Cut the Army to 450,000 soldiers and it might not be able to sustain a war with high casualties in its opening days. That smaller Army might also be led by poorly qualified field commanders.
Until Wednesday, the Army and the Pentagon have been vague about the effects of dropping from its preferred level of 490,000 soldiers to the 440,000 to 450,000 forecast in President Obama's budget. It has about 520,000 soldiers now.
Army Brig. Gen. John Ferrari told a small group of reporters that an Army of 450,000 soldiers would struggle to reinforce itself if war broke out and many troops were killed or wounded quickly.
Roy Wallace, an Army civilian personnel official, said you can't "go to Walmart" and buy a division of soldiers when you need them most. It takes 18 years to develop the commanders of the battalions that fight those wars. Try to raise them in a hurry through hasty promotions and you can get the "wrong kind of person" on the battlefield, he said.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the Senate on Wednesday that the Pentagon will no longer build its forces for "large and prolonged stability operations" (code words for Iraq and Afghanistan). But Ferrari and others say those assumptions could be proved wrong.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey echoed those thoughts when he addressed senators Wednesday. Counterterrorism is the most likely use of the armed forces. But big wars can't be ruled out.
"The most likely threats emanate from violent extremist groups and from ungoverned spaces, yet we can never discount the possibility of state-on-state conflict," Dempsey said. "Therefore, our force must remain postured to provide options across the full spectrum of potential conflicts."
But absent a specific threat from a major foe in an era of declining budgets — the Pentagon's budget for 2015 is $496 billion — the Army has a tough case to make. Indeed, if automatic spending cuts return in 2016, as the law calls for, the Army could drop to 420,000 soldiers.
Even the most hawkish members of Congress aren't suggesting U.S. troops get involved in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. And remember the knots the White House and Congress tied themselves into over Syria. About the only thing most agreed on was that there would be no U.S. boots on the ground there.
"This is the pitfall the Army faces with no likely opponent to face: There is no obvious floor for how big a standing force to keep around," said Russell Rumbaugh, a military budget expert at the Stimson Center, a non-partisan national security think tank.