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How Big is Big Enough?

Updated on October 26, 2016
Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran is a writer & former newspaper reporter/editor who traveled the world as a soldier's better half. Her works are on Amazon.


Does size matter when it comes to the military?

For the past decade our military has been in the news in a way it has not been for a long time. Still recovering from our biggest economical set back since the Great Depression of the 1930s, the two wars that have kept the military in the spotlight have down-sized significantly. But other hot spots are getting hotter in the same part of the world.

Serious debate is ongoing about what steps should be taken to “right size” our military. In light of this debate and the reductions in force that have resulted from it, we might be wise to review the actual numbers that are being discussed.

The United States currently has the second largest active military in the world at 1,468,364, second only to China with its 2,285,000 force. Behind us in third place is neither close ally nor enemy India with 1,325,000. (These numbers do not include reserves or paramilitary.) Our closest traditional ally, the United Kingdom, has 197,780 service members. Our most threatening enemy, currently Iran, has a force of 523,000.

These statistics beg the question: How large a military does the United States need? Historically, the answer to that question has depended on what was going on in the world at any given moment.

The U.S. had its smallest military (in recent times) in 1940 at 458,365. By 1945 and the end of World War II we had our largest - more than 12 million men at arms. The nearest number to that WWII sized military was in 1970, the height of the Vietnam War, when we had an armed force of 3,064,760. America's third largest force was during the Korean War, at 2,935,107.

Since 1940, our military has been at its smallest in 2005 at 1,378,014 when we were engaged in a two-theater war. 2007, the year of the surge of forces in Iraq, our armed forces was at its third lowest number, 1,380,082.

Any idea that our military is too large is an idea that needs to be seriously questioned. We have been at war in two countries for the longest period of time in our history, more than a decade and a half, with some of the smallest numbers of troops in our history. By comparison, the U.S. launched Operation Desert Storm in 1991 with a force of 2,043,705. Desert Storm lasted approximately 100 hours. (The argument can be made it was so brief because we didn't complete the mission until 2003.) We pulled offensive forces out of Iraq in 2011 with a total U.S. military of less than a million and a half troops.

It is also worth remembering the United States enjoyed twenty years of relative peace from the end of the Vietnam War up to the First Gulf War when we had armed forces never numbering less than two million. The ability to provide an overwhelming show of force at any given time is a very effective way to avoid war. After Desert Storm America saw a massive reduction in forces. We reduced our military by almost the exact number of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines it took to succeed in that mission. My career soldier/husband commented at the time that with armed forces decreased by so much America couldn't do another Desert Storm if we had to. In hindsight, he obviously wasn't the only one to come to that conclusion.

It was President Theodore Roosevelt who offered this advice to his country: "Speak softly, and carry a big stick." Right now, our stick isn't nearly as big as it has been in the past.

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    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      xstatic: Thanks for joining the conversation. You always have something to add and I appreciate it. For me, I'll spend a quarter out of every dollar to keep our country safe, but you are right about the wars.

    • xstatic profile image

      Jim Higgins 

      5 years ago from Eugene, Oregon

      The 2013 "Sequestration Budget" shows that defense and health care take 48% of the budget, 24% each. In the recent past, defense has taken as much as 60+% of the budget. We were fighting two wars then, and I hope that does not ever happen again. WWII was the last "good" war as far I am concerned.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Marcy: Sometimes I wonder if we will ever know the real reason for anything we do on a national level. Thanks for contributing your thoughts on the subject.

    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 

      5 years ago from Planet Earth

      For years, I've felt the entire military system is primarily driven by the greed of the defense industry. There were strong indications that WWII was engineered (our participation could have been prevented) as a way to get out of the Depression, and the entire Iraq thing is a disgrace.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Welcome Freeway Flier.

      "maybe there is no longer as much of a direct correlation between military capabilities and the number of troops as in the past." Quite true.

      "the men and women who sign up will be squeezed for whatever the federal government can get out of them." We've certainly been doing that this decade with an historically small force. After Desert Storm we paid soldiers a fair bonus to reduce forces. Hope we are as fair to this generation who have made such great sacrifices.

      "anyone who wants the United States to expand its military beyond its current capacity better explain how to pay for it." Great point I wish we considered in every military decision, especially weighing the benefits to the costs in dollars and lives.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 

      6 years ago

      The United States still outspends all other nations by far. Much of this is going into high-tech weaponry so that we will theoretically have less of a need for manpower. So maybe there is no longer as much of a direct correlation between military capabilities and the number of troops as in the past.

