In its version of the pending defense authorization bill, the House of Representatives said that the U.S. Army should consist of 480,000 soldiers at the end of FY2017. That would be an increase of 5,000 over the current year level of 475,000.
But the Senate said that 460,000 soldiers would be sufficient, a decrease of 15,000.
Meanwhile, the Department of Defense itself is proposing to reduce Army “end strength” down to 450,000 soldiers by the end of FY 2018.
So how big should the Army be?
The answer is– it depends. What it depends on is, among other things, what the Army is for in the first place, what resources are available, what competing priorities need attention, and what changes in the threat environment can be foreseen.
These issues are illuminated in a new report from the Congressional Research Service. Instead of proposing its own answer to the question, the CRS report examines the premises underlying the diverse positions on the subject, helping to explain how different people could arrive at different conclusions. It is unclear that congressional leaders have any appetite for this kind of analysis, but others who are not already ideologically committed to a position might benefit from it.
“For many observers, questions regarding the appropriate end strength of the Army are related to the changing international security landscape, and the perception that those changes are resulting in heightened threats to the United States and its interests abroad. For others, the cost of increasing the size of the Army is the predominant factor,” the report said.
In any case, “Although the international security environment is arguably becoming more challenging and complex, the role of ground forces–relative to other services–in helping the nation meet those challenges is somewhat unclear.”
One threshold question, therefore, is: “What are the tasks that the Army, specifically, needs to accomplish for the nation?” See How Big Should the Army Be? Considerations for Congress, September 2, 2016.
Some related official resources include the following.
Report of the National Commission on the Future of the Army, report to the President and the Congress of the United States, January 28, 2016
Notification to Congress on the Permanent Reduction of Sizable Numbers of Members of the Armed Forces, US Army report to Congress (via FOIA), July 2015
Force Structure and Force Design Updates, Army G3/5/7 briefing (FOUO), August 2015
Stability [on joint stability operations], Joint Publication 3-07, Joint Chiefs of Staff, August 3, 2016