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 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. The Army has continued this practice each year since.

Just last year, the Army released a list of 41 program terminations and 39 program reductions made to preserve the semblance of a modernization program. The Army’s 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 Gen. 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. Wormuth’s remarks portend even 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%, compared to a Navy share of 29.5%.

Still others suggest the Army should shrink in size, cutting people to save money. That suggestion ignores the fact that the Army is already nearly as small as it has been in modern history and that every Army leader in recent times has cautioned against further reductions. The bipartisan commission charged to review the 2018 National Defense Strategy (which counted among its members the current deputy secretary of defense and defense comptroller) unanimously found “the United States needs a larger force than it has today if it is to meet the objectives of the strategy.”

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. The reality is that there is never going to be enough money, even in a wealthy nation like the United States, to fund every military requirement, and tough decisions will always need to be made.

But America can afford a strong national defense. Even Congress — famous for strife and parochialism — seems to understand the critical need to fund the military. This year, the House of Representatives soundly rebuffed efforts to slash the defense budget. The Senate Armed Services Committee did the same. Indeed, Congress may wind up adding roughly $25 billion to President Joe Biden’s anemic defense budget request, something that would greatly help deter potential conflict with adversaries such as Russia and China.

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.

Thomas Spoehr, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general, is the director of The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.

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