Time to End Military Equality in the US
Image Credit: flickr/ Secretary of Defense

Time to End Military Equality in the US


Since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, America has always been a society that strived for equality. Although commendable progress has been made during the interim, most Americans would probably agree that more work remains to be done when it comes to most kinds of equality.

But one exception to this rule is the military where equality has long remained supreme. That’s not to say that each individual within the military is treated equally—in fact, the military is built on the principle of a strict hierarchy—but rather that the different services within the armed forces have long been treated with near perfect equality.

That’s at least one implication of the Golden Ratio principle of defense budgeting, whereby the three different services—the Army, Navy (including Marines), and Air Force—receive a constant and nearly equal share of the defense budget. As Travis Sharp, one of the most outspoken critics of the Golden Ratio, explains: “Since fiscal year 1948, the Army, Navy, and Air Force have on average received 28 percent, 31 percent, and 33 percent, respectively, of DOD’s annual budget. Hot war, cold war, or no war – the allotment of the services’ budgets has remained relatively constant over time.”

From the very beginning, the Golden Ratio was driven by bureaucratic politics not national strategy. That being said, during the Cold War, it was somewhat defensible on strategic grounds. Whereas America’s geographical and economic positions demand a large Navy and Air Force, the threat of the oversized Red Army invading Western Europe through the Fulda Gap compelled Washington to maintain a large standing Army.

This logic disappeared with the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union. However, for the next decade America’s preponderance of power—particularly military power—shielded it from having to make the kind of hard choices every other nation must contend with. Then, the 9/11 terrorist attacks thrust the U.S. into the kind of large ground wars that necessitated maintaining a large Army.

However, with the post-9/11 wars winding down, a potential future peer competitor emerging, and austerity taking hold, the U.S. no longer needs nor can it afford to continue obliging the military equality of the Golden Ratio.

For one thing, the shift to the Indo-Pacific, as well as the declining utility of large ground forces, eliminates the strategic rationale of holding the three armed services in equal esteem, at least when it comes to the allocation of resources.

The Indo-Pacific is at its core a maritime theater. And while it’s true that many of the world’s largest armies are located in the region, it is not the threat they pose that America must guard against. In fact, local opposition to large, permanent U.S. bases in much of the region precludes the U.S. Army from taking an equal position amongst the Navy, Marines, and Air Force in the region. This is consistent with much of the world where large standing armies can no longer control local populations as much as they once could, at least using methods that are acceptable to the population of a democracy like the United States.

The second reason the Golden Ratio cannot stand is the exploding personnel costs of the U.S. military. As the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank closely tied to the Democratic Party, noted in a 2012 report:

“Military personnel costs have nearly doubled since fiscal year 2001 and now consume one-third of the Pentagon’s base budget—about $180 billion per year. If these costs are allowed to continue rising at their current rate, they will eat through the entire defense budget by FY 2039 unless the overall budget is increased to accommodate them.”

The United States can and must honor the commitments it has made to the young men and women who have served the nation so ably in its armed forces. The only way it can do this is to take reasonable measures to hold down personnel costs in the future. At some point this will require actually reforming the personnel system. However, a down payment can be made by significantly reducing the size of the active armed forces, and offsetting this partly by increasing the size of the reserve forces.

There is a strategic logic to this as well. Whereas the military can surge troops in times of crisis thanks to America’s robust population size, it cannot surge R&D or weapons systems that take generations to design, manufacture and test.

To be sure, reducing the size of the active standing military will reduce its overall combat effectiveness. This is a real cost. However, the military cannot meet realistic scenarios of defense spending over the coming decades simply by trimming fat from its admittedly meaty figure. It will have to make deliberate choices that will inevitable reduce its effectiveness.

The question is therefore what compromises will be the least detrimental to its effectiveness. When even celebrated, retired three-star Army Generals believe the Navy and Air Force must receive priority, cutting the size of the standing Army is probably where the least damage would be done.

Regardless of where one comes down on the question, it is undeniable that making these hard choices will require, first and foremost, that the Golden Ratio must be abandoned. In a time of defense austerity and rising peer competitors the U.S. can no longer afford to allow bureaucratic politics to trump military necessity.

Fortunately, there is bipartisan support for ending the primacy of the bureaucracy in military budgeting. Specifically, Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-VA) and Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA), both members of the House Armed Services Committee, recently penned a joint op-ed over at Breaking Defense calling for the end of fair-share budgeting.  

As the two Congressmen argue:

“Real strategic choices should not be built on fair budget percentages but on hard calculations about the types of capabilities the Combatant Commanders need to meet the missions we ask them to execute.”

One can only hope their colleagues will heed the call.

July 24, 2013 at 12:57

I am a retired ARNG SSG 19k30. I agree with your points. But, a lot of us who join the USAR and ARNG are prior service and many of us have served in combat prior to joining a Reserve Componant. 

