RAND analysis finds Army downsizing plan inadequate for current defense commitments

When it comes to the current plan to downsize the active duty Army to 450,000 soldiers, military leaders have consistently said the force would be large enough to execute the current defense strategy, but only at the “lower ragged edge of risk.”

A new analysis from the federally-funded RAND Corporation begs to differ, and finds “significant shortcomings” in the forces planned to meet three major defense missions the U.S. already promised it would execute: combating terrorism, deterring aggression, and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Those shortcomings are a recipe for future regret by current policymakers, Timothy Bonds, the vice president of RAND’s Army research division told the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Army last week.

The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) laid out plans to confront each of those challenges and while those plans were credible at the time, Bonds said, they were written before the Islamic State occupied large swaths of Iraq and Syria and before a Russian-backed invasion by “volunteers” in Ukraine showed that the Putin government is willing and capable of using force to expand its borders. He estimates the actual demand for Army forces is now about 545,000 soldiers.

“It turns out the Middle East is actually in much worse shape than we assumed in what was described in the 2014 QDR as the ‘rebalance’ to the Pacific,” Bonds told me in an interview for a forthcoming edition of our weekly radio show, On DoD. “The seizure of entire population centers by a terrorist group really wasn’t anticipated. There were indications in the QDR that Russia wasn’t respecting the sovereignty of its neighbors, but that was before it was clear that there would be a conventional Russian attack.”

Perhaps the biggest mismatch between current Army drawdown plans and the force levels needed to carry out its existing commitments is in the area of deterring potential moves by Russia into NATO-member Baltic states, where President Barack Obama recently raised the stakes by with a speech in Estonia in which he told those nations: “An attack on one is an attack on all. So if, in such a moment, you ever ask again, ‘who will come to help,’ you’ll know the answer — the NATO alliance, including the armed forces of the United States of America. You lost your independence once before. With NATO, you will never lose it again.”

Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Army has begun to preposition tanks and other military equipment in eastern Europe. But RAND’s analysis concludes that because of significant drawdowns of the overall U.S. military presence in Europe – 28,000 troops now compared to 70,000 in 2002 – the forces that could quickly respond to a potential Russian invasion would be quickly overrun, and Russian troops could be in Baltic capitals in as little as a day-and-a half.

“The comparison we’ve made is what is required to actually make it difficult enough for Putin to invade that it would cause him pause if that were his intent,” Bonds said. “Right now, when President Putin looks across the Baltics to the Baltic Sea, what he sees are a company-sized element from the U.S. in each of those countries, and that’s very small. What he mainly sees is some strong language from NATO. What he needs to see is a certain war with NATO if he crosses that border along with a high degree of uncertainty that he’s going to win that war. That actually comes at a fairly low cost in terms of the forces we would have to commit: an armor brigade in each of these countries is very small compared to the forces we had in Germany during the Cold War.”

The U.S. could choose to meet its Baltic defense commitments by removing forces from the Middle East or South Korea, but under-resourcing those defense commitments could also serve as sources of regret, if, for example, the Islamic State gained ground or North Korea sensed an opportunity to launch an artillery barrage against Seoul, Bonds said.

The RAND analysis recommends the Obama Administration and Congress pause the current Army drawdown at the 490,000 active duty soldiers planned for the end of this year and fund the extra 40,000 troops in the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingency Operations budget until things stabilize in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. That approach would meet the 545,000-troop demand Bonds thinks is necessary, assuming 86,000 National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers were ready to deploy immediately and that the Marine Corps contributes 69,000 land forces.

Bonds pointed out that another obvious option is for the U.S. to simply scale back its defense commitments if it’s unwilling to adequately fund them.

“We could say that we simply are no longer really committed to the defense of an ally or an operation in ways that we’ve promised. But I think that also would be a mistake we’d regret.”

This post is part of Jared Serbu’s Inside the DoD Reporter’s Notebook feature. Read more from this edition ofJared’s Notebook.

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