Debate: Do We Need a Bigger Army or Smaller Army?

I’d like to post a debate with the question “do we need a bigger Army or smaller Army?”  After doing some research online, I’ve discovered that we have approximately 500k Active Duty Army Soldiers and approximately another 500k in the ARNG or USAR (reference) in 2013.

Based upon what I just mentioned to you, do you think we need a bigger or smaller Army?  At the end of the article, please tell us what you think and why.

My Personal Answer:

Based upon my personal 15+ years experience in the Army, I believe we need a smaller Active Duty Army and larger Reserve Force.  Please know that I am patriotic.  I love my country and believe we need a trained and ready Army.  But I don’t think we need a large Active Duty force to do that.  Instead, I believe we need an effective and efficient Army, but not a big Army, that can defend us and protect our borders.

I’m simply not a big fan of having a large Active Duty force.  My number one objection is the cost.  It cost billions to maintain an Active Duty force each year.  I believe we could use that money for much better things such as paying down debt, improving our own country’s infrastructure, funding education, etc.  Furthermore, I believe that when politicians have a large Active Duty force, they will look for a reason to use that force (unnecessary wars, missions, and conflicts).

If I was the man in charge for a day, I would have an Active Duty operational force of about 100k Soldiers and 750k to 1 million Guard/Reserve Soldiers.  All Active Duty units would be combat/deployable units.  I would transition everything else to the Guard, Reserves, and contractors. All Guard and Reserve units would be training units, combat support and combat service support.  I would also maintain a large IRR force.

This could potentially save the country billions by shutting down unneeded bases, downsizing the amount of government employees (Soldiers and civilians), and reducing the costs for training.

Of course, I’m not the man in charge, nor am I a politician.  These views are simply my own opinion.  But I’d love to hear what you think.  Please leave a comment to share your thoughts and answer the question “do we need a bigger Army or smaller Army?”  Please give an answer justifying your thoughts about the subject. If you have any questions, you can ask them here too. Thank you.

chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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11 thoughts on “Debate: Do We Need a Bigger Army or Smaller Army?”

  1. This is a great debate question Chuck, and I am surprised I did not run across it sooner. Now that it is 2016, the government has been cutting our military, but not as you stated…they are cutting it all, and that could harm us.

    Our nation was built on what is similar to National Guard forces, and I firmly belive that what you say makes complete sense. Build a strong Reserve force that is able to deploy if trouble arises, and cut costs by shrinking active forces. Many would hate that because their living comes from the active duty Army, but it is a business and should be run as one.

  2. This is a difficult question for me since I grew up as an Army brat with an active duty lifer father. Trying to put aside the pride in our active duty servicemen and women, I can still see arguments for both sides. One thing I noticed is that everyone has used historical examples in their comments like expanding to a large Army for WWI, II, etc., but the world is different today with the way technology has affected every aspect of our lives as well as our Army.

    Does technology favor a smaller force or larger? Personally, I think smaller, but they would be highly trained. I really don’t think that the level of training enjoyed now by the Guard is sufficient to support highly qualified personnel in all the technological fields nowadays. No, I’m not saying active duty is better, just different levels of experience and training.

    So if you end up with a smaller force, what do you do when you suddenly need a highly trained large force with good experience? There is nowhere to turn. Even by calling up the Guard and Reserves, it’s just going to take time to develop an active force with the level of knowledge and experience that a standing Army provides.Until we can come up with an answer to that question, I think leaving the active duty Army bigger is the only option. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Boy, Justin, this is one I could talk about for several pages, lol. Thank you – good question.

  3. Amy Skalicky

    This is an interesting article, Chuck, and like the conversation that followed. I emphatically believe that we need to maintain a strong, ready military, but I like your proposal. Even if you increased the numbers of the National Guard, you would not have the same sizeable cost of a larger regular Army. Having said that, I would agree with a downsizing of equipment, and some of the money saved could be used to improving equipment in the Guard. If you reduced the size of the regular Army, theoretically some of that equipment would transfer, but there is still the question of existing equipment that needs upgrading or needs to be replaced. I would not agree with a reduction in benefits, but I would advocate for increased training, which might require additional time during the year. Even a week would open up some opportunities to overcome some of the training concerns voiced in other comments.

  4. According to the CBO’s own numbers, payroll costs for all branches of the military equate to more than 1/4 of the base defense budget (not including contingency operations). So, yes, programs, R&D, installation maintenance, etc. costs more overall but the largest single expenditure class is pay and benefits for current and retired service members.

