I remember some years ago hearing that the 26th Infantry Division was going to be reduced to a single brigade. The 26th, the Yankee Division, was the army component of the Massachusetts National Guard. At the time I did not think too much about it. I recognized the desire of many to reduce the size of the military. The mistake in my thinking was that the reduction was coming at the expense of reserve units.
Let’s start with the active duty force. There are about 522,000 men and women in the army today. During the Vietnam era the army was more than a million men and women strong, to put this in perspective. After Vietnam, as was true after every other war, the size of the entire military was reduced. But what is different this time? The difference is simple. There was no military build-up during Iraq and Afghanistan. To meet requirements the burden was shifted to Army Reserve and National Guard units. And it was early in Iraq that it was realized how unprepared the National Guard units in particular were. That has changed. The point is, our active duty force was too small to handle the ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now our politicians have pressed the Pentagon to reduce an already lean active duty force.
I expect the Pentagon will push back by suggesting how to further reduce reserve and national guard forces. This is a very dangerous tact. The reason is very simple. Regardless of how mechanized, how computerized, how modernized you make our armed forces, it still comes down to soldiers, not computers and machines, to win the wars.
I am certain that the Pentagon will push to keep our reserve forces better trained than they were prior to Iraq. If there is one thing Iraq taught us, it is that our reserve forces were poorly prepared for extended active duty. One has to remember, these forces train one weekend a month and two weeks during the summer. That limits how much training you can do regardless of how hard you try. To think you can take these forces from their peacetime reserve status and throw them into a wartime stance as quickly as you can an active unit is absurd. Short of doubling the training time allotted to the reserves, you are going to need a substantial ramp up period from peacetime to wartime stance for any reserve unit.
I think if anything our active ground forces need to be increased. I think a 200,000 man increase, to about 750,000 troops is much more reasonable and gives us a much better defense force. An additional investment into increasing the size of our reserve forces is also called for.
A standing army has always been an expensive item. People are quick to look at the defense budget and think it is bloated. I can assure you, nothing is further from the truth. Another thing Iraq made painfully obvious was how woefully underfunded our reserves were. They had too much obsolete equipment or equipment requirements that had not been filled due to budget constraints. Having a well equipped army is not something that we can compromise on.
It is impossible to predict when and where the next conflict we will be involved in. It is just as impossible to predict how much of a force we will need. We cannot afford to be penny wise and pound foolish with our military. We have to be fully prepared to meet the demands on our military in the future. We can only have that with a reasonably sized military.