Secret weapon behind Chuck Hagel’s plan to shrink US army

It’s oil. Self-sufficient in energy because of shale oil, the US no longer needs to fret about the sheiks

Column LAST UPDATED AT 12:58 ON Tue 25 Feb 2014

IN 410 AD the Emperor Honorius withdrew the last remaining legions from Britain and told us we would have to look to our own resources for defence. With the deep cuts in the size of the US military announced at the Pentagon yesterday by Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel, it looks as though the United States is beginning the same process.

The biggest losers in Hagel’s plan will be the US Army, shrinking in the next five years from 520,000 to around 440,000. Significantly, the army will not procure a new armoured personnel carrier (APC).  

An updated, up-armoured, wheeled or tracked APC, able to offer protection against the latest and most sophisticated mines and bombs, would be high on the shopping list if US planners were envisaging a repeat of the long-term occupation of places like Iraq.  

The US Air Force will also mothball its A10 ‘Thunderbolt’ - a slow but formidable aircraft, specifically designed for Close Air Support, and beloved of GIs in Iraq and Afghanistan for its ability to bail them out of trouble.  

The plan represents a revolution in military affairs. In effect, the United States is conceding that its attempts to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan have failed, and that it is no longer seriously planning anything similar in the future.  

Eminently sensible to many, this view is likely to receive a rough ride in Congress.  A lingering attachment to the American imperium, and the pork-barrel politics of which bases are to be closed in which state, or congressional district, will ensure a powerful opposition.

Equally, Chuck Hagel is likely to prove a formidable manager of the political processes required to get his way.  A three-term senator from Nebraska, he volunteered for Vietnam in 1968, fighting there as an infantry sergeant in the Mekong Delta. He has two Purple Hearts.

It is also an ideological victory for the ‘Bidenistas’, the military thinkers sympathetic to the views of Vice-President Joseph Biden, who in 2010 argued strongly against the so-called ‘surge’ of 33,000 extra troops for Afghanistan.  

The Bidenistas have always preferred stand-off operations – drones, raids, special forces - to large numbers of ‘boots on the ground’. Even as the army gets smaller, Special Operations Command will expand by 3,700.

Biden and his allies lost the argument to hawks like Hilary Clinton, and Hagel’s predecessor, Robert Gates (who, incidentally, is gushingly enthusiastic about Mrs Clinton in his recently published autobiography Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, and icily dismissive of Biden).  But if Biden was right all along, it could strengthen his hand for a presidential run. Certainly his strategic judgment is now in fashion.

On the naval side, all 11 carrier groups will be retained under Hagel’s proposals and will continue to be crucial to the projection of American military power. The two most important pieces of paper POTUS (the President of the United States) receives at eight o’clock sharp each morning are an intelligence summary known as the Presidential Daily Briefing and a map of the world showing the location and readiness of the carriers.

Hagel’s plan has a long way to go yet. But lingering behind it is a new strategic reality partly based on an acceptance of failure – however noble the intentions, and despite the bravery and endurance of American soldiers in the field – and partly on a startling fact soon to be upon us: American self-sufficiency in energy.  

In November 2013, thanks to the shale oil boom, US monthly domestic oil production exceeded imports for the first time in 20 years. Within ten years or so, America will not be shipping any oil from the Middle East.  

The full implications of this are hard to discern at this stage.  The security of the state of Israel is likely to remain a high priority, whoever sits in the Oval Office.  But the days of American presidents fretting in the Situation Room late at night over the ultimate fate of the Saudi royal family or the Gulf sheikdoms are drawing rapidly to a close. · 

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The U.S. Navy is the "big stick", not the Army. Like the UK, the US recognises that the military of the 21st Century is about flexibility, mobility and presence rather than large ground forces. Expect a similar message from SDSR 2015.