According to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, if Congress is not able to remove the effects of sequestration for the fiscal year 2016 budget, the U.S. Army will dwindle to just 420,000 troops by 2019. A February 28 Congressional Research Service (CRS) study reports that senior Army leaders have claimed that such reductions would leave the resulting Army lacking “the capacity to conduct simultaneous major combat operations while defending the nation at home.” They are right, but this is not the fault of Congress as many claim. Instead, the dwindling capability of the U.S. Army is primarily self-inflicted.

The Army has made a number of unforced decisions in recent years that cumulatively make it less capable. According to the CRS report cited above, the Army is planning, over the coming five years, to reduce its number of active duty combat brigades to 28 if sequestration is avoided, 24 if it is not. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno made news last year when he revealed that only two of 43 combat brigades could be considered at that time to be ready for war. Yet with or without sequestration, the readiness system the Army is planning on using for the future—“tiered readiness”—will ensure “a system of readiness haves and have-nots, in which some units are never fully trained.”

Moreover, as Russia and China continue to improve and modernize their conventional war-making capabilities, U.S. armor and mechanized infantry brigades will be cut while special operations troops grow “by nearly 4,000 personnel … a reflection of the asymmetrical threats the nation is likely to face in the future.” On March 13, General Odierno conceded that if sequestration is not lifted for 2016, “We will not be able to execute the defense strategic.” Yet even while cutting more combat troops, the Army is retaining virtually every level of two, three, and four-star headquarters. For example, despite planned reductions in brigades to almost half their 2011 size by 2016, the number of division, corps, and combatant commands will apparently remain unchanged.

To sum: the U.S. Army’s fighting strength is getting smaller, lighter, and less trained just as our potential enemies—as starkly demonstrated by the current crisis in Europe between Russia and the West and by an increasingly aggressive China in the East—are getting more technologically advanced and heavier, and are undergoing more sophisticated training.

Many have the impression that this weakened Army is solely the result of budget cuts. That is not correct. In fact there is an alternative plan currently gaining the attention of some on the Hill under which the Army can operate within the same top-line cap of 420,000 troops yet produce a force that has a great deal more combat power, is more strategically flexible, and—even under sequestration—can maintain 35,000 to 50,000 troops in a perpetual state of combat readiness. It’s called the Macgregor Transformation Model (MTM).

Designed by retired Army Col. Douglas A. Macgregor, the MTM would enable a considerable and sustainable improvement in the military’s combat capability over current Army and Department of Defense plans. In an article published in The National Interest last autumn, the retired former Commander of U.S. Naval Forces, Europe Adm. Mark Fitzgerald—along with Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, retired, and Army Col. Gian Gentile—advocated for the adoption of the plan. They wrote, “the MTM would allow the Army to reduce its current size of approximately 551,000 troops to as low as 420,000 and yet in the end produce a force that has greater combat capability, costs less to operate, is more sustainable over the long term, and is more strategically and operationally responsive to joint-force operations.”

The centerpiece of the reorganization is the combat group, which is smaller than a divisions but larger than a current brigade. There are several types of combat groups, but the main maneuver element is called the Combat Maneuver Group (CMG). It is composed of an armed reconnaissance squadron, three maneuver battalions, a strike battalion (indirect fire), and an intelligence and sustainment battalion. One of the unique benefits of the MTM is that because it sheds or reduces numerous echelons of headquarters and other nonessential elements, it can reduce the overall number of active duty troops while increasing the number of actual combat formations. Thus, the striking power of MTM after reduction would actually exceed—by a significant margin—that of the current force before any reductions take place.

As a means of graphically depicting why Admiral Fitzgerald et al. believe the MTM increases combat power so strongly, consider that the MTM force of 420,000 would include 2,320 units in armored strength (M1 Abrams Tanks/Stryker Mobile Gun System), while the U.S. Army of 490,000 (the latest size for which the Army has published data) would include a mere 1,209. According to our analysis, as a result of numerous formation and institutional reforms the MTM force of 420,000 may also cost $10 billion per year less than what the current force would cost at the same size. Thus, the MTM could produce an Army with almost double the armor, be sustainable even under sequestration, and save an additional $10 billion per year.

What happens between Russia, Ukraine, and the rest of Europe over the coming weeks and months is yet to be determined. Whether any of the friction points in the Asia Pacific between China and a number of other countries flares into conflict, is likewise unknown. But it’s important to realize that the U.S. has military treaty obligations in both regions.

In the uncertain international security environment that exists today, it is of paramount importance that the United States ensure it has the most powerful Army possible within budgetary constraints. The Macgregor Transformation Model could be the vehicle that accomplishes that goal. What is needed before a decision can be made, however, is an unbiased analysis. The Government Accountability Office should examine the current proposal of the U.S. Army should it be forced down to 420,000 and compare it to the MTM at the same size. The stakes are too high to willingly choose an Army construct that is smaller and less capable when an alternative plan exists that would better ensure America’s vital national interests.

The views shared in this article are those of the authors alone and do not reflect the official position of the Department of Defense nor the U.S. Army. 

Daniel L. Davis is a Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army stationed in the Washington, D.C. area. He has been deployed into combat zones four times, winning the Bronze Star Medal for Valor in Desert Storm. Young J. Kim is a former Army captain with tours in Korea and Iraq. He holds a masters degree in defense and strategic studies from Missouri State University.