I have been looking at a thoroughly intimidating PowerPoint slide provided by Army staff entitled "Effects of FY13 [Fiscal Year 2013] Fiscal Uncertainty on Army OMA [Operations and Maintenance, Army] Accounts." By the time you read this article, political and administrative deliberations may well have changed the numbers and details on this slide - perhaps for the better, perhaps not. The slide suggests a shortfall of about $18 billion, or 23 percent. Even if this were halved, it still would exceed the percentile reduction of the overall Army budget in 1975, the year we terminated ground operations in Vietnam. Anyone who remembers buying a Coke for a nickel knows how perilous it is trying to compare budget deliberations across time, but the past can inform the present, even on this complexityfraught ground. For your consideration, I make five observations: We have been here before; budget cuts have strategic implications; we forfeit the future first; recovery must be planned rather than wished for; and austerity makes education even more important.
We Have Been Here Before
The U.S. Army Center of Military History's Kevlar Legions: The Transformation of the U.S. Army, Ì989-2005 contains a foldout chart entitled "The Army Budget, 1905-2005 (Annual Percent Change)." The chart is premised on the notion that one can't reliably compare budgets across time. The relative value of money with respect to particular types of line items changes irregularly, and the Army, in any given era, pays for different things in different proportions. These perturbations count for far less year by year, however. Thus it is valid to compare percentile increases and decreases in budgets across broad spans of time, even if it makes less sense to directly compare two budgets separated by a decade or more.
Following this logic, we find our budget dropped about 24 percent coming out of the Philippine insurrection; plunged 72 percent the year after World War I and averaged a further drop of 45 percent in each of the following two years; dropped 45 percent and then 67 percent in the two years following World War II; dropped 20 percent in each of the two years following the Korean War; averaged a 10 percent decrement in each of the five years coming out of Vietnam; and dropped nearly 20 percent followed by 15 percent and 8 percent each year after Operation Desert Storm, respectively. Bear in mind that the post- World War I decrement followed a whopping 1,288 percent increase, and the post- World War ? decrement followed three years of increases averaging 365 percent. The largest recent increase in the Army's budget was 37 percent in 2003 and was largely absorbed by unprogrammed requirements in Iraq. The budget cuts being contemplated now will be historically significant and comparable to those of earlier watershed events.
Budget Cuts Have Strategic Implications
Each spate of budget cuts just described was associated with a profound change in strategic posture. The period following World War I was associated with isolationism and an acceptance of military incapacity outside our hemisphere. Following World War II, we were mesmerized by the prospect that atomic monopoly made ground warfare obsolete - until we lost the monopoly and North Korea embarrassed us on the ground. Following the Korean War, we reverted to the ostensibly cheaper, nuclear-heavy "New Look," which proved less than helpful in Vietnam. Following Vietnam, we cut more gently but over a longer period and ended up with the "Hollow Army." After Desert Storm, we dismantled and deactivated our massive forward presence in Europe while enhancing the strategic mobility of the residual force; on balance, this worked. The slide "Effects of FY13 Fiscal Uncertainty on Army OMA Accounts" and its supporting documents communicate considerable detail but less of a big picture. What are the long-term strategic implications of the economies it describes?
We Forfeit the Future First
Notably and laudably, "Effects of FY13 Fiscal Uncertainty on Army OMA Accounts" expresses a firm intent not to compromise ongoing missions. The direct war effort, the train-up of units deploying next, and related family and soldier programs will be fully funded. There is no time-out in world affairs. Through the Cold War, the 1990s and into today, the Army has been called upon to deploy worldwide and execute challenging missions. Soldiers in harm's way rightly have priority in all things, and the present mission trumps all other considerations. The situation is similar to that of the British Empire between World Wars I and II. With an empire to police and limited resources, the British devoted their resources to one colonial crisis after another. Meanwhile, the Germans were not nearly as encumbered and singularly focused on preparations for warfare of a nature the British did not envision. The British paid the price for their unpreparedness in blood, as did we. The slide we are discussing notes we "mortgage future readiness in FY13, and enter FY14 'hollow' in readiness." This is an important insight and part of a larger whole.
