Why the Army and the Marines should reduce their personnel

As soon as Secretary Panetta announced his intention to gradually reduce the Army and the Marine Corps by a total of 92,000 men, various respectable and not-so-respectable analysts and politicians began to cry that these cuts will be “drastic” and “dramatic” and leave the Army and the Marine Corps too small to wage large-scale ground wars (while not saying when and where exactly would such ground wars be waged and against whom, and while omitting the fact that the American public has no stomach for any further protracted COIN campaigns).

There are MANY wrong decisions and policies proposed in the FY2013 defense budget request. But the decision to keep 11 carriers at the expense of 92,000 troops is NOT one of them. It’s the right decision.

Accusations that Secretary Panetta wants to “dramatically reduce” the size of the Army and the Marine Corps – by 92,000 personnel – are unfounded.

Peter Schweizer cavalierly says that he’d give up a carrier to keep 100,000 “grunts” any day. He falsely claims that:

“if you look at the recent conflicts–Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Libya, the role of the Navy was relatively limited. It was the Army, Marines, and Air Force that did most of the heavy lifting.”

What utter garbage. Schweizer got it wrong. He got it exactly backwards. I’d give up even 200,000 troops in exchange for an aircraft carrier, which is worth much more than 200,000 troops. Grunts can only serve as cannon fodder. They can’t project military might, win air or naval superiority, protect sealanes, or deliver supplies by sea or air.

By contrast, a carrier group can defeat any enemy on land, in the air, and at sea. It’s like an independent nation that can sustain itself for the duration of the conflict. It can go anywhere in the world and defeat any naval, aerial, or ground enemies. It can project military might – a full carrier air wing plus heavily-armed escort ships – anywhere in the world. The very PRESENCE of such a ship near a country’s shore usually sends a signal to that country. If it’s an ally of the US, it tells it the US stands with it. If it’s an enemy, it tells the hostile country to rethink its foreign policy.

Schweizer also showed abysmal ignorance when he blathered nonsense about the supposedly minor role played by carriers in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. In the case of the first two countries, the vast majority of the initial air strikes were conducted by carrier-based aircraft (because few bases in the region were available); three carriers were used in the initial phase of the OIF (plus a British carrier, HMS Ark Royal). In the case of Afghanistan, aircraft from the USS Enterprise were actually the first to strike Afghanistan. On 9/11, the ship was leaving the Persian Gulf, but when the crew saw the news of the attacks live on TV, the ship’s CO, Captain James A. Winnefeld, ordered the ship to turn back 180 degrees and the next day, the ship was so close to the Asian landmass that its aircraft were within striking range of land-locked Afghanistan. If it hadn’t been for the Enterprise’s CAW, the Afghan war could not have been waged at all, because you first had to win air superiority, secure bases, and allow US troops to move into the area and establish resupply bases. Since 2001, carriers have been continually providing air support to US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and continue to do so in Afghanistan because there was, and still is, a need for them to do so.

Oh, and by the way, that same Captain Winnefeld is now Admiral Winnefeld and Vice Chairman of the JCS. He explained the decision to keep 11 carriers well during his most recent media roundtable. He knows more about carriers than anyone else in the country, except other officers who have commanded such ships.

Schweizer’s claim that carriers played a minor role in Libya is not just wrong, it’s downright laughable. Carriers played the DECISIVE role in Libya. Their aircraft carried out the vast majority of the airstrikes, and these airstrikes wouldn’t have been possible at all if Spain and Italy had not allowed the coalition to use their bases and if these carriers had been absent. Fortunately, as then-CNO Gary Roughead said to the Congress during a hearing in 2001, “we come from the sea. We don’t need anyone’s permission to operate.”

Schweizer has also made another mistake. He assumes (as, sadly, many others do) that the wars of the future will be like the wars of the present and the past – protracted, large-scale COIN campaigns like those fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. He’s completely wrong.

Although no one can predict the future for certain and although I don’t have a crystal ball, I can confidently say that another large-scale COIN campaign is extremely unlikely for the next several decades. Firstly, the nature of war has changed and continues to change. Most future wars will be fought against A2/AD enemies, not against insurgencies on the ground. Secondly, geography alone dictates that future wars between the US and China, Iran, Venezuela, or even North Korea will have to be fought in the air and at sea. China is not going to march its huge land army across the Pacific Ocean. Iran will not blockade the Hormuz Straight with a human chain.

Last, but not least, the American public has no stomach for, and will not agree to, any more protracted large-scale COIN wars for the next few decades at least. That’s a political reality that the DOD cannot ignore and is not ignoring. Nor is there any need to launch another large-scale ground invasion of any hostile country. As former SECDEF Robert Gates has rightly said, any defense secretary who advises the President to send a large ground army to Asia or the Middle East should have his head reexamined.

