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Wednesday, June 15, 2022

OPINION:

June 14 marked the U.S. Army’s 247th birthday. Over these years, the Army has witnessed periods of both challenge and success. After World War I, the Army’s budget plummeted, and it teetered on the edge of irrelevance. Conversely, in the aftermath of Desert Storm’s 1991 victory over Iraq, it was praised for its incredible competence.

Today, faced with harmful progressive agendas, budgets that have failed to keep pace with inflation, and a recruiting challenge unprecedented in the era of the all-volunteer force, it appears the Army is in for yet another tough stretch.


At the end of March, the Army announced it would have to shrink by 12,000 soldiers as a result of recruiting challenges. In a tight labor market with unemployment at 3.6%, the Army is finding it increasingly difficult to persuade young people to join its ranks. Further complicating matters, factors such as obesity and a decline in mental health had dropped the percentage of Americans ages 18 to 24 who qualify for military service to less than one in four.

With global threats from such actors as Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un and the mullahs in Iran on the rise, now is a horrible time to reduce the size of the Army.

But it gets worse. Not only is the Army getting smaller, but it’s letting its standards slip, too.

The Army developed a new gender-neutral physical fitness test to gauge objectively whether a soldier — male or female — could serve in physically demanding specialties such as artillery or infantry. However, women did not achieve scores similar to the men. The Army recently announced it was dropping plans to implement the test in the pursuit of equity.

Not only did the Army abandon the test but in the process also significantly watered down the existing minimum standards; males and females can now complete a two-mile “run” in a leisurely 22 minutes and still pass.

Additionally, new policies imposed by Congress will increase absences from duty. Legislators last year passed a law that vastly extended the amount of leave allotted to service members following the birth of a child. The law provides an additional three months of parental leave for both the mother and the secondary caregiver of each newborn.

While expanded leave would, on the surface, appear to be a win for soldiers, the consequence will be an annual loss of tens of thousands of man/woman-years of soldier presence in units, contributing to a further loss of readiness.

Exacerbating this problem, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth proceeded to exempt mothers and, in some cases, spouses from deployments and field training for an additional one year after birth. Though no doubt popular with the moms and dads, such policies will cripple a unit commander’s ability to achieve minimum readiness standards.

Such provisions raise inevitable questions as to whether the Army of today views itself as a lethal fighting force or a vehicle for social change.

The final factor weighing on the Army is waning resources. Since fiscal 2020, the Army has suffered a $46 billion cumulative loss in buying power due to inflation and flat budgets. The financial shortfalls have severely reduced the Army’s ability to train combat units to standard, procure needed modern equipment and build new facilities to replace those that are crumbling through age. The Biden administration’s proposed budget for 2023 continues in this same risky pattern.

For nearly a quarter of a millennium, the Army has met and overcome myriad challenges. It has endured through periods of declining budgets and administrations consumed with priorities other than national defense. Today, the Army finds itself in a particularly difficult moment.

I am confident that the Army can, once again, rise to the challenge. But it would be much easier if Congress and the administration offered a helping hand, or at least stopped making the job tougher.

• Retired Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr is the director of The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.


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