How Big Does America’s Army Need To Be?

As the military budget shrinks and the need for modernization increases, the U.S Army has been caught in middle. A recent article pointed out two major problems facing the American Army; readiness and size. The article traces both problems back to sequestration efforts following the formal end of the occupation of Iraq. In terms of size; the U.S Army is expected to shrink to only 450,000 troops, about 30,000 troops smaller than it was before the 9/11 attacks. 

While this has predictably caused some right wing panic, I believe the current size of the Army is warranted. Right now, the U.S Army is transitioning from an occupation force to one capable of fighting conventional wars. For the foreseeable future, America will not need large land based force to occupy enemy countries or fight insurgents.

Some have pointed to the need to fight two major land wars at the same time as a reason to keep the U.S Army at nearly 600,000 active troops. But what two wars are they planning to fight?


Our looming conflict with China in the South China Sea will not benefit from a larger Army. The conflict in the Sea is expected to revolve mostly around naval warfare in the littorals and atolls. While the use of some light Army units cannot be ruled out, the Marines are far more suited to fighting in this environment if fighting on land breaks out.


In Europe, Russia is often cited as a source of concern that will require a sizable Army to deter. While Russian aggression will require the United States to commit a substantial force to help protect the continent, it should not be a reason to increase the Army’s overall size.

Russia is not the same power it was when it was the center of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. Although it has a relatively large land force of 230,000 men strong with 30,000 troops set to be added in the near future. These are backed up by an airborne force of 45,000 paratroopers.

But, this force along must be distributed over it’s vast territory and is now tied down with ongoing wars in Ukraine and Syria, it is unlikely that NATO would have to deal with an overly large invasion force. “Hybrid war” is a much more likely scenario. In fact, one expert has gone as far as to claim that Russia lacks the manpower to mount a conventional attack on NATO, which current has more than a million soldiers under arms.

A direct attack from Russia is unlikely. Remember that Putin is a rational actor. He will not start a war that’s political objectives are impossible for him to achieve and would throw Russia into another great war. A big war would only result if serious miscalculations are made, something on the scale of a declaration of war on Russia.

As I have stated before; Russian military interventions are generally designed to keep former Soviet republics and allies within Russia’s sphere of influence and fight it’s adversaries through asymmetrical means.Putin would rather funnel funds to fringe political parties than directly assaulting it columns of tanks that would eventually be blown to bits by NATO’s superior conventional forces.

The end result should be only a marginal increase in army size to account for necessary deployments to Europe needed to reassure allies and signal resolve. The goal of these deployments should be to deter a hybrid attack on NATO’s east; not to prepare for all out war.

North Korea

With Russia unlikely to attack directly and China challenging the U.S off land, North Korea is the last conventional land-based threat remaining. Despite the fact the North Korean Army is rusting and the South Korean’s are getting stronger with each passing year, the U.S still must maintain a force to deal with contingencies on the peninsula.

In the event that North Korea collapses it’s estimated that anywhere from 90,000 up to 200,000 troops will be needed to both battle North Korean guerrillas and secure it’s stockpile of WMDs. This reality is one of the major reasons the American Army is as large as it is right now.

So how big should the Army be?

Before the Russian aggression and ISIS conquests of 2014, Brooking estimated that an Army of 420 to 450 thousand soldiers would be enough to meet America’s security needs. This is assuming that the U.S retains foreign deployments and the ability fight one major conflict and two minor ones at the same time (2+1).

I would argue that this number is still valid, abet, with some slight modifications. Namely, the increasing number of troops based in Europe will tie down more soldiers and decrease flexibility. The need to respond to crises and send small deployments to nations like Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria is also creating a demand for more soldiers that is putting strain on the Army.

To remedy this, the size of the U.S Army should be kept closer to the 450,000 mark, rather than being allowed to fall to the 420,000 soldiers projected by 2019. Such a force would likely have trouble dealing with multiple conflicts and meeting the Army’s own goal of 2+1.

If, for example, U.S deployments abroad were forced to expand to 200,000 troops to deal with Russian aggression, intervene to stabilize a collapsing state in South America (for example), the Army would strain be able to come up the 90,000 to 200,000 troops necessary to deal with the collapse of North Korea’s regime.*

Giving the army a few more brigades to play with could help reduce risks and wear on American soldiers. That said, going back to a 1+2 or 2+2 Army like the U.S had during the Cold War is simply unnecessary. The United States has other priorities that are much more pressing than building up the Army for wars it likely won’t fight.


*Remember that troops have to rotated in and out of combat zones and casualties have to be replaced even if the military only deploys 90,000.





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