If a war between China and the US erupts, it will be won or lost over the Pacific Ocean. If a war between the US and Iran starts, it will be fought around the question of whether the US can keep the SOH open (and for that, you need a strong Navy). If North Korea starts a war, it’s unlikely it will remain conventional for more than a few days. But even if it does, South Korea has a 700,000-man-strong military.

The bottom line is that Schweizer is wrong to assume that future wars will be like the wars of today and of the past. But even if he wants to assume that, let me remind him that carriers have played an important, and often the DECISIVE, role in every conflict the US has fought since World War 2 – from the battles in the Pacific during WW2, to the Korean War, to Vietnam, to the two fights in the Gulf of Sidra, to the 1986 bombing of Libya, to the First Gulf War (5 carriers involved), to the bombings of Bosnia and Serbia in the 1990s, to Afghanistan, to Iraq, to Libya. These carriers are not toys that sit in their ports unused. Quite the contrary, they’ve been operating incessantly, in large numbers, for the last 70 years nonstop.

Last but not least, his characterization of the Navy as one that has “avoided most cuts” and has skated away with only minor cuts is patently false. The Navy has been forced to give up, for purely budgetary reasons, 7 Tico class cruisers that could serve for two more decades (some of them are BMD capable), 2 LSDs, and several support ships, and will see SSBNs, an SSN, and an LHA delayed.

There are MANY wrong decisions and policies proposed in the FY2013 defense budget request. But the decision to keep 11 carriers at the expense of 92,000 troops is NOT one of them. It’s the right decision.


11 thoughts on “Why the Army and the Marines should reduce their personnel”

  1. Z, I like reading your blog and agree with you quite often, however the air force and navy don’t win wars. Ground troops do. The air force and navy are important but there has never been a war in the history of warfare won by the navy or air force without ground troops. There have been wars one by ground troops alone. Having said that, if somethings got to go – keep the carrier.
    Retired Veteran.

  2. Gray Man, thanks for your service, but ground troops can’t win wars alone these days. One has to win air superiority first (which has to be done by the Air Force or the Navy’s carrier-borne aircraft) and continually resupplied from the air or the sea (usually from both). Furthermore, the nature of the geographic areas in which the US military is likely to fight future wars (i.e. the Asia-Pacific region and the Persian Gulf) dictates that the key battles will be fought in the air and at sea (as well as in the outer space and the cyberspace), and the most important decisive tasks will be to win air and naval superiority, gain access to combat zones (e.g. Taiwan), be able to conduct long-range-strike missions, and be able to operate freely in space and cyberspace – which will again have to be done mostly by the Air Force and the Navy. If you can’t even get to the combat zone, or if you don’t win air and naval superiority, you can’t fight, let alone win. That is not to say that the Army and the Marines will be unemployed – just that the Air Force and the Navy will be playing the main roles this time.

    1. Z, I agree with you, I was merely pointing out that the navy and air force cannot do it alone. The problem with predicting future wars is that we are never right. Rumsfeld said it right “You fight wars with the military you have.” That has been true throughout history. We always play catch up once the war starts. That is why we need to be prepared for every situation we can conceive of including ground forces. The history of warfare shows us that as countries start to get dominated by technology they resort to insurgency and unconventional warfare and quite often win because of that. That’s where the ground troops come in.

  3. Gray Man, you do fight the wars with the military you have, but (unless there were to be abundant funding for defense, which is unlikely to happen for the next decade at least), it is not possible to be prepared for every imaginable contingency. And every dollar you spend to prepare for a scenario that is extremely unlikely to happen is a dollar you cannot invest in preparing the military for those challenges that are certain or, at least, very likely to arise – which today means China, North Korea, Iran, the Communist dictatorships in Latin America, Somalian pirates, and terrorist organizations of global reach, China being the single biggest threat among them.

    In the next several decades, the US military will be fighting enemies who will either be operating at sea and in the air (not to mention the cyberspace and the outer space) or will be protected by seas. Its most important missions will be to win air and naval superiority, be able to operate in all commons (air, ground, sea, space, cyberspace) and strike targets deeply inside enemy territory. This will require adequare investments in systems, units, and troops designed/trained to do that job. On the other hand, where, pray tell, is the US likely to find itself forced to fight yet another large-scale ground war? Iranian soil? God forbid that any future President come up with a harebrained idea of invading Iran. Syria? Better not involve the US militarily there.

    Note that I used the adjective “forced”, as opposed to fighting wars of choice. There’s surely a plenty of opportunities to involve the US in murky, internecine conflicts, but that would be a mistake.

