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6 April 2016
Round One in fight over Army's size goes to Congress
Last summer, the Pentagon thought it had found a sure-fire way to shave tens of millions of dollars - by deactivating a combat unit in Alaska it decided it could live without.
But then the state's influential congressional delegation swung into action. And the Obama administration retreated.
The Army's decision last week to keep an airborne brigade in the 25th Infantry Division could be the opening shot in a broader campaign to reverse the Obama administration's controversial plan to shrink the Army by tens of thousands of troops. Leaders inside and outside of the defense establishment are now openly doubting if the goal of cutting 40,000 troops over the next several years is possible given the political push back and rising security threats around the world.
"Is this a precursor to putting a floor on the Army that's higher than the 450 [thousand troops]?" asked Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Corps colonel and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The answer has to be maybe."
The decision to delay deactivating the unit - and its 2,600 soldiers - was a victory for Alaska's two senators and single House member, who arerepresented on key military oversight committees. They held up a senior Pentagon nominee as part of a series of efforts to extract commitments from military leaders to revisit the issue.
It is all but certain to inspire other states. A slew of installations - including Kentucky's Fort Campbell, Forts Bliss and Hood in Texas, and Georgia's Fort Benning - face similar troop cuts. The Alaska reversal provides ammunition for other lawmakers who argue the Army is being stretched too thin to meet threats, such as renewed Russian aggression in Europe and the rapid rise of the Islamic State, that were unforeseen when Congress and the White House placed limits on military and domestic spending in 2011.
Yet if Congress is going to upend the administration's overall drawdown plan, which calls for reducing the active-duty force to 450,000 in the coming years, a paramount question remains: How would the Pentagon pay for thousands of additional troops not accounted for in the budget plan it sent to lawmakers in February?
Alaska began leveraging its clout immediately after the unit's deactivation was announced last summer.
Sen. Dan Sullivan and his fellow Alaska Republicans Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young wrote to then-Army Secretary John McHugh and Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno arguing world threats don't warrant removing troops from the state.
Sullivan also placed a procedural hold on the nomination of Stephen Hedger to be the Pentagon's chief legislative liaison until he received more information on the Army's rationale for the reduction.
The Alaska congressional delegation insists the full-court press was about more than parochial interests, citing growing threats in the Asia-Pacific region, including from North Korea, and an increasingly unsettled relationship with another Arctic nation, Russia.
"Sometimes the Pentagon and the leadership in the military can be missing issues that Congress is more focused on than they are," Sullivan, a member of the Armed Services Committee, told POLITICO in an interview.
Indeed, one highly effective approach, according to Sullivan, was to host Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, who visited Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, where the airborne brigade is based, in February.
"It's one thing to read about decisions in a briefing book you're given, you know, in an office," Sullivan said. "It's another thing to get on a helicopter, fly all over what is an outstanding training base with very large mountains and very cold weather and kind of look at something and say: 'Wow. Doesn't this look a lot like Korea?'
"That's a unit that's trained to fight
in Korea, and there's probably no better training area in the world to do that than the place that we were flying over in a helicopter," Sullivan added. "I think that was an example where the value of the unit, but also the value of the training that's done up there, was pretty apparent."
The arguments that a host of growing threats undercut the wisdom of fewer ground troops ultimately won out in Alaska.
In announcing the reversal, acting Army Secretary Patrick Murphy last week said he concluded that with "continued Russian aggression, the nuclear provocations of North Korea and the continued threat from [the Islamic State], we need this capability."
Larry Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense now with the Center for American Progress, said the Alaska decision is "symbolic" of the larger perception that the global situation could demand more of the Army.
"There's an idea that the Army's going to be the key service here in dealing with the most immediate threats," he said.
Indeed, with North Korean saber-rattling - over the top even by the reclusive regime's own outsized standards - combined with the threat from the Islamic State and and a resurgent Russia, the concept of keeping the Army at a larger level has gained traction with members of both parties in recent weeks.
While previous efforts to stop the cuts to U.S. land forces have fallen flat, lawmakers are betting this year will be different. A bipartisan group last month introduced legislation in the House that would increase the authorized number of active-duty troops to 480,000 in the Army and 184,000 in the Marine Corps.
"Many of us here [are] listening very carefully, building the record, having testimonials about the risk," the bill's sponsor, Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.), said at a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing.
"And when you consider the fact that by 2018 we're talking about taking our land forces to pre-World War II levels," Gibson said. "I think it's important for the American people hear that - hear directly about where we're heading."
But lawmakers haven't yet found a way to pay for what could be a multibillion-dollar tab. According to CSIS defense budget expert Todd Harrison, adding 15,000 to 20,000 soldiers likely would cost between $2 billion to $2.5 billion per year, depending on the functions those troops perform.
Army leaders have warned Congress that increasing the number of active duty troops without a boost in funding would create a "hollow force" that isn't ready to fight. Money that would have gone to training, equipment and modernization, Army leaders argue, instead would be used to pay for more troops with no qualitative military advantage.
Milley cautioned that lawmakers would need to provide money in addition to troops, but said it could "allow for [an] increased number of capabilities," including more time to train between deployments.
"If that were to happen, that would be wonderful. We would welcome it," Milley told House Armed Services. "But again, I just caution everybody would have to come with the dollars associated with it in order to fund the readiness, in order to fund the modernization associated with those forces."
The Army's budget chief, Maj. Gen. Thomas Horlander, similarly told reporters after the release of the Army's budget in February that any congressional move to halt troop reductions that doesn't provide the needed money would impact virtually every aspect of the service's budget proposal.
"We tried to align our end strength and our force structure," Horlander said. "And if there is going to be a lot more soldiers, then just about everything that everybody does ... is somehow going to be impacted."
Cancian said while the Army's reversal on the Alaska brigade could be a precursor to other similar moves, "I think without a change in the Army's resources you cannot do more of this."
Others agreed. "For any other units to be spared or repaired, I think Congress needs to change the Army's end strength goals," said Justin Johnson, a defense analyst with the hawkish Heritage Foundation.
Murkowski, the Alaska Republican who sits on the Defense Appropriations subcommittee and played a key role in lobbying the Army to keep the Alaska brigade, acknowledges that the Army's reversal is not enough. More money will be critical.
In a statement following the announcement, she vowed to work "through the appropriations process to ensure this important capability is maintained into the future."
Lawmakers, however, have identified a litany of other items in the Pentagon's budget proposal to overturn, meaning the big Army advocates could lose out.
The laundry list includes deactivating a Navy aircraft carrier air wing, procuring one less Littoral Combat Ship and five fewer Air Force F-35 fighter jets as well as giving military service members a lower-than-anticipated pay raise. Congress is also keen to fund billions in "unfunded priorities" - weapons and programs that aren't fully funded in the Pentagon's budget.
"The thing is in a new administration, would you get relief from the budget caps?" asked Korb. "If you don't, then you've got this: Do you want to keep a brigade in Alaska and one in Europe or do you want to have a new ICBM?"
Added Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute: "While [Alaska's] efforts should inspire other delegations to do the same, expectations should remain greatly tempered because the U.S. Army is shrinking fast."
Copyright 2020 by Friends of Fort Rucker
Copyright 2020 by Friends of Fort Rucker