The Obama administration’s plans to shrink the U.S. military attracted intense media attention yesterday. The plan is being described as a maneuver to shift the United States’s defense posture away from protracted occupations, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, and toward a more conventional deterrence role.
It’s easy to exaggerate the scale of the changes to the military budget. In particular, the soundbite that the post-cut U.S. Army will be the smallest since before the Second World War is seriously misleading. According to the Historical Statistics of the United States database, in 1940, the U.S. Army had 269,023 personnel–but that total included the Army Air Corps. On December 31, 2013, the U.S. Air Force by itself had 325,952 active duty personnel. Under any plausible scenario, the USAF will continue to outnumber the prewar U.S. Army handily. Similarly, after the force cuts, the U.S. Army will have about 440,000 active duty personnel, while the Marines will have nearly 10 times their 1939 active-duty personnel level. (And none of these figures, of course, include the reserves, the National Guard, civilian personnel, contractors, or any other part of the post-Second World War U.S. military establishment.) The smallest-since-1940 number, like Mitt Romney’s campaign charge that the U.S. Navy was “smaller than it’s been since 1917”, is technically true but hardly informative. Perhaps more important, given the vast increases in U.S. military expenditures over the past fifteen years, the U.S. can make significant cuts to its military spending while remaining the world’s leading military power by any meaningful metric.
Nevertheless, whenever a great power decides to reshape its military, IR scholars should wonder what’s going on.