    You’re right about insurgents, but large ground formations won’t defeat insurgents with numbers. What you need to counter insurgents with is the right methods, tactics, and equipment. You need MRAP vehicles, minehunting dogs, and EOD teams (the unsung heroes of the Afghan and Iraqi wars). Luckily, they’re not expensive.

    Look, I respect your service. But given today’s circumstances – the kind of threats America is facing and the tight budgets – I would rather cut personnel numbers further (preferrably in noncombat units) and plugh the savings into bomber, missile, or ship production, rather than decomission the warships that have played crucial roles throughout all the wars of the last 70 years and are likely to play prominent roles again. Navies and AFs don’t win wars alone, but they will be playing the main roles in the next 3-4 decades – in what are predominantly maritime areas.

    1. While I respect your writing and agree with you most of the time, most military thinkers think future war will be insurgency. We won the Indian wars with none of the above. We beat the insurgents of the Philippines with none of the above, we beat the insurgents of Vietnam with none of the above,
      the Brits beat the insurgents of Northern Ireland with none of the above etc,etc. You win insurgency wars with people on the ground, history shows that as far back as the records of warfare go. Even Sun Tzu knew that. The romans conquered with ground troops. The mongols conquered with ground troops. Ground troop won the civil war and the indian wars. We didn’t win WWI, WWII, with the Air Force, and the Navy (Of course they were an integral and important part). It was the Army entering Berlin and capturing and holding territory, It was the Marines capturing and holding territory, that won WWII. It wasn’t the bombing and navel attacks that won all of the major wars we have ever faced (yes even vietnam) it was the ground troops. If the current leadership recognized islam for the enemy it is and wanted to win in the war
      with islam the ROE would be changed and we would also win that war with ground troops.

      1. Z, don’t get me wrong, I agree with getting rid of a bunch of “dead weight” in the Army, unfortunately the “dead weight” stays and the fighters are thrown out.

      2. Gray Man, the Romans and the Mongols conquered with ground troops because there were no aircraft and no AFs in their age. And the Romans didn’t conquer solely with ground troops. To win the Punic Wars, especially the first one, which was mostly naval, they had to build a strong navy and win naval battles (and ferry their troops across the Med from Italy to North Africa).

        As for Vietnam, no, we did not beat the Vietnamese insurgents, even though by 1968 there were 550,000 American ground troops in Vietnam. To beat the Vietnamese insurgents, a large ground army would not be needed, anyway: all that was necessary was to protect the population of the geographically small South Vietnam, or at least the residents of the Mekong Delta, from the Vietcong. That area constituted just 10% of the ROV’s territory but was home to 80% of its population. LTG Victor Krulak developed a plan to do just that, but it was rejected by the Johnson Administration.

        As for WW2, you were miserably wrong. We didn’t win it solely, or even mainly, with ground troops. The USAAF and the Navy played very important roles, and in the Pacific, by virtue of geography, the lead roles, in defeating the Axis. In Europe, defeating Germany would’ve been completely impossible without the USAAF and the USN. Not just hard, but completely impossible. Without them and their allied counterparts, there would have been no one to ferry ground troops across the Med to Sicily and across the Channel to France, no one to win air superiority (a sine qua non in any modern war), and no one to conduct strategic bombing of Germany, without which the Germans would’ve been churning out weapons much faster and in much larger quantities, and would’ve probably perfected V2 missiles. Heck, without air superiority, there would’ve been no one to stop the Luftwaffe from bombing Britain in 1940!

        In the Pacific, the USAAF and the USN played the lead roles. They were the ones who won air and naval superiority, sinking the Japanese Navy in the process, and defending Australia from the Japanese Air Force. They (in this case, primarily the Navy guys) were the ones who ferried troops and supplies to dozens of combat zones, including Guadalcanal, Bataan, the Philippines, Okinawa, and Iwo Jima. The USAAF conducted strategic bombing of Japan, and ultimately ended the war by using nuclear bombs against Japan, thus ending the war quickly and sparing us additional bloodshed. If it hadn’t been for nuclear weapons, the US military would’ve had to launch a ground invasion of the Japanese main islands, fighting ground battles, city to city, home to home, that would’ve been even deadlier than the Battle of Okinawa.

        If the current Administration were to recognize jihadis as enemies, there would not be another ground war. There would be a strategic bombing a la Operation Linebacker II, and we would call it a day.

        “Most military thinkers think future wars will be against insurgencies”? What thinkers? Members of the cocktail party club in Washington DC? I don’t care what they say; they are completely detached from reality and live in their own fantasy world. The view that future wars will be fought only against insurgencies is popular in the Beltway, and Robert Gates has been peddling that lie for years, but it’s false.

