War Stories

The Army’s Next Big Fight

Protecting its own budget from Panetta and the pols.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on his first day at work

It’s a fair bet that when Leon Panetta took the helm of the Pentagon last week, one of his marching orders was to find more ways to cut the defense budget, and not just around the edges.

One result of this is that the Army will very likely take a whacking.

That’s probably the plan, anyway. Obstacles may, of course, intervene. The next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, is an Army officer—the first to be named to the military’s top post in a decade. And the new Army chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, was a fierce defender of turf the last time his service was threatened with deep budget cuts.

So we may soon witness either a burst of creative adaptation from the Army’s top brass—or a major bureaucratic fight.

There are four tempting arguments for slashing the size of the Army.

First, the Pentagon will spend $159 billion this year on personnel—more than the $142 billion it spends on buying weapons systems. (The total budget comes to $671 billion, including $118 billion for fighting overseas wars.) That’s a big, shiny target for any administration seeking to cut the federal deficit.

Second, if the goal is to find fast ways of cutting the deficit, cutting payrolls is fastest of all. When money is authorized to buy a weapons system, it takes a while—sometimes a long while—to spend that money. For instance, according to the Fiscal Year 2012 edition of the National Defense Budget Estimates (also known as the Pentagon’s “Green Book”; see especially Table 5-11), only 15 percent of the money budgeted for a Navy shipbuilding project actually gets spent in the first year. Another 25 percent is spent in the second year, 20 percent in the third, 15 percent in the fourth, 12.5 percent in the fifth, and still another 12.5 percent in the sixth. (Similar figures apply to building military aircraft, missiles, and armored vehicles.)

To spell out one implication of this unalterable fact of military contracting, the Fiscal Year 2012 budget includes $2 billion to buy one DDG-51 Aegis destroyer for the Navy. Of that sum, only $300 million (15 percent of it) will wind up being spent in the first year. By the same token, if Congress or the White House removed this $2 billion destroyer from the budget, only $150 million would be saved in the first year. (And the Pentagon would probably have to pay “cancelation costs,” which are routinely incorporated into weapons-procurement contracts.)

In other words, killing weapons systems is not a very good way to cut the deficit quickly.

But cutting $2 billion from the budget’s military personnel accounts would save between $1.6 billion and $1.8 billion in the first year and all but a small fraction of the rest the year after. Big savings happen instantly.

A third tempting argument for cutting the size of the Army is that very nearly all U.S. troops are about to pull out of Iraq, and President Barack Obama announced last month that he was “winding down” the war in Afghanistan as well. Would anyone care to argue that we are likely to send 100,000 or so soldiers into another war soon? Or that we face the slightest chance, in the foreseeable future, of fighting a big land war in Europe or Asia?

The Army now has 570,000 active-duty soldiers. It has already made plans, with little or no controversy, to reduce that number by 49,000, all of them enlisted personnel, in the next four years. It wouldn’t take much analytical prowess for an accountant in the Pentagon or White House to figure out how to make those cuts faster and deeper and to put some officers on the chopping block, too.

Finally, the fourth argument: There is one section of the defense budget that consumes more money than personnel—Operations & Maintenance, which includes fuel, spare parts, and repair and training facilities: the goods and services that make a war machine run. The amount for O&M in the Fiscal Year 2012 budget comes to $314 billion—more than the sum for personnel and weapons procurement combined.

A little more than one-third of this amount, $110 billion, is related directly to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and this sum is drawing down along with the troops. But that leaves just under two-thirds, $204 billion, for operations and maintenance that would be going on anyway.

That’s a lot of money, considerably more than the amount for personnel. And in one sense it’s the easiest money to cut. (Things like nuts, bolts, and bullets aren’t manufactured by big, politically influential defense contractors.) But at his July 1 swearing-in ceremony, Panetta pledged there would be “no hollow force” on his watch as defense secretary. A “hollow force” is the phrase often used to describe the military of the 1970s in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, when the Pentagon continued to buy big-ticket weapons systems but not the bits and pieces that made them run, shoot, or fly. Panetta will no doubt take a scalpel to the O&M budget—as a former White House budget chief, he knows it’s the best place for bureaucrats and legislators to hide pet projects—but he probably won’t take an ax; he seems more disposed to focus on protecting these accounts from potential ravagers.

And so that leaves, again, the personnel budget—with a special focus on the Army personnel budget. Cutting Air Force or Navy personnel would mean getting rid of airplanes or ships, a move that would sire a separate set of controversies. (Then again, it’s likely that Panetta will cancel or cut back some planes and ships, if just to spread the pain; the Air Force and Navy’s troubled Joint Strike Fighter, aka the F-35 stealth aircraft, is a likely candidate. * But there will be limits here, as his predecessor, Robert Gates, already cut a few dozen systems, and further cuts would spark political fights, especially given the already-high unemployment rate.)

By contrast, cutting Army and, to some extent, Marine personnel would mean erasing brigades or divisions from the roster and warehousing their weapons—which could then be transferred to other units as training or replacement gear, for more savings still.

None of this is necessarily to say that the Army or Marines should be slashed—only that they almost certainly will be, given the traditional end-of-wars syndrome, the enormous pressures on the federal budget, and (a new factor) an emerging coalition of anti-war Democrats and anti-spending, isolationist Republicans.

In any case, look very soon for Panetta to order a study on the future roles and missions of the Army and Marines (or perhaps of all the military services). Look for every national-security think tank in Washington to get in on the action and do the same. And look for the Joint Chiefs to “war game” the various options laid out on the table—and to publicize far and wide the most doom-laden scenarios.

Gens. Dempsey and Odierno, the new JCS chairman and Army chief of staff, could play a critical role here, one way or the other.

In 2001, when George W. Bush became president, and his defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, stormed into the Pentagon determined to cut the size of the Army by 20 percent, it was Odierno—then a one-star general in charge of “force management” in the office of the Army’s deputy chief of staff—who prepared and delivered the briefing that persuaded Rumsfeld not to order the cuts after all.

In the decade since, Odierno has served as division commander, corps commander, and finally commander of all U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq—before returning to the States to head the Joint Forces Command, which was in charge of planning and monitoring the readiness and flow of troops and materiel to U.S. commanders worldwide.

Times, of course, have changed. In 2001, the U.S. military—and especially the Army—was about to embark on two wars that turned out to be more protracted and costly than anyone had imagined. Now, in 2011, the military is moving away from those wars and getting involved in some new ones that don’t involve much in the way of U.S. ground troops at all.

The question is this: Will Odierno reprise his earlier role and defend the Army’s status quo against an assault from within—or will he build on his higher rank, and his considerable experiences, to help reshape the Army into a force suitable for what might be called the “post-post-Cold War era,” an era after the two surges of Iraq and Afghanistan, an era of armed drones, tight budgets, a war-weary public, yet instability and dangers nonetheless?

Correction, July 6, 2011: This article originally referred to the Joint Strike Fighter as the Joint Strategic Fighter. (Return to the corrected sentence.)