A combination of war-weariness after 13 years of war, changing global security realities, and budget imperatives make it likely that the announcement by US defence secretary Chuck Hagel of a major slimming down of the US army will be accepted, if not enthusiastically, by the US public. The New York Times described the measures as reflecting “a necessary and more prudent realism”.
The defence department’s proposed budget of $496 billion for the 2015 fiscal year is based on reducing the army to its smallest size since 1940, down to 440-450,000 troops by 2019, from a peak of 570,000 at the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Previously planned cuts were due to reduce the army to 490,000. Hagel is also proposing to eliminate the A-10 “Warthog” close air support planes, which are much approved-of by ground troops, and reduce military allowances, and both have provoked predictably strong protests from both sides of Congress. Defence cuts are always particularly sensitive in election years.
President Barack Obama has said he wants to move away from a permanent war footing and savings will also see more resources devoted to training and weapons. The US military will, however, remain the world’s most powerful force, by a very large margin, and the reductions reflect the reality that the country’s generals do not believe they are likely to be involved in major land invasions and hence do not require to maintain the forces to do so.
The announcement also coincides with an Obama warning to Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai of his intention to pull all US troops out of the country by the end of this year.
Obama remains determined, however, to increase investment in special operations – a more likely profile for future US international actions – and in both cyberwarfare technology and manpower, and rebalancing the US presence in Asia where China-Japan tensions have been on the rise.
This is no declaration of intent to withdraw from global engagement.