The Return of Deterrence

By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow

OCTOBER 2018—U.S. Army-Europe has announced plans to deploy an additional 1,500 soldiers to Germany to underscore “our continued commitment to NATO and our collective resolve to support European security.” In addition, the FY2019 budget looks to increase Army endstrength to 487,000 active-duty personnel, 343,500 National Guard personnel and 199,500 Reserves.

These are welcome developments, but given Russia’s overt and covert efforts to reverse the settled outcomes of the Cold War, as well as China’s military buildup and increasingly aggressive actions, the Army needs more assets to carry out its crucial deterrence mission.

Gambles

Even before the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration, the Army was on the chopping block—sliced from a post-9/11 high of 570,000 active-duty soldiers to 520,000 in 2012. But sequestration sped up the pace—and deepened the level—of cuts. By 2016, the Army’s active-duty end-strength had fallen to 476,000. The Army’s active-duty force was 480,000 before 9/11. In other words, sequestration left America with a smaller Army in a time of war than it fielded in a time of peace.

 

By the end of 2016, only 25 percent of the Army’s combat aviation brigades were ready to deploy. Worse, of the Army’s 58 brigade combat teams, “Only three could be called upon to fight tonight in the event of a crisis,” Gen. Daniel Allyn reported in February 2017.

The consequences of an Army with fewer resources and fewer soldiers are glaring and grim.

Pentagon documents leaked to USA Today in 2013 warned that sequestration would produce an Army at “high risk to meet even one major war.” The post-Cold War standard was maintaining the capability to wage and win two major regional wars simultaneously. Sure enough: a 2017 Heritage Foundation report that examined historical data dating back to the Korean War concluded that the Army needs 50 brigade combat teams to meet the demands created by two simultaneous regional conflicts. By the end of 2016, the Army had only 31 BCTs.

Among the few organs of land power that escaped sequestration’s guillotine were Special Operations forces. U.S. Special Operations Command now fields some 66,000 shooters. But even SOCOM commander Gen. Ray Thomas would concede that his men are not built for deterrence—the sort of mission at which the U.S. Army excels. Known as “quiet professionals,” Thomas’s men are ghosts; they specialize in stealth; they do most of their work in the shadows. Deterrence is about the very opposite—being seen, having presence, standing out in the open.

Just as Special Operations forces are ideally suited for quick, kinetic operations against asymmetric foes like ISIS and al Qaeda, the regular Army is ideally suited for extended operations focused on deterring hostile states like North Korea, Russia and China; striking hard, fast and deep in order to remove a threat and return to the status quo; and, if necessary, seizing and holding territory. Indeed, as we wade deeper into an era marked by renewed great-power rivalry, America needs more of the Army’s deterrent capabilities—not less.

 

This reality is not limited to Europe. While it’s natural to think of containing China in the Asia-Pacific as a job for air and naval assets, it pays to recall that the Army has 60,000 personnel tasked to Pacific Command.

 

Expenses

Importantly, Moscow and Beijing weren’t beating their swords into plowshares during sequestration.

Russia’s military outlays have mushroomed by 125 percent since 2006, China’s by 150.9 percent since 2008. Russia’s troop strength is 1.013 million active-duty personnel and 2.57 million reserve personnel. Russia’s arsenal includes a staggering 20,000 tanks and armored vehicles. China fields 2.18 million active-duty personnel and another 510,000 reserve personnel, with 7,700 tanks and armored vehicles at the ready.

It’s no surprise that Army leaders have called for endstrength above 500,000. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley wants an active-duty force of 540,000 to 550,000 soldiers.

Yes, recent defense budgets have ended sequestration’s maiming of the military. However, a couple budget cycles are not enough to repair the damage. “It took us years to get into this situation,” Defense Secretary James Mattis concludes. “It will require years of stable budgets and increased funding to get out of it.”

And it will require more money for more soldiers. In 2015, as he tried to deter a resurgent and revisionist Russia, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, then-commander of U.S. Army-Europe, sighed, “We’ve only got 30,000 (soldiers). We’ve got to make it look and feel like 300,000.”

No one is fooling Putin.

As it slashed defense spending—measured in constant dollars, defense spending fell by nearly one-fourth between 2010 and 2015—the Obama administration in 2013 withdrew every American tank from Europe. It was the first time since 1944 that Europe was left unprotected by American heavy armor. Putin promptly violated the INF Treaty; ordered military forces scrubbed of insignia into Ukraine, annexing Crimea in the process; intervened in Syria without any forewarning or deconfliction process with Western militaries; and reactivated the 1st Guards Tank Army, a large armored force based in western Russia equipped with 500 main battle tanks.

Over in the Asia-Pacific, Gen. Robert Brown, commander of U.S. Army-Pacific, reported earlier this year that he has noticed something different during recent visits with senior Chinese military officials: “They don’t fear us anymore.” This is an ominous turn of events because for much of its history—especially since the end of World War II—the United States has premised its national security on deterrence.

Brown understands that deterrence doesn’t work if America’s enemies don’t fear the consequences of aggression. Fear, in other words, is an essential ingredient of deterrence. It pays to recall that deterrence comes from the Latin dēterreō: “to frighten off.”

“A little bit of fear is a good thing,” Brown observes. “You have to have that little bit of fear for deterrence to be effective.”

In hacking away at America’s military, sequestration has erased the source of that healthy fear—namely, American tanks and troops—that kept the peace.

Put another way, there’s a reason Poland and the Baltics want U.S. troops on their soil. It’s the same reason U.S. troops were based in West Berlin during the Cold War and have been based along the 38th Parallel since 1953: The presence of American troops sends a message that crossing this line means you are going to war against the United States—no ambiguity or question marks. That certainty of response—the promise that the costs of aggression will be greater than any potential benefits—is the essence of deterrence. And it works.

Certainty is conveyed not by words, but by men and materiel—men and materiel that represent a permanent commitment. The Obama-era theory that rotational deployments would be less expensive for American taxpayers, less threatening to Moscow, and yet somehow tangible enough to reassure the Balts and Poland has been disproven.

A study conducted by the U.S. Army War College concludes that Washington’s post-Cold War reliance on temporary rotational deployments actually costs more than permanent basing options. As Stars and Stripes reports, “Basing brigades in Europe and South Korea would be cheaper over time, serve as a stronger demonstration of commitment to allies in the respective regions and address morale concerns…For armored brigades, it costs about $135 million more annually to maintain a continuous presence of soldiers on rotation from the United States to Europe” than permanently basing forces in Europe.

As to the matter of threatening Moscow and reassuring NATO’s easternmost members: Putin manufactured a feeling of encirclement even when there were no American troops in the Balts or Poland, and the fact that Poland is offering $2 billion to pave the way for permanent U.S. bases is proof that “rotational” is not an adjective that reassures a nation abandoned by the West before and after World War II.

“The only thing more expensive than deterrence is actually fighting a war,” Milley soberly warns. “And the only thing more expensive than fighting a war is fighting one and losing one.”

 

Photo: REUTERS  FILE – Soldiers from the Texas Army National Guard, 1-141 Infantry Battalion, are transported to Miroslawiec Air Base, Poland on a C-17 Globemaster III during exercise Swift Response 18 on June 8, 2018. (U.S. Air National Guard/Senior Airman John Linzmeier)

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