The debate over the report of the congressionally mandated Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission is officially underway. And while some legislators have softened their initial opposition to the Commission’s proposals, it is unlikely the problem of ballooning personnel costs will be solved any time soon.
At Task & Purpose, a website that provides veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan a platform to write on a variety of military issues, Iraq war vet Eric Navarro has what he calls a “radical solution” to the problem. He suggests that shifting large numbers of active-duty Army personnel to the National Guard and Army reserves is the answer to the military’s manpower woes.
“It is a little known fact,” Navarro explains “that for every one member of the active-duty military, we can fund between three and five reservists.” By shifting personnel from active duty to its reserve elements, the military could achieve significant savings while avoiding the “hollow force” that some defense analysts fear. Navarro argues,
Instead of outright cutting these people and losing… institutional knowledge, we should be trying to keep them on, but for as little cost as possible. One way to do this is to shrink our active-duty component to the minimum levels required to meet our overseas commitments and to keep a large contingent of reservists on standby who maintain their readiness at home in the event they must be called to action. And that call to action should only occur with congressional authorization, which would be granted in times of crisis or full-scale war.
Despite his own characterization, is Navarro’s solution really that radical? Not necessarily. Philip Carter and Nora Bensahel of the Center for a New American Security offered a similar idea in 2013. They argued that the Guard and reserves have proven themselves capable of handling combat duty during over a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, therefore those forces can be relied on for emergency contingencies at a much lower cost. Cindy Williams of MIT made the same suggestion in a 2013 essay for Foreign Affairs offering recommendations for how the military might cope with sequestration. Williams also suggests that, while the active-duty Army will certainly protests, the political clout of the National Guard will make such a transition more palatable for a secretary of defense who might propose it.
Were the United States still worried that the Red Army was going to pour through the Fulda Gap and into Western Europe, it might make sense to maintain a large peacetime Army. “Might” is the key word in that sentence, because even during the Cold War, the United States did not attempt to even remotely match Warsaw Pact ground forces in Europe in number of personnel.
Today it makes even less sense to maintain a large ground forces. The most important potential threat to the United States lies in the maritime domains of the Western Pacific and East Asian littoral. If the U.S. government insists on maintaining its current position in those regions, deterring those threats will mostly fall to air and naval forces. Even if the Pentagon manages to reform the way it buys weapons, those capabilities will remain expensive. As personnel costs continue to rise, it crowds out funding to procure new weapons and modernize those forces.
The Army, as the service most reliant on manpower, is already scheduled to reduce its number of active duty personnel to 420,000 by 2019. The force should be cut even deeper with a large number of personnel shifted to the Guard and reserve. Advocates of increased defense spending believe the burden for covering the costs of modernizing the U.S. military’s capabilities should be shifted to American taxpayers. To make room in the defense budget they should instead be looking to the type of “radical” solution Navarro offers.