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OPINION | COLUMNIST: How much more can the Army be cut?

by THOMAS SPOEHR TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE | October 25, 2021 at 2:57 a.m.

How lean can we make the U.S. Army before it's unable to do its job?

Army Secretary Christine Wormuth recently declared her service must "ruthlessly prioritize" its "transformation efforts." To that end, she said, the Army is "going to have to look hard at everything we do and everything about how we do it."

That sounds reasonable ... except when you consider that since 2018, the Army has already been painfully slicing billions from its budget to preserve readiness, maintain a minimum size, and fund critical modernization programs.

If, as Secretary Wormuth suggests, further cuts are in the offing, it could once more leave us with a hollow Army, one unable to effectively respond when the nation calls.

Three years ago, under pressure to scrounge money, the Army began conducting what they called night court reviews. Those reviews went "program by program, activity by activity" to make hard trade-offs to find money. In 2018, the Army reallocated roughly $25 billion to higher priority programs. It has continued this practice each year since.

Last year, the Army released a list of 41 program terminations and 39 program reductions made to preserve the semblance of a modernization program. Its 2022 proposed budget reflected yet more cuts, including reductions to precious unit training funds, cuts to the prized Joint Lightweight Tactical Vehicle program, and cuts to key helicopter modernization programs.

This spring, Army Chief General James McConville candidly admitted the three years of "grueling night court drills" have taken a tremendous toll. "The first year we took the low-lying fruit, and we got to the middle of the tree [in year two]," he said. "[Now] we're at the top of the tree. There's no more fruit in that tree."

Just to keep up with inflation and preserve a semblance of readiness, the Army's 2022 budget needed to be $180 billion. Nevertheless, in its first year, the Biden administration chose to request only $173 billion--a $7 billion cut in purchasing power. Secretary Wormuth's remarks portend more cuts may be on the way.

In light of the China threat, some suggest that the Navy and Air Force's shares of the Pentagon budget need to be increased at the expense of the Army. Problem is, we've been there, done that. Since 2008 when the Army was bearing the costs of fights in Iraq and Afghanistan, its budget has steadily declined. In the 2022 budget request, the Army's portion is 24.1 percent, compared to a Navy share of 29.5 percent.

Certainly the Army must continue to look inward and ensure that every dollar it spends delivers meaningful combat capability. Fiscal stewardship is essential to maintaining public trust and to building the best Army possible.

Before the Army commences another round of "ruthless prioritization," it would do well to take a look around the neighborhood. China, Russia, Iran and North Korea all embarked on breakneck modernizations of their military forces. The Army has not been keeping pace. Once cut too far, it takes a long time to regrow an effective Army. As a nation, we will regret it if we allow our Army to wither.

A retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General, Thomas Spoehr is the director of The Heritage Foundation's Center for National Defense.

Print Headline: Cut to the bone


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