Attrition: The Incredible Shrinking U.S. Army

January 5, 2016: The U.S. Army has had to make some bold moves to comply with a 2012 order (from Congress) to cut its strength 21 percent (120,000 troops) by 2018. At that point the army will have 450,000 personnel. While the army tried to avoid cutting combat units excessively, 13 combat brigades were disbanded and some were reduced to battalion sized task forces or just headquarters (to be revived as a brigade in wartime using reservists). Some brigades were converted from Stryker units to infantry and some lost one of their three combat battalions. Other brigades gained a battalion and some additional support troops and equipment. The point of it all was to make the most of a bad situation and reorganize so that each unit was best (or better) suited to its future assignments. Most combat brigades are organized and train for eventual deployment in a certain region. They might, as often happens, be sent elsewhere. But in the meantime they have a focus for their organization and training.

At this point the army now has 32 combat brigades (nine armored, 15 infantry and eight Stryker) and that will be down to 30 by late 2017. This is a big change from the 45 (17 armored, 20 infantry and eight Stryker) brigades in 2012. The personnel cuts include 17,000 civilian employees. Civilian cuts were delayed because Congress could not agree on where the civilian jobs losses should occur. There will be a similar problem when the army requests permission to cut unneeded bases. What gets the attention of politicians is defense cuts that cause their constituents to become unemployed. This makes it difficult to get reelected.

At the same time Congress want to keep most major procurement and development projects but to do that the army has had to reduce training and readiness (for combat) of combat brigades. Training is expensive in terms of fuel and spare parts costs, not to mention wear and tear on equipment. Currently only a few combat brigades are fully trained for combat and only a third of combat brigades are capable of being sent overseas to a combat zone. In addition to the reduction in personnel strength some major procurement projects (like replacing the hummer with a more heavily armored vehicle) have to be cancelled or delayed.

Army leaders also point out that unless the cuts are halted and reversed the army will be down to 420,000 troops by 2019 and be severely restricted in how well it can respond to an overseas crisis. That is not seen as a major concern just now.

Growing costs (for equipment, supplies, and wages) makes these cuts, for all practical purposes, even larger. For example, over the next decade defense spending will decline from 3.6 percent to 2.8 percent of GDP. These cuts are nothing new, as army leaders have seen it coming for some time and have tried to cope. Thus back in 2007, despite major combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Army went through a major reorganization. The end result was the increase in the number of combat brigades from 33 to 48. This required the transfer of over 40,000 people from combat-support jobs to the combat brigades. In doing this the army got some experience in reducing personnel strength without losing capability. Most of this reset was completed, with all the new brigades ready for service by 2010. In 2007, Congress ordered the army to increase its strength by 65,000 troops, and the army planned to add five more combat brigades. The army completed that personnel expansion, to 574,000 troops by 2009, but by then the budget cuts had begun and this reduced the combat brigade expansion.

Full article: Attrition: The Incredible Shrinking U.S. Army (Strategy Page)

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