Doing Less with Less
By John D. Turner
7 Jan 2012

The U.S. military is gearing down to fight the nation’s wars. The President’s new proposal to address the ballooning national debt, calls for cutting military end strength by 500,000. Additionally, there will be cuts to the nuclear deterrent force, base closures overseas, and cuts in various military procurement programs as well. Once again, President Obama can take credit for making a radical change in the way we do things in the United States; the end of U.S. military dominance.

We are entering a new era; the end of the United States as a world superpower. Like England before us, we are casting off the mantle of world policeman, and taking our place as just another nation among nations in the world. There are those who think this a good idea; others who don’t. Regardless, this is the path we are taking, if we follow the President’s lead.

So how many people do we have in the U.S. military, or Department of Defense, anyway? According to the congressional budget, current authorizations for FY 2012 active duty end strength for is set at 1,408,000; a reduction of 2,400 from 2011. The overall strength of the selected reserve (Reserve and Guard forces) is 847,100; a gain of 900 from FY 2011. This totals, for all branches of the service, 2,255,100 total military personnel. This does not count DoD civilians, which total around 793,000, and include those working for the military branches, as well as other DoD agencies, such as the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), and National Security Agency (NSA) to name a few.

So, grand total, we have approximately 3,048,100 active duty, guard, reserve, and civilian members working for the DoD. How will a cut of 500,000 affect this force, and the security of the United States? While it will undoubtedly affect things, how the cuts are made will be an important consideration as to exactly what will be affected.

Just doing the straight math, cutting 500K from a force of 3 million represents an overall cut in DoD personnel by around 16%. It all depends on what the term “military” means. Does it mean active duty? Does it mean active duty, reserve, guard and civilians?

It is hard to tell from the articles I have been reading. One article out of the UK says that while the specifics of the new proposals have not been established, “…they are likely to entail a reduction of up to 490,000 in a total military personnel now standing at some 1.6 million worldwide…”, including cutting 80,000 troops stationed in Europe. If true, this would indicate that indeed, we are talking about cuts to the active force. Indeed, cuts to the active force would produce more “savings” than cutting reserve or guard forces. In round numbers, it means reducing our active duty uniformed military personnel by over 35%.

So how would we meet our current world-wide commitments with 35% less force? We wouldn’t. Such a strategy would mean a whole new way of looking at the world, and our defense posture. The proposed cuts include shrinking the Army and Marine Corps, reducing forces in Europe, and deepening cuts in the nuclear deterrence force. The latter is something that President Obama has consistently said he wants to do, regardless of whether Russia, China, or anyone else shrinks theirs. In his opinion, we have way more nuclear weapons than we need or could possibly use.

Instead, the US, under the Obama proposals, would increase the size of our Special Operations forces (SOF) and drone aircraft, the new weapon of choice, replacing the cruise missile “big stick” used by the Clinton administration in the 1990’s. Obama says that despite the reductions…the United States is going to maintain our military superiority with armed forces that are agile, flexible, and ready for the full range of contingencies and threats.” We are also going to “rely more on coalitions with our allies and avoid large-scale counterinsurgency and nation building operations that have marked the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The strategy points to more of an emphasis on fighting small scale operations against terrorists' organizations in concert with our allies perhaps, and not worrying so much about fighting a large scale conventional war against a nation state. Under this sort of construct, when faced with a 9-11 type attack, the United States would react by sending in the drones, perhaps some special operations forces for a quick, “surgical strike”, and getting buy-in from our allies for overflight rights, basing, and perhaps other assistance as required.

Sounds well and good; but consider the following. In order to fly drones to target, or insert SOF assets, one has to be able to actually get to the target. This is difficult to do, in most cases, from the CONUS. While it is true that the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones are controlled from the CONUS, they are physically landed and taken off from locations much closer to their targets. The Predator, for example, has a range of 675 nautical miles; less when carrying a full load of weapons. A range of 675 miles will get you well out into the Atlantic or Pacific; it will not get you to Afghanistan. The Reaper can fly a bit farther, but not much; not enough to get anywhere from the CONUS anyway, unless you are attacking Canada or Mexico.

And getting them there is only half the battle; you have to get them back home as well.

If we are closing our forward bases, this makes a strategy of using drones and special operations forces much more problematical. Perhaps our allies will allow us to use their bases. Perhaps. It didn’t work so well for President Reagan when he bombed Libya, in 1986 though. England allowed us to use bases there to launch our FB-111’s, but France, Spain, and Italy would not allow us to overfly their territory, or use our bases located in their countries. This necessitated flying around France, Spain, and through the Straights of Gibraltar to get to Libya and return from the raid. The FB-111 had the range to do so (and the ability to be aerially refueled; Predators and Reapers do not.

It didn’t work so well in 1973 either, after the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. The war started on 6 October 1973, when Egypt and Syria both attacked Israel. Hard pressed, Prime Minister Golda Meir issued an appeal for military assistance, which European nations declined. Only the United States offered assistance, and an immediate resupply effort by air, Operation Nickel Grass, was ordered. Our wonderful allies in Europe, not only refused to assist Israel, they refused to allow our aircraft to land for refueling or to even overfly their airspace. Only Portugal allowed the use of one airfield, Lajes, in the mid-Atlantic.

I have some personal experience with this effort. At the time, my dad had just been stationed at Lajes Field in the Azores. We arrived there in the summer of 1973. The Azores are part of Portugal, located on the mid-Atlantic ridge, and are the sole base our Allies put at our disposal. The effort was massive. There were planes arriving and departing at all hours and we were directly in the flight path. Operation Nickel Grass, like Operation El Dorado Canyon, was a success; no thanks to our recalcitrant “allies.” One thing I have learned about allies, from these examples as well as Operation Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Enduring Freedom; they are not reliable. And even if you can get their support, that support seldom comes; 1) without strings attached, or 2) in exactly the form you want it.

Interestingly, one of the “lessons learned” from Operation Nickel Grass was the need for staging bases overseas; bases we are now talking about closing, even though the missions we are proposing will require staging from somewhere.