How Big is Big Enough?
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. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_number_of_troops
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. http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0004598.html
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.