Building a U.S. Army of 125,000 Spartans

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Defense cuts are coming. The only question is how much. As it has grappled with the fiscal realities of sequestration, the U.S. Army has sought to define its mission in a post-war environment. The Pentagon’s latest budget request would reduce Army end strength to 440,000. While this reduction has caused a great deal of consternation in some quarters, this is not nearly enough.

In this age of budgetary and strategic uncertainty, the best course of action is to radically transform the Army by cutting the number of active-duty personnel by more than 75% to 125,000. To compensate for the resulting downsizing, the Army should adopt a multifaceted-approach to increase the quality, flexibility, and combat power of the force. This approach would entail stricter recruiting and promotion selection standards, significantly higher pay, greater emphasis on education and training, lengthier enlistment terms, longer deployments, a no-tolerance policy for criminal and disciplinary infractions, an increased use of private contractors for non-combat roles, and a rethinking of our reliance on the National Guard and Reserve.

Many people become afraid when the size of the Army shrinks. This is good news! Cuts to Army end strength are already happening. Again, good news! The bad news is that these cuts do not appear to be part of a cohesive strategy and may provide only temporary budgetary relief. What is worse is that these haphazard cuts may be damaging Army core competencies for decades to come. Some of our best warfighters are already leaving the military and there are very real concerns about our readiness, combat proficiency, military education, and troop conduct and morale. This rudderless erosion of our force must stop.

The Army’s most flexible and effective weapon is the individual soldier. Properly managed, a drastically smaller Army would sacrifice little in the way of warfighting capability and would be uniquely adept at managing contingencies on either the low or high ends of the conventional spectrum. Such an elite force could act as an expert special operations and counterinsurgency component, capable of rapid deployment in the event of a hybrid regional contingency. Alternatively, this force could serve as the core leadership cadre for a rapidly expanded force in the event of a major war.

Despite the many challenges, this strategy can and should be implemented through a five step process which emphasizes: 1) selection and recruitment; 2) retention; 3) training and education;  4) professionalization; and 5) returning the National Guard and Reserve components to their traditional roles. 

Selection and Recruitment

For this plan to work, the new Army requires the best 125,000 warfighters, thinkers, managers, and public servants possible. Attracting acceptable candidates will require competing with the industries that lure America’s best and brightest after college. This means much higher pay: $100,000 per year for an E-5, $200,000 per year for an O-1, $500,000 per year for an O-6, etc.

But attracting candidates is just the beginning. The new Army’s selection process must be truly rigorous. On the most basic level, this means drastically raising the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) and physical fitness test (PFT) minimums. Selection for basic training and officer candidate school (OCS) slots should resemble Harvard admissions rates, and the physical rigors of basic training and formation should be closer to NFL training camps. A “no tolerance policy” should be instituted for criminal backgrounds and high school dropouts. All candidates should pass a thorough background check and psychological examination that screens for character, leadership ability, mental toughness, and resiliency.

For the officers, this process must be even more difficult. Much like the Old Army of 100 years ago, there should be a rigorous admissions test for all officers, and completion of ROTC or a service academy should not guarantee a spot in the active duty force. While this process would eliminate some excellent potential leaders, its elite nature would attract many previously untapped applicants and would create an unrivaled esprit de corps within the select few who earn their enlistments and commissions.


To retain the best, this plan requires combining significantly longer enlistments and commissions with a multifaceted approach to pay, benefits, and personal development. Warriors should commit to 10-year enlistments and 15-year commissions. In exchange for these longer service terms, the Army should recommit itself to providing greatly improved pay, food, healthcare benefits, dependent care, housing, career transition, and retirement options. The fact is that these services are relatively cheap and would be increasingly necessary if we are to ask even more of our service members and their families. Additionally, the added costs of increased pay and support would quickly be recouped through longer service terms, which would lessen the need for recruitment and initial training and formation. If we retain our best and avoid the rest, we can save money even as per-soldier personnel costs rise.

Training and Education

Training is essential to this plan. For such a small force to be prepared for any contingency, it will demand constant training across multiple military occupational specialties (MOS). The new Army should aspire to have every soldier in its elite ranks jump qualified, max out the PFT, shoot expert with their weapon, and refine their competencies through multiple trips to national training centers. Moreover, every soldier should be able to perform the jobs of those above and below them in the chain of command.

Education is the second element of this investment in warfighters. We need to send all of our force back to school. Rather than a box-checking exercise for promotion, education should be an essential element of our strategy for professional development. Because we do not know where our force will be sent and what type of missions will be required of them, we need to ensure that our entire force has a broad general education that includes language, strategy, writing, technical skills, and medical training. When combined with training, education acts as a force multiplier. In the new Army, every soldier will be both a broadsword and a Swiss Army Knife.


The ultimate goal of the new Army is unparalleled professionalism, a truly select guild of warfighters garnering the highest respect of any profession. “Tiger moms” should be talking their 1.8 children out of medical school and into OCS. Much like ancient Sparta, our military should be the highest calling within our own society and the envy of the world.

Returning the Guard and Reserves to Their Intended Mission

To compensate for this dramatic reduction in the active duty force, it will be essential to recast the National Guard and Army Reserve as a true reserve force. In both a historical and strategic perspective, this is nothing new. The reserve component has traditionally served to retain excess capacity and skills for severe, but unlikely contingencies. In the event that we may need them to either protect the homeland from a domestic threat or to rapidly expand the size of the conventional force in the event of a great power war, these components will serve as a key element of national defense. Barring such scenarios, policy makers should be wary of using these forces as a “second army.” Indeed, much of the strain on the force during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has come as a result of using the Guard and Reserve in missions that that too closely mirrored that of the active duty army. By changing the identity of the active duty force, it will become easier to return these elements to their intended place as an actual reserve force.

Avoiding a “Hollow Force”

Given these uncertain times, the Army needs to be better than ever before. Concerns about the potential for a “hollow force” are real, and avoiding that reality demands a bold strategy. Rather than shrink piecemeal, the Army should be proactive and choose to focus on retaining and elite group of warriors rather than a more “balanced” generic force. While the risks of this strategy are high, a truly flexible and professional force is the best single way to transform a budgetary necessity into a strategic asset. Cut numbers and invest in warriors, and the future is bright. To do this, the U.S. Army needs to go on a diet, go back to school, and reinvent itself as an elite professional force. We should make these chosen few warriors the envy of our society and the world. 

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