    All that being said, NGAUS recently highlighted a new Reserve Forces Policy Board report which determined that “fully burdened lifecycle costs,” (whatever that’s supposed to mean) for RC Soldiers’ pay and benefits is about 1/3 of the cost of AD servicemembers. To me, it’s a no-brainer. Only in the last century has the size, cost and complexity of the AD component ballooned. As Eric pointed out, for nearly 2 centuries our country relied on a relatively small, agile AD component while the bulk of our military might remained in the Guard (and, more recently, the Reserves).

    I do have one small quibble with your force structure, though, Chuck. I’ve spent virtually my entire Guard career in a heavy, self-propelled howitzer artillery battalion. So, we’re “combat arms.” “King of Battle.” On various certifications each FA unit has to complete annually, we rank among the very best on gunnery skills, FDC, crew drills, etc. I’d put my ARNG FA BN up against any AD FA BN any day of the week and guarantee we could outshoot them. Boastful? Maybe. But, I believe I don’t overstate our ability to deliver rounds downrange on-time, on-target and got the chance to prove it in Ramadi. We had Army and USMC units calling for fire who said they’d never called on our (AD) predecessors because they couldn’t rely on receiving timely, accurate fires. All of this is a long way of saying just because you’re RC doesn’t make you ineffective as a combat arms unit.

    I have found the Reserves seem to be primarily composed of CSS type units which seems to work for the Army but Guard units can certainly perform that combat arms roll effectively, even with the time constraints imposed on their training schedules. Just my $0.02.

    1. Great comment, Jeremy.

      There are definitely some great war-fighters in the Guard; many who can keep up with their Active Duty counterparts.

      And there are many combat arms units that can’t. It varies drastically by unit.

      Same thing applies to CS and CSS units as well.

      I’m glad that you were with a proficient FA unit that could “out-shoot” your Active Duty counterparts.

      Thanks for your service and thanks for your comment.


  5. Chuck,
    History would support your argument. The active force has historically been small, and handled insurgencies, e.g., the Indian Wars, Phillipines, etc. The military was rapidly expanded for big wars, e.g., The Civil War, WWI, WWII.

    The great European powers also used this model leading up to WWI. They all had small active forces and huge reserve forces with the ability to mobilize quickly.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Eric.

      Having a big Army is so expensive for tax payers. Like I mentioned earlier, when you have a big “standing” Army the politicians will “make up” reasons to use it. This creates unnecessary wars and missions.

      Also, to the best of my knowledge, there is no clause for a standing Army in the Constitution. I believe it is only for a militia.


  6. Chuck,

    That is certainly a very interesting perspective. I would say that I agree with parts of what you are saying and disagree with others. I believe that when you look at the total DOD budget, the majority of it is spent on equipment and logistical needs (i.e. aircraft, R&D, ships, tanks, etc.) and only a small bit is spent on the men and women in uniform (by comparison that is…still a good bit of money spent there as well). But, I do strongly agree that much money could be saved by a reduction in Active Duty units and an increase in Guard and AR units. I think that particularly during peace-time it would make sense to scale back. It is my opinion that complications would come for those who had to transition from the force to civilian world and back and forth depending on the state of urgency and what units are activated.

    I think that when we look at trimming the spending within the DOD then there are 10,000 ways to trim that pork. Just as an example, when my state sends me to a school they go through a travel agency whom they have a contract with. When I look at what they spent for a flight it drives me crazy! If I was allowed to book my own flight I could save the DOD 400-600 each way just in terms of flight $.

    Very interesting topic though, never really thought about contemplating the size of our military forces. Great debate topic.

    1. Thanks, Justin. I like hearing your perspective too.

      Like you said, there are many ways to skin a cat. At the end of the day, our senior military leaders and politicians should talk about the different options and choose the option they think is best.

      To be honest with you, every government program I’ve ever looked at wasted lots of money through overspending and inefficiency. Even cutting back a little could save billions in taxpayer money.

    2. Justin, you bring up a very good point I had not thought of. The issues involved with “part time soldiers” in the Guard and Reserves when they deploy and then must transition back to civilian jobs, etc. actually incur a significant cost of their own. Would the financial cost, in fact, be lower than if our regular Army stayed the same size or even increased? While National Guard soldiers are theoretically protected by law employment-wise, we all know that reality dictates that many soldiers come back to unemployment. There are many programs in place to help mitigate that, but all of this costs money, and the non-monetary costs are quite high as well. In addition, are health-related issues evenly spread among regular Army and the Guard, or are they more prevalent in one? That’s another factor that has high monetary and non-monetary cost. In addition, when a Guard member deploys, he may be making hazard pay, but for those in the lower ranks, there is often still a gap between what they make when they are deployed and what they would be making in their civilian jobs. Only a handful of employers pay a differential. If they do make more money, how often is that eaten up by being unemployed?

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