      We also have to face up to a couple of simple political realities. First, the nation faces massive debts, and one of the bigger chunks of the federal government consists of the defense department. So can we still afford the level of spending necessary to be a superpower? And second, the last thing that politicians want to do is initiate some form of a draft. So if we are going to continue to rely on a volunteer military, the men and women who sign up will be squeezed for whatever the federal government can get out of them.

      So if people want the United States to be more of a superpower than it already is, we need to implement one of more of the following: raise taxes, start drafting people into service, and/or stop giving so much money to old people. Needless to say, none of these options are politically popular. But you can't have everything, so anyone who wants the United States to expand its military beyond its current capacity better explain how to pay for it.

      In my view, the main threats to the U.S. at the moment are not traditional military threats emanating from nation-states. Terrorists are essentially criminals, and the main trick in defeating them is finding them, disrupting their operations, and eliminating them. Military operations will at times be appropriate, but surgical strikes based on quality intelligence are more effective than invading countries and engaging foreign armies. The costs of the Iraq war, for instance, far outweigh the benefits.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      No less than I expected Frog. I don't always agree with your politics but you never fail to be articulate. I would have been greatly disappointed if you had let this one go by without swinging at it. Thanks!

    • The Frog Prince profile image

      The Frog Prince 

      6 years ago from Arlington, TX

      Now here you go getting me started Kath. Having been an infantry soldier for as long as I was, let me say that "boots on the ground" will always be necessary. You can use drones, robots and all the technology man can muster but it will still take boots on the ground after all that is said and done.

      What Clinton did was one of the reasons I went ahead and hung up my spurs when I did. He cut the force by 50% contending the world was going to be a much safer place after Desert Storm. I heard those words come out of his mouth in a session with a few hundred senior leaders in the Army of which I was one. The world, as he has found out, wasn't safe then and it sure won't be safe any time now or in the future.

      Doing what he proposed to do, and ultimately did, has caused the present force to be stressed to the breaking point for both the service members and their families. They've been on a revolving tread mill between theaters and it hasn't been pretty. Along the way, Clinton caused some of the brightest and best members of that force to say I'm out of here. I was one of those.

      Now along comes Oblabber Mouth thinking he wants to imitate Bill Clinton. It wasn't a good idea then and it isn't now. According to the US Constitution the primary roll of the federal government is the defense of the nation. It's right there in black and white. Until we first take care of that role and obligation not much I can think of should supersede that duty.

      I can write a book on this subject but...

      The Frog

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      CMerritt: I remember when the RIFs came down after Desert Storm, my husband commenting that we couldn't do another Desert Storm now. I can't help but think the terrorists figured that out also. Our military has done an awesome job in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we sure didn't make it easy for them with as small a force as we have had. Thanks for your comments!

    • CMerritt profile image

      Chris Merritt 

      6 years ago from Pendleton, Indiana

      I think we must be the first in technology to develope the latest and the continue to train the military elite...the best of the best.

      I know I have said this soundly in many of my hubs and comments I have left...but PEACE THROUGH STRENGTH... cannot be expressed enough to assure world peace.

      Great hub!


    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 

      6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Very good Hub about changes to our military that we should be concerned about. Not an extra word used, but every word counts. You are a true journalist at heart.

      I was wondering about the picture of Teddy Roosevelt, then I got to the very end of final paragraph. Touche'

      A brilliant segue....I am impressed. :)

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      The soldier I've lived with for 35 years says you know you've won when you have boots standing on the ground you've been fighting over. But he's a grunt, so what can I say?

      It does seem DOD is always enamoured of their latest toy. Some of them have proved to be damned useful.

    • MUE profile image


      6 years ago from Virginia

      Technology will take us only so far. We should be very careful what we cut. In the end it takes Soldiers and Marines on the ground, just as it has these last 10 years.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      You make a good point. After a decade of war any military needs rebuilding, re-equiping and retraining. The problem is hardware is expensive and has a shelf-life. I just hope if we give our troops that we've worn out with deployments the pink slip, we give them a fabulous severence package.

    • gjfalcone profile image


      6 years ago from Gilbert, Arizona

      I caught a portion of the Pentagon breifing today with Defence Secretary Panneta. Sounds as though the D.O.D. is favoring Drone Technology in their projected Budget expenditure cuts. So, although the stick is leaner, its more lethal.


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