I am pleased to see that the Pentagon is looking at meaningful force reductions and making some tough choices about what equipment is necessary, and that there is some recognition that this will necessitate some change in mission. But I strongly suspect that the “pre-World War II Army” headlines are designed to alarm, rather than inform.

A few reasons why:

  • The Army is the service branch that is being shrunk significantly. There are cuts elsewhere, of course, but we’re hardly going back to a pre-World War II Navy.
  • A much bigger reduction in the size of the Army took place after the end of the Cold War and the Gulf War. Over the course of the 1990s, active personnel shrank by roughly 1/3. There was some ramp-up over the course of the 2000s, but the service never approached the Cold War levels of the late 1970s and 1980s, to say nothing of the wartime peaks of Vietnam or Korea. ”Win-hold-win” was a doctrine that took hold in the 1990s, and is not a consequence of the proposed reductions.
  • The proposed reduction takes active Army personnel down to a level only modestly below its 2000 level. That level is more than twice the size of the active Army circa 1940.
  • Comparisons to the pre-World War II Army are specious anyway because the modern Army operates in such a wildly different technological environment.

So what’s the reason for describing the proposed reductions that way? My base-case assumption is that “lowest levels since 1940″ is just a lot more dramatic than “below the levels of 2000″ or “largest reductions since 1992.” But it is potentially deceptive precisely because it is more dramatic.

The proposed changes in forces structure do not imply a shift non-interventionism. They will make it even more difficult to contemplate long-term, large-scale occupations, but such would have been difficult to contemplate even at a 500,000-person Army. That still leaves very much open the use of force in more “discrete” ways – drones, Special Forces, etc. – that have been the hallmark of the Obama Administration since the beginning of the drawdown in Afghanistan. We should also remember that fighter jock Donald Rumsfeld also advocated a lean and mean Army, and planned the Iraq War precisely as a demonstration of how much we could achieve without deploying an occupation-scale force. We all know how that turned out, but while some learned the lesson, “don’t do that again,” others learned the lesson, “we need to learn how to do that better before we do that again.”

I’m not suggesting that advocates of a more restrained foreign policy shouldn’t be pleased by the proposal. This is the way you turn an aircraft carrier: slowly. It should just be clear that this is another incremental turn away from the Cold War forces structure. It’s compatible with a reorientation of American foreign policy, but it doesn’t constitute such a reorientation.