        If one actually looks at the world and its geography, and understands who America’s enemies are, one sees that the vast majority of them are state actors, not insurgencies: China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, and others. And all of them are maritime nations sitting on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, the Persian Gulf, or the Carribean Sea. Fighting any of them, whether just at sea and in the air or on the ground as well, will require an Air Force and a Navy second to none, as well as the ability not just to win air and naval superiority but to be ble to operate freely in the outer space and in cyberspace as well. Of course, if you want to launch a ground invasion of ANY of these countries, you have to reign supreme in the air and at sea, too, otherwise, how are you going to invade them? Moreover, the US will be fighting these enemies, or at least keeping them at bay (to prevent war), in predominantly maritime theaters – the Pacific, the Persian Gulf, and the Carribean. This means that the Air Force and the Navy will pay the lead roles, with the Marines helping and, when needed, launching amphibious invasions, while the Army will be playing only a minor role. Sorry, but that’s just the reality. The Army and the Marines played the lead roles in Afghanistan and Iraq – now they will have to be content with secondary roles.

        I am not saying that ground troops should be cut deeply. I’m not saying that the Army or the Marines should be cut below their pre-9/11 size. I’m just saying that they should be cut somewhat, but any cuts beyond what Panetta has already proposed should be made in noncombat units.

        As for cutting overhead and HQ personnel and budgets, it CAN be done. All it requires is the right DOD LEADERSHIP.

        And since you like to quote ancient strategists, here’s a quote from the ancient Greek strategist Themistocles, who saved Greece from consquest by Persia:


  4. I understand your argument, but the fact of the matter is no war has been specifically won by air force or navy. All wars won in history have required ground forces. All the fire bombing of germany didn’t do it, all the navel battles of the pacific didn’t do it. It required ground troops to hold land so that the air force and navy could function. If that were not the case then why have either? Just use strategic missiles and drones. By the way it was battle of plataea and the battle of mycale that stopped the Persians. The navy was instrumental, but it did not stop the invasion by itself.

    I’m not arguing that air force and navy are not important, but I am saying that in the age of technology one tends to think of technology as the answer to the problems of the world, including warfare. But, the more complex a system is the easier it is to break down and fail. The air force and navy are complex systems. That is why, for example, China is working on EMP. Shut down complex systems and it all falls back to ground troops.
    I repeat no war has ever been one without ground troops. Plenty of wars have obviously been one without the air force, and plenty have been won without a navy being involved.

    1. GM,

      A few wars have actually been won without ground troops – vide the 1995-1996 bombings of Bosnia and the 1999 air campaign against Yugoslavia (Serbia, actually). In Europe during WW2, ground troops were essential, but it was the air wings that saved Britain, established air superiority, bombed Germany and its troops into oblivion, and delivered thousands of paratroopers. Without them, victory would’ve been impossible or, in the best case, would’ve been achieved much later, as it was the air wings that were bombing the facilities that produced the weapons, ammunition, and supplies for the Wehrmacht (as well as military trains). In the Pacific, it was the NAVY and the USAAF who won the war, not the Army. It was the Navy that established maritime superiority, blew the IJN out of the water, carried troops to hundreds of islands larger and smaller, and cut off Japan from any supplies, while the USAAF crippled Japan,s industry and cities through strategic bombing and ultimately ended the war by dropping 2 nuclear bombs that allowed the US to force Japan into surrendering rather than risk a bloody land invasion that would’ve cost hundreds of thousands of casualties.

      The decisive battle of the Greeks’ war against the Persians was the battle of Salamina (480 BC if I recall correctly), not Platea or Mycalae. It was at Salamina that the Persians – up until then successfully conquering Greece and marching from victory to victory – were finally defeated and Greece saved. Mycalae and Platea were cleanups. Later, post-war, the basis of Athens’ military prowess and political influence was the Navy of the Athenian Union/Symmachia. Themistocles was right: he who controls the sea controls everything.

      Ground troops won’t mean anything in the Asia-Pacific region, the Carribean, nor in the Persian Gulf if you don’t have a strong Navy and a strong Air Force. Do you want to invade an Asian country with a large army? How are you going to ferry that army rom the US to the said country? Obviously you need a large Navy to do that. How are you going to protect troop transports from being attacked by enemy ships and aircrat? Obviously you need a strong Navy to do that. How are you going to make sure they’re not hit by enemy aircraft once they land ashore? You need a strong Air Force to do that.

      The only wars ever won without an Air Force were ones that happened prior to WW2, and the only ones ever won without a Navy being involved were ones involving countries that were situtated next to, or close to, each other on the same landmass. There haven’t been relatively many such wars.

  5. No, there wouldn’t be. The Coast Guard is already too small and too strained to cut it.

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