Opinion Columns & Blogs

Editorial: Seize the chance to revamp military for the 21st century

As we honor our veterans Monday, we shouldn’t lose sight of the need to ensure that the U.S. military is as efficient, well-trained, nimble and protective of those in uniform as possible.

Sadly, Congress and the White House keep punting on a long-needed rethinking of our military services. As across-the-board sequestration cuts ripple through every branch of the military, what’s really needed is a full re-evaluation of what a modern Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps might look like, with some functions expanded and others reduced.

The drawdown of forces from Iraq and Afghanistan means that Congress and the Pentagon must make some hard choices. That may force the Air Force to cope with fewer airplanes, or for the Navy to get by with few carrier fleets. But as Time magazine’s Mark Thompson laid out in compelling detail in a Nov. 4 article, the branch of the military most in need of reform is the U.S. Army.

“Nowhere is the challenge as desperate – or the bureaucracy so resistant to change – as it is in the Army,” writes Thompson, who has covered the Pentagon for decades. “In an era of targeted drone strikes and ever-more-daring Special Forces missions, the U.S. Army is something of an anachronism.”

The numbers tell the story. In the final years of the Cold War, there were 780,000 active-duty troops in the Army. Those numbers dropped to 480,000 by 9/11, but have gone up with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Army now stands at 534,000 active-duty troops, a number that some experts say could be cut by at least 100,000.

Part of the problem is that the Army is still geared up to fight yesterday’s conflict – a land war against the Soviet Union – even though today’s enemy is al-Qaida and other terrorists and insurgents.

As we saw when the Army’s Delta Force snatched al-Qaida operative Anas al-Liby from a Tripoli suburb last month, the most effective way to fight these terrorists is with special forces of the military. Ten commandos dressed in civilian clothes nabbed al-Liby without firing a shot.

Yet out of the Army’s $185 billion budget, just $1.5 billion went to the Army’s Special Operations Command in 2013.

The Army’s 23,000 special-ops soldiers operate swiftly and stealthily, not needing the heavy equipment that has characterized the Army since World War II. Yet even as Army generals say their service needs to be smaller and more nimble, they are prepared to spend as much as $30 billion on the new Ground Combat Vehicle.

The GCV would be capable of carrying nine soldiers instead of six with the existing Bradley Fighting Vehicle. But the GCV would also be 67 percent heavier than the Bradley, meaning it would be incapable of crossing many bridges in cities where the Army would be fighting.

Another problem is brass bloat. As Thompson writes, “The nation had 2,000 generals and admirals in World War II, commanding 12 million troops (one commander for every 6,000 commanded). Now, there are 900 in charge of 1.4 million (one for every 1,500). In today’s top-heavy Army, there are about 97,000 officers commanding 427,000 troops – basically one leader for every four followers.”

All this brass comes at a cost. According to Thompson, pay and fringe benefits for the Army have increased 52 percent since 9/11, more than twice the increase in the private sector. The military’s health care bill has risen from $19 billion to $50 billion in 10 years.

As retired Marine major general and defense analyst Arnold Punaro puts it, “We’re going to turn the Department of Defense into a benefits company that occasionally kills a terrorist.”

Sequestration is exactly the worst way to deal with the Pentagon’s bloated budget. The across-the-board cuts are absorbed by every arm of the military, no matter how effective and important they are to U.S. security.

Yet as Congress attempts to craft an alternative to sequestration, it can’t take a pass on reevaluating the U.S. military and particularly the Army.

As the old saying goes, “There’s the right way, the wrong way and the Army way.”

In the 21st century, the Army way – and the ways of every branch of the military – will have to change.