Recovery Must Be Planned Rather than Wished For
The Army has never profited from being moribund just because money was tight. GEN George C. Marshall famously said that after World War I the Army had lots of time and no money, and during World War II it had lots of money and no time. The trick is to plan ahead for the moment when money and other resources will flow again, so what does come can be spent quickly, wisely and well. The mobilization plans and Army training program of World War II offer a case in point. Without the prewar efforts of the Army staff and Army school system, the rapid - yet relatively efficient - expansion of the Army would not have been possible during war. The so-called post- Vietnam renaissance similarly demonstrated thinking ahead, featuring an intellectual framework that gelled before there was money to spend on it. The transformation of the U.S. Army from 1989 through 2005 was a conscious application of this phenomenon. Relentless spiral development provided prototypes of "what right looked like" for a digitized expeditionary Army. When money flowed once again, the model was there. However damaging the current round of budget cuts may be, we must be prepared to react effectively when the tide reverses.
Austerity Makes Education Even More Important
Austerity brings powerful incentives to focus on the present. As previously stated, current missions trump investment in the future. Far and away the most important investment, however, is in future Army leaders. No one knows the course future events will take or the specific requirements of the future battlefield. Only education imbues the capability and flexibility to master change rather than be mastered by it. Marshall understood this and devoted tireless energy to selecting and educating future leaders. He quipped that World War II was won in the Army school system. Other successful leaps, such as the post- Vietnam renaissance and the transformation to a digitized expeditionary Army, depended heavily on education for the future. Incidentally, previous expansions have amply demonstrated that the most difficult stratum to effectively grow is that of line noncommissioned officers E-6 and above. Much of what officers and technicians do is transferable from civilian life, but NCOs require a unique combination of personal leadership and hands-on mastery of particular equipment. The noncommissioned officer education system must get every bit as much attention as the U.S. Army War College as we prepare for an uncertain future.
"Effects of FY13 Fiscal Uncertainty on Army OMA Accounts" suggests enormous decrements to the training of units not immediately deploying, the force generation cycle, the training base and the sustainment base. Our units, as they now exist, are praetorians in the absence of legions. In other words, they are very good, but there are not many of them and there is no practical source from which to replenish them. The National Guard and Army Reserve have been absorbed into the operational force, and the weight of a dozen years of war has been borne by a tiny few making recurrent rotations. Mobilization mechanisms lie moribund. Now, the proposal is to intensively train only the units that are actually deploying. More broadly oriented field training of major units not deploying will diminish or disappear entirely. Our praetorians are in danger of becoming one-trick ponies: excellent at what they are doing now but only experienced within a narrow frame. What if they encounter a different enemy, circumstances they have not prepared for or a battlefield they have not anticipated? What if they take significant casualties? The ongoing budget cuts will represent yet another watershed for the Army. History can inform us with respect to the way ahead, but does not provide a blueprint. The current generation of Army leaders must come to solutions of their own through analysis and introspection. Hopefully, the lessons of the past will help them on their way.
From left, GEN Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Robert F. Hale, DoD comptroller, and GEN Raymond T. Odierno, Army Chief of Staff, prepare to testify on the impact of sequestration before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington, D.C., in February.
Brown, John S., Kevlar Legions: The Transformation of the U.S. Army 1989-2005 (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 2011)
Stewart, Richard W., American Military History, Volume II: The United States Army in a Global Era, 1917-2008 (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 2009)
Weigley, Russell F., History of the United States Army (New York: Macmillan, 1967)
By BG John S. Brown
U.S. Army retired
BG John S. Brown, USA Ret., was chief of military history at the U.S. Army Center of Military History from December 1998 to October 2005. He commanded the 2nd Battalion, 66th Armor, in Iraq and Kuwait during the GidfWar and returned to Kuwait as commander of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, in 1995. Author of Kevlar Legions: The Transformation of the U.S. Army, 1989-2005, he has a doctorate in history from Indiana University.…