“General, never let it happen again. Never let it happen again.” Those words of caution from a World War II paratrooper from the 82nd Airborne Division during a commemoration on the 75th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, France, resonated deeply with then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley. Now, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Milley repeatedly emphasizes that the United States must deter great power war in what the 2022 National Security Strategy calls a “decisive decade” that “will shape whether this period is known as an age of conflict and discord or the beginning of a more stable and prosperous future.”
Given the grave rhetoric, reports of possible 10% to 20% cuts to Army special operations forces — a prime force for competing in the “gray zone” to achieve U.S. aims short of armed conflict — seem misaligned with U.S. goals. While it is important to weigh the potential strategic ramifications of these reductions, it is as critical to recognize that they are just the latest manifestation of a misalignment between U.S. defense strategy and resources. This misalignment compels the Army to make short-term decisions to meet budgetary constraints that harm the joint force’s ability to execute the U.S. defense strategy.
The 2022 National Defense Strategy describes the most complex strategic environment the United States has faced in decades. The joint force must outpace the People’s Republic of China, deter Russia’s “acute threat,” and remain vigilant of the “persistent threats” of North Korea, Iran and global violent extremist organizations. The 2018 National Defense Strategy Commission assessed that to execute the 2018 NDS — the core tenets of which the 2022 NDS maintains — U.S. defense funding required 3% to 5% of real annual growth.
But between 2019 and 2023, the defense budget was more than $200 billion below what was necessary to have achieved 5% real growth. The fiscal 2024 defense budget request is a 0.8% increase in real terms, but it will be a decrease if inflation remains above 2.4%.
The Army has faced the most severe budgetary challenges of the joint force. Assumptions that the United States will likely fight short, high-tech wars predominantly in the air and sea, instead of protracted ground wars, have resulted in budgets that accept excessive risk to U.S. land power and the joint force. Between FY19 and FY23, the Army lost nearly $40 billion in buying power, and the FY24 request represents a 3.3% decrease in real terms from the previous year.
The Army’s end strength has fallen to its lowest level since 1940 to satisfy budgetary constraints while maintaining fight-tonight readiness and keeping modernization on track. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth has indicated that, in part driven by current recruiting shortfalls, more force structure cuts are on the horizon.
These trends would be less alarming if the historical data of all major U.S. wars in the past eight decades were not so definitive about the Army’s central role in combat. Across WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Army has averaged approximately 60% of forces deployed to the combat theater and about 70% of wartime fatalities.
Counter to the conventional wisdom that ground forces play a minimal role in the Indo-Pacific region, the Army’s share of combat deployments and casualties in the United States’ three major ground wars in the theater has been consistent with wars fought elsewhere. The war in Ukraine demonstrates that while the character of warfare is constantly evolving, there is no substitute for land forces in imposing political will.
Even in times of relative peace, the Army accounts for about two-thirds of global U.S. combatant commander requirements. As an example, after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Army provided about three-fourths of the additional U.S. forces deployed to reinforce Eastern European NATO allies. Additionally, the Army National Guard and the U.S. Army Reserve have been instrumental in training U.S. partners and allies, enabling global operations with logistics support, and responding to crises at home, whether COVID-19 or natural disasters.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is quoted as saying: “Show me your budget and I’ll tell you your strategy.” A budget that disproportionately decrements the service that routinely faces the heaviest demands both in times of peace and war is divorced from the aims of the ambitious National Defense Strategy. One temptation might be to drastically reduce U.S. commitments — in the Middle East, Africa or even Europe — to close the resource gap. But this ignores the increasingly interconnected nature of geopolitics, forfeits the strategic competitive space and discounts the potential for security deterioration that later requires a more significant U.S. commitment once vital interests are threatened. There are few risk-free reductions in either budget or global force posture.
To safeguard American security, Congress should ensure that the Army’s budget receives 3% to 5% real annual growth, matched by the necessary investments in U.S. air, sea, space and cyber power. If this is truly a “decisive decade,” the military’s budget must reflect this urgency. A joint force capable of converging each service’s capabilities across warfighting domains is one that potential adversaries will not seek to fight. To quote Milley: “The only thing more expensive than deterrence is actually fighting a war, and the only thing more expensive than fighting a war is fighting one and losing one.”
Retired U.S. Army Gen. Robert Brown is the president and CEO of the Association of the United States Army. He previously served as the commander of U.S. Army Pacific.