Exclusive: Army secretary talks force structure cuts, SOF ‘reform’

July 8, 2023

The Army is preparing to ax some units and restructure others, the service’s top civilian told Army Times in an exclusive phone interview Friday, but it’s still not clear when and how the changes will play out.

Army Secretary Christine Wormuth also attributed “some” of the moves to “the recruiting challenges that we’ve been experiencing…if we don’t turn our recruiting situation around, we will likely have to contemplate additional force structure changes, because we can’t have unready forces; we can’t have hollow formations.”

Wormuth detailed a four-pronged effort to identify and eliminate excess units — and restructure others to remove unnecessary billets — that she said will allow the force to stand up purpose-built units for short-range air defense, indirect fires protection and multidomain operations. “We are transforming…to an Army that is focused on multidomain operations against a near-peer competitor, and that requires us to bring in new capabilities [and] new force structure,” she argued.

The cuts will come following an analysis of force needs at the soldier level, based on unit purpose; at the unit level, based on deployment rates; restructuring of Army special operations; and reducing or eliminating “close-combat forces” that were purpose-built for the War on Terror.

A soldier assigned to 3rd Special Forces Group pulls security during a training exercise at Camp McGregor, New Mexico, April 2, 2020. (Spc. Peter Seidler/Army)

Military analyst Thomas Spoehr, a retired Army lieutenant general who heads the conservative Heritage Foundation’s defense policy center, agreed with Wormuth’s assessment of the force’s needs. But Spoehr, whose comments came via email, criticized some elements of the service’s approach and argued that Congress should further scrutinize whether the Army has enough people to man its 31 brigade combat teams today.

“We don’t know yet what the Army will have to cut, but it cannot sustain the force structure it has, the 31 brigade combat teams, at an acceptable level of readiness at an end strength of 452,000,” Spoehr said. Before recruiting collapsed, the service wanted 485,000 soldiers to support the same number of brigades.

The secretary, however, said that changes to manning guidance — headquarters-issued guidelines that prescribe manning percentages across the force by variables like unit or career field — can help ensure critical units, such as those on the Immediate Response Force, “remain highly ready.” She likened manning guidance to “the bridge from where we are today, with a considerable amount of overstructure, to where we’re trying to go.”

Spoehr described Wormuth’s intended use of manning guidance as “completely understandable, and the Army has no choice.”

But the Heritage Foundation analyst argued the situation is dire if this is what’s required to keep the service’s on-call units ready.

“[Manning guidance] represents only a band-aid on a sucking chest wound,” Spoehr said. “It lowers expectations but does nothing to solve the fundamental readiness problems.”

How will the Army decide what to cut?

The service’s efforts to create space for the new units requires significant reduction of what Wormuth termed “overstructure,” or units and positions that don’t align with the Army’s projected mission, she said.

One way to find it, she said, is the ongoing “people night court” process that she described to Congress in May. Each of the service’s career fields were asked to “lay out where their people are in which formations and provide an assessment — do we really need every single one of those people at every echelon?” One example from her May testimony to a Senate committee focused on cooks.

Christine Wormuth testifies to Congress in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill on March 3, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Gabriella Demczuk/Getty Images)

“Do we need to have 60 cooks [in a unit]?” Wormuth told lawmakers. “Or can we use 40 cooks?”

The secretary also told Army Times the service developed a “unit priority list” from an analysis of historical deployment data. Units that hadn’t deployed recently — or perhaps at all — were evaluated as potential candidates for reductions.

“That became another place where we could make some reductions without necessarily having to take down any flags,” she explained.

Spoehr of the Heritage Foundation decried the unit priority list as “a gamble” by which the Army is “hollowing out units in the hope they won’t actually have to be deployed.”

But some of the service’s most heavily utilized units, those in the special operations community, face cuts amid a broader “reform” process that Wormuth said the Army will approach “in a very careful way, obviously, given…[their] highly specialized nature.”

The secretary noted that the Army’s special operations community has more than doubled in size since the Sept. 11 attacks. “We’re looking at their functions…that can be provided by conventional Army forces,” she said.

Wormuth identified “enablers,” or non-special operations qualified support personnel, as a target for cuts, arguing that “general purpose forces can provide that support.”

But she offered little detail about the fourth area in which the service plans to draw down: “close-combat forces,” including those “parts of our formations that were purpose-designed for those kinds of fights [such as counterinsurgency and counterterrorism] where we may not need quite as much capacity going forward.”

A soldier conducts partner training in Afghanistan in 2021. (Lt. Matt Chandler/Navy)

Asked to elaborate on what types of combat units she believes are on the chopping block, Wormuth demurred and quipped, “That’s the kind of thing…that I need to talk to the [Congressional] oversight committees about,” before commenting publicly.

Spoehr warned against cutting too deep in this arena, even if falling end strength numbers mean the Army “will have no choice” but to do so.

“The Army promised not to repeat the lessons of Vietnam when after that conflict the service cut all its counter-insurgency forces and the supporting intellectual foundations, with the idea that we will ‘never do that again,’” he said.

Despite her optimism that the Army is progressing well in its force structure evolution, the service’s top civilian cautioned, though, that the recruiting crisis could derail the plan or damage the Army’s ability to stay ready in the interim.

“We really need to continue to work hard to solve our recruiting challenges,” she added, lest it force “additional” cuts.

Featured Photo: Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth, second from right, Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. James McConville, left, Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston, second from left, and Maj. Gen. Trevor J. Bredenkamp, right, walk through the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Va., June 14, 2023. (Elizabeth Fraser/Army)