The Size of the Army Tells You Almost Nothing About Our Military Strength

If you were watching the news in the last 24 hours, you undoubtedly saw a story about the new proposal from the Defense Department to make some personnel cuts. And if you saw one of those stories, you almost certainly saw the same factoid, whether you were reading the New York Times, watching the ABC News listening to NPR, or hearing about it via carrier pigeon: the Army is going to be reduced to its smallest size since World War II!

Conor Friedersdorf does a good job of explaining why this is bunk, the main reason being that before World War II there was no Air Force; the people who did the flying and bombing were part of the Army. When you account for the 325,000 uniformed Air Force personnel of today, the Army looks much bigger than it did in 1940. But the weirdest part of this discussion is the idea that American military strength can be measured by the number of people in one service branch, or even in all the branches.

If that were the case, the world's strongest military would be China's, followed by India's, with the U.S. coming in third. We'd be only slightly stronger than North Korea. Have you heard anyone warning that we're weaker militarily than India? Of course not. "But Paul," you're saying, "Can't we see this in a graph?" Happy to oblige:

These are World Bank data as of 2011, but I doubt things have changed too dramatically in the last couple of years. The latest numbers from the DoD have the American military at around 1.4 million people in uniform. What you see when you look at the international context is that the number of troops has only the barest relationship to national military power. And that's particularly true in our case.

It isn't just that we spend way, way more than anyone else—the U.S. accounts for four of every ten dollars spent on the military worldwide—it's also that we have the most technologically advanced military. If we weren't able to reduce the number of personnel over time as our technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, something would be seriously wrong. Yes, we're certainly going to be invading more countries in the future—we're America, after all!—but not only are we moving away from the "land 100,000 guys on that beach" method of warfare, just as is happening in lots of industries, our military needs fewer people to do the same jobs than it used to. You may need half a dozen crew members in an old-fashioned bomber, but one guy with a joystick can pilot a drone and fire its weapons.

We will almost certainly have fewer uniformed personnel in the future than we do now. But that doesn't mean our military will be weaker. So comparing the size of the Army now to what it was decades ago does nothing but confuse people.

Comments

Claiming that the news stories are inaccurate, in that they compare the size of the Army now to the size of the Army before WWII, ignoring the split of the Army Air Corps to create the Air Force, is not so simple.
The Army numbers do include a substantial number of aviation personnel, including the many soldiers in the Army's combat aviation brigades.
While efficiencies are realized in modern warfare, the military does much more than simply put ordnance on a target. Even if we are only considering the act of placing ordnance on targets, targets must be acquired, which at times requires boots on the ground as well as eyes in the air.

The proposed Defense budget projects tremendous personnel cuts across all services, not just the Army, with associated reductions in our nation's military capabilities. Fewer ships, fewer aircraft, fewer boots on the ground, inevitably means fewer capabilities, and less responsive options for many of tomorrow's national security challenges. One wonders if preserving (and perhaps enhancing) the capabilities for the national security equivalent of "drive-by shootings" is the correct posture for our nation in its approach to the mid-21st century.

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