Calling up the Army Reserves does have a price in effectiveness and in Operational Planning But, compaired to the alternatives, I consider it the least bad alternative.

July 22, 2013 at 02:53

As a former Army NCO, I am in favor of a strong and vibrant Navy. In the end, we are a maritine nation and our threats lie over the seas. My only problem is the fact that we tend to starve the Army without reducing it comminments. After ww1, we were prepared for the Nazi/Japan, ww2, we got Task Force Smith, Vietnam, we got the "hollowed out" Army, Gulf War, we got the peace dividend. When we need a large Army, we can not just create it very fast or efficently. One of the backround reasons for RMA and Rumfield "shock and awe" light footprint is based on the fact that we do not have the sufficent size to sustain a large on going commitment in any war. Iraq and Afghanistan proved that point. Alot of the operational stratdegy was based on the resorces available not on how to best win the fight and peace afterwards. In Afghanistan, Iraq was priority so we keep such a light foot print it allowed a vacumme to be filled from 2002-2006, first by war lords we sactioned, then, the resurgent Tailban. In Iraq, the math never worked out as far as troops. We really needed a surge in the beginning and SLOWLY tapered it off. We didn't, why?. The math did not work out. The regular, always hesitant to use the ARNG for poltical and military reasons, soon was using it to hilt and passing out 15 month deployment after the enemy decided not to comform to out plans and exploited our weakness. So in the end, yes, we can reduce the Army but think long and hard about what you ask it to do……..  

July 19, 2013 at 07:24

I love that you get to take to take one fact and label everything as false because of it. Well played.

July 19, 2013 at 05:21

We have got to stop defining the problem from the bottom up.  Instead, we must first define America's National Objectives.  It used to be the maintenance of the Republic, the maximization of the opportunities for interclass mobility (improving ourselves), and the role of the family as the primary source of energy in th achievement of interclass mobility.

The Next level down is the definition of National Security Objectives and the parallel National Economic and the National (international) Political Objectives — all to be accomplished  within the frameworkof the National Objectives.  In each of these Objective areas (and not independent one of the other) thn come National Security, National Economic and National Political Strategies, all after analysis of the threats of our National Objectives.  Below this level comes Policies caveated as above.

Until we can properly organize ourselves we shall find us wasteful of our resources and with a shortened shelf life.  Of course times will change, and we must be capable of changing the precepts included in the above categories.

July 19, 2013 at 05:06

Your ad hominem comment has nothing to do with the logic of their arguments.  Please do comment on the rationale for continuing the Golden Mean with which, by implication, you agree.  Couch them in twem of National Security Objectives and National Security Strategies.

Let me start by saying that the Military Industrial Congressional Reelection  complex is alive and well.

July 18, 2013 at 07:38

The two Congressmen mentioned have large shipbuilding interests in their districts.  The argument has nothing to do with strategy and everything to do with funneling resources to their constituents.

July 18, 2013 at 06:19

I'm always amazed in the US's ability look at its most recent conflict with all the real data and lesson staring right in it's face and then simply conclude that the next war will be different.  In the 200+ year history of American warfare, the next war has never been different.  The reasons countries fight have never fundamentally changed nor have the methods of how one side prevails over the other fundamentally changed.  The next US war will look, act and smell a whole lot like every other major conflict we've had – yes, even if it occurs in the "Indo-Pacific".


This sentence by the author is chock full of nonsequiturs, wishful thinking and a healthy dose of ignorance as to what actually happened (& still happening) over the last 12 years: "For one thing, the shift to the Indo-Pacific, as well as the declining utility of large ground forces, eliminates the strategic rationale of holding the three armed services in equal esteem, at least when it comes to the allocation of resources.


Now matter how much we all wish it to be true, Naval and Air Forces (remember the aerial occupation nonsense from the inter-Iraq war years?) will ALWAYS lack the one key component in both prosecuting war and providing for a credible deterrent that is inherent in Land Forces  – the power to compel.


From US Army FM 1 is a succinct summary of this power:


"Landpower is the ability—by threat, force, or occupation—to promptly gain, sustain, and exploit control over land, resources, and people. Landpower includes the ability to—

•Impose the Nation’s will on adversaries—by force if necessary—in diverse and complex terrain.

•Establish and maintain a stable environment that sets the conditions for a lasting peace.

•Address the consequences of catastrophic events—both natural and manmade— to restore infrastructure and reestablish basic civil services.

•Support and provide a base from which forces can influence and dominate the air and sea dimensions of the joint operational area."


I do agree with the author on the need to look at issues surrounding budget parity, but let's do this with our eyes wide open and all the facts, threats and risks on the table.  Clearly, the hand writing is on the wall, to trim money will require manpower reductions and the Land Forces – US Army and USMC – have their heads way above the foxhole on this one but, please, let's not minimize the risk of severely reducing our land forces by deluding ourselves that "this next war will be different" – just because we need it to be.

