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The Army Is Shrinking Down to the Bone! Or Is It?

Sequestration and defense budget mavens, watch out! The Army started to shrink this week ... but not really. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno announced on June 25 that the number of Army brigade combat teams (BCTs) was going from 45 to 33, and the overall size of the Army would fall to 490,000 troops by 2017.

The announcement made the news, but it was not news. It was really a restructuring of the Army linked to a re-announcement. You see, the Army is not really shrinking. Not yet. It grew by about 100,000 troops with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So now, with the wars ended and ending, it is going back to a level slightly above where it started and the Army is at least starting to think about what the new Army should look like.

Gen. Odierno was clear; this was not about sequestration. In fact, the Army started the "pre-shrinkage" process two years ago, even before the Budget Control Act of 2011 cut projected defense budgets to bring the Army back to its 2001 size.

The restructuring makes it clear that the changes are even less dramatic than one might think. The Army liked to have brigades made up of three battalions, but the flexibility and lightness required for the counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan led them to restructure BCTs into two-battalion units.

The new plan will take them back to three battalions. So while the overall number of brigades will decline by about 25 percent, the number of actual battalions is only going from 98 to 95, about a 3 percent cut. The Army is not shrinking, it is just regrouping and putting some of the heavier artillery and armored capability into a smaller number of BCTs, returning the Army to the form it once had.

This kind of "shrinkage" is politically savvy. The Army seems to be doing what it can to eliminate battalions in places where it already has BCTs it can fold them into. It won't fit perfectly and personnel at some of the 10 affected Army bases will actually shrink.

Others will not. As Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado (home of Ft. Carson) said, "the blow is considerably softened by the fact that all but 750 of those soldiers will remain at Fort Carson and be reassigned to other missions. Including other restructuring changes, the Army anticipates Fort Carson will actually increase in size by 1,800 active duty Army personnel." Nice planning, indeed.

The good news is that a piece of this restructuring will eliminate the "back office" part of the brigades -- the headquarters that were established to oversee each of the 10 BCTs being realigned (the other two are being disestablished, but they are in Germany). Overhead cuts are a good place to start thinking about cutting, as I have written before.

But the Army will have to shrink further, and they are not quite ready for that. In fact, they are behind the curve on where the Army is really going to go. That's the bad news part. The Army is still not very real about what is coming.

Gen. Odierno complained that he had to wait until 2015 to deal with further force cuts. He could have started deeper force cuts earlier, but the Pentagon was in denial last year and Secretary Panetta was making a full court press to avoid sequestration.

Now we know that the sequester is here to stay, for this year, and possibly, even likely, for next year. Deeper cuts are likely, and the fear factor is running strong. Breaking Defense warns that "while there's plenty of fat to cut in any large organization, the Army included, the sequester is going to bite right through the muscle to the bone."

I have often heard this and always wondered how anybody knows where "the bone" is. It's like "readiness": Where you think the problem is depends on how you define it and what you want the forces to do. There is no magic answer and no clear "bone" to which the forces shrink. But budgets and strategy, in their inevitable mix, will reshape the force over the next few years. It will be smaller than Gen. Odierno plans, but it will still be capable, at the bone or not.

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

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