On Monday, large swaths of the news media reported on the Obama Administration's proposed military budget using the same misleading frame. As the New York Times stated in its headline, "Pentagon Plans to Shrink Army to Pre-World War II Level." Fox News chose the same emphasis. "The Army had already been preparing to shrink to 490,000 active-duty members from a wartime peak of 570,000," it stated, noting it will now be between 440,000 and 450,000. "That would make it the smallest since just before the U.S. entered World War II." Reuters' headline: "Budget cuts to slash U.S. Army to smallest since before World War Two."
So ... will our national defense be roughly as strong as it was right before we fought Germany and Japan, as a casual reader might assume? Not even close. What about the Army taken in isolation? No, that isn't accurate either. If these accounts were trying to maximize confusion or alarm at proposed cuts, then mission accomplished. But if the goal is helping readers to understand the size of our military (in absolute and relative terms) if the proposal takes effect, then the narrow focus on the Army and the pre-World War II comparison are poorly chosen.
Let's take a trip back to 1940 to see just how absurd it is to use it as a point of comparison (emphasis added):
The U.S. Army in 1939 ranked 17th in the world in size, consisting of slightly more than 200,000 Regular Army soldiers and slightly less than 200,000 National Guardsmen—all organized in woefully understrength and undertrained formations. The Army possessed only 329 crude light tanks and only a handful of truly modern combat aircraft within a total inventory of just over 1800 planes. It was a force equipped with the leftover weapons, materiel, and doctrine of the last war. It had a grossly overage officer corps, in which advancement was largely a function of seniority. Captains, for example, were usually in their late thirties or early forties. War-related industries were infinitesimal. Congress and the public were united in their staunch opposition to any increased military expenditures or involvements abroad. The mood of the country was distinctly isolationist.
The dramatic changes in the Army's experience, professionalism, hardware, and strength relative to other countries isn't the only reason the comparison is misleading. In 1940, the military broke down as follows:
Marine Corps: 28,335
Air Force: 0 (it hadn't been created yet—that is to say, the army figure includes that era's pilots and air crews)
Now, as history shows, those 458,355 members of the military circa 1940 were sufficient as a base from which to declare war on Japan and Germany in 1941, ramp up personnel, and win that war (alongside allies in Europe, the Soviet Union, and elsewhere). Not that we would've chosen that level had we known the future. Still, if it were the case that U.S. military strength was the same as it was then, it isn't at all clear that we'd have to worry about our national security, especially given the radically superior military hardware available to us today and the dearth of any opponents as formidable as Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
That isn't to say that I'd endorse returning to 1940-level personnel strength. And indeed, the military is orders of magnitude bigger and stronger than it was in 1940. That's true even if every proposed personnel cut gets through Congress.
As of December 31, 2013, the U.S. Armed Forces was 1,369,532 men and women strong. The breakdown:
Marine Corps: 193,815
Air Force: 329,610
In terms of manpower, if you'd totally eliminated the Army and the Navy on December 31, 2013, the combined total of the Marine Corps and the Air Force alone—523,425 people—would still be significantly bigger than the whole military circa 1940.
Also, if the Army is indeed cut to between 440,000 and 450,000 personnel, as the Obama Administration has proposed, the Army could be characterized as operating with the smallest force "since just before the U.S. entered World War II," but it would also be accurate to say that the Army of 2014 will have 170,977 more people than the Army of 1940. And again, whereas the Army of 1940 encompassed the fighter pilots and bombers of that era, today we've got a whole separate Air Force composed of several hundred thousand uniformed men and women, plus a modern Navy and Marine Corps with significantly more personnel.
Of course, military strength isn't only about personnel. Circa 1940, the U.S. had a grand total of zero nuclear weapons. Today the U.S. has 5,113 nuclear warheads. An already-dated in 2011 Wired article noted that the U.S. had 7,494 drones, including 161 Predators, which are used for targeted killing. The U.S. also has 10 aircraft carriers. How many carriers does our closest military rival have?
Kudos to the BBC for including a graphic in its coverage that provides context the American media lacked:
How does that chart compare to 1940?
Even after Obama's proposed cuts the U.S. will spend more on its military than all its rivals combined. Add the forces of our allies and our advantage is even more formidable.
To sum up: Reporting on the Pentagon-budget proposal by comparing the size of the Army to its 1940 levels is misleading in several ways. It elides the relative strength of the Army in different eras; personnel from other branches of the armed forces; the fact that Air Force personnel in particular are now counted separate from the Army; and military hardware that acts as a significant force multiplier.
So how is it that this happened?