July 18, 2013 at 04:30

Google search "global aircraft carriers". Now google "US troop cuts sequestration". If you're too lazy to do that let me sum it up. 100,000+ US troops are currently being cut (that is 1 out of 5 with talks of even greater numbers) and the US maintains over 2/3rds of the entire worlds naval combat force projection. One might say we have an overwhelming monopoly on air and naval power.  Back blast area clear! That was me firing an AT-4 into your "think tank".

July 18, 2013 at 04:04

For the author:  You make a great argument, it is time to base budget allocation on strategy, not perceived equality. However, the last time the USAF received 33% of the DoD budget was 1984. For FY13 Air Force TOA was closer to 24%, and less than 20% if you discount the money that is counted against the USAF share but is pass through to other organizations. The "Golden Ratio" has been dead for some time, a fact that is lost on most of those outside the USAF. In the emergency of the immediate threat, the Nation has been borrowing against modernization of our future capabilities for the last few decades.

July 18, 2013 at 03:53

interestingly, china's army is heading exactly in the way described by the article, it has reduced numbers again and again. though its for a slightly different reason than the US. the reason for china is the chinese mainland no longer faces any great threat(Soviet Union) and is now virtually un-occupy-able by foreign powers(read: USA) and it would do much better to lessen the number but increase the quality there by reducing costs but increasing effectiveness. its navy and airforce as those of us who read the news knows, has been on a vast modernization program of their own, and this is especially given its main disputes are over small islands and water.

July 18, 2013 at 02:57

The comments on military personnel costs are both inaccurate and misleading.   It is a myth that military personnel costs are “exploding”.   In fact, personnel costs have consumed roughly the same 30% of the defense budget for the last 30 years.   That percentage is less than the personnel costs of many successful private companies, such as UPS, FEDEX and Southwest, so military personnel costs should not be seen as out of whack.   The Center for American Progress misleadingly ties their “exploding” cost myth to data starting in 2001, which is irrelevant because it includes one-time spikes in personnel programs in the early 2000’s that haven’t been repeated since.  In fact, since 2003, personnel cost growth has been much more modest.  Bottom line:  personnel costs are not the problem here and the author should not imply that they are a burden to the DOD budget or the American people.

July 18, 2013 at 02:44

I am former active duty and reserve USN Sailor and retired Army National Guard Soldier. From personal experience, study of History and observing the wars in Iraq and Afganistan, it is much more effective to bring reserve Soldiers to effective Active Duty Status than to bring a seagoing Sailor to effective Active Duty Status.

Army skill sets, I retired as a 19k30(M-1 Tank Commander), can be reasonably learned and maintained at a number of locations. Seagoing skills, I was an MM2, can only be learned and maintained at Sea. Maintaining and operating ships strikes me as much more expensive than operating tanks.

Historically, America maintained an effective Navy. The Army was allowed to become a cadre of professional Soldiers that was expanded by various State Militias when needed. State Militias, are no longer practical for rapidly expanding the Army in time of need. Todays National Guard and USAR forces are another story. In short, I believe that the Army should become more of a National Guard/Army Reserve force and less of a full time professional Army.

July 17, 2013 at 23:43

When has the Air Force or Navy EVER won a war? It is boots on the ground that wins. You can bomb all that you like, but unless you have ground forces holding the land, it does not do anything to change the status quo. For all the air power that we threw at Saddam, not one of the top 200 wanted in the regime was killed by air strikes. Every single one was captured or killed by ground forces. Ships and planes may seem more sexy, but grunts are the ones who do the real work and, despite what people may think, it is not so easy or cheap to just conjure them out of thin air.

July 17, 2013 at 23:14

Yes, becasue the Navy and the Air Force can take and hold ground much better than the Army and Marines. We can float and bomb our enemies into submission… That worked great in Iraq and Afghanistan… Go Navy! Go Air Force!


J. Hutton
July 17, 2013 at 22:30

While the idea of shifting expenditures to Navy and Air Forces in anticipation of a particular set of probable set of world events, things just never seem to work out the way many suggest. It is often the refrain of the so-called reformers to extol the virtues of technology while declaring land forces as obsolete (or nearly so). Unfortunately when the war and its aftermath, humanitarian mission, or any other newly created form of national action comes along, men and women on the ground comprise the bulk of our commitment.

July 17, 2013 at 22:11

U.S army will raise hell if you cut their budget!

July 17, 2013 at 13:47

Yes, I agree with the views of the editor. U.S. needs to beef up on their naval and air force. It's what U.S. is good at anyway. British empire at its height had a small army but the largest navy in the world and it was they who held primacy. China's army is also too large, I also want to cut the land forces and shift resources to the naval build up and 12 aircraft carriers.

John Hildebrand
July 17, 2013 at 12:44

I wish the government operated on as pragmatic grounds as we'd like, but it will not. Local politics (i.e. construction of tanks and rifles) will surmount hard calculations time and time again.

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