recent essay by defense expert Kori Schake contended that the U.S. Army “needs a better argument” to explain why it should not undertake a major cut in force structure. In a sense, she is right: So far the Army has failed to persuade policymakers, Congress and the community of security specialists that the United States must keep a big ground force at a high state of readiness as the nation adjusts to a period of fiscal austerity. But making the case for ground forces has always been an uphill struggle. The idea of keeping a big peacetime army does not run deep in the American strategic tradition. The historical norm was to keep a small professional force during peacetime, build a big army when necessary, then demobilize it after the enemy was beaten. The only exception was at the end of the Cold War when the United States kept a large army to hedge against aggression by rogue states. The economy then was so robust that the cost of ground forces was bearable. This is no longer true.
The way the Army has been configured has contributed to the idea that it should be slashed. Despite its extensive versatility, the modern U.S. Army was optimized to defeat enemy armies. This made it unique among America’s ground forces: The Marine Corps doesn’t concentrate on defeating foreign marines, and special operations forces don’t focus on fighting the special forces of other nations. So now that policymakers and national security experts believe that future enemies can be defeated with some combination of allied ground forces, air power, the Marines and special operations forces, the Army’s primary raison d’etre is gone.