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Nancy Badertscher
By Nancy Badertscher July 7, 2014
By Nick Fouriezos July 7, 2014

Kingston's attack on Obama's military plans lacks context

As Georgia’s U.S. Senate race heats up, Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah has not been shy about his disdain for the policies touted by the current presidential administration.

He has railed against Pres. Barack Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act, saying it needs to be repealed and replaced. In television and radio ads he has played the part of playful provocateur, hiring a voice actor to play a pleading facsimile of the president.

If you’ve hopped in your car for even a quick lunch break the last few days, you’ve probably heard this ad. However, it’s another Kingston ad that has us at PolitiFact wondering.

In a spot titled, "Backward Priorities," Kingston takes aim at federal cuts to the defense budget.

"Pres. Obama has it all wrong. He’s growing government with wasteful spending while drastically cutting our military, leaving us with the lowest number of active-duty troops since before World War II," Kingston says in the ad posted on his campaign’s YouTube channel on May 12. "Obama’s backwards priorities puts us all at risk."

Kingston goes on to tout his own track record on military bases in Georgia, but this statement made us press the pause button. Is it true that troops are at their lowest since WWII? And if so, are we really at risk?

We asked Chris Crawford, Kingston’s campaign spokesman, for the source behind the ad.

Crawford forwarded us to a February press release from the Department of Defense, which detailed Pres. Obama’s proposed Pentagon budget for fiscal year 2015. Amidst the cuts were a series of reductions which included "shrinking the Army to its smallest size since before World War II."

The proposal would shave off 15 percent of active-duty personnel over five years, from 520,000 to between 440,000 and 450,000. It acknowledged the fiscal reasoning behind the decision, noting cuts made through the Budget Control Act of 2011 ($487 billion over 10 years) and sequestration ($50 billion annually).

Right off the bat, Kingston’s ad faces a problem.

The 2015 fiscal year budget has a proposed five-year plan for military cuts – it hasn’t actually occurred yet, and will have to be approved by Congress. So Obama has not yet left the country with the lowest number of troops since WWII, even if he has proposed such cuts, though they are likely to go through given the fiscal constraints on the Pentagon.

Crawford said this about the budget: 

"The President’s budget is a formal vision for the country and something behind which he uses the force of the entire federal government.  It is a policy statement of the Administration under the President’s leadership.  Keep in mind this comes from an administration that doesn’t let that repeatedly oversteps its bounds of executing the law rather than legislating it."

But  how do the numbers compare with past deployments?

The folks at PolitiFact Wisconsin compiled a list of Army figures going back to 1775 while conducting a fact check of similar comments made by Wisconsin Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner.

Kingston said active-duty troops will decrease to pre-WWII levels.

On first blush, that seems true. That list, citing the Secretary of War Annual Report and Strength of the Army Reports, shows that in 1940, there were 264,118 active-duty troops. In 1941, after the United States joined the war following Pearl Harbor, that number shot up to 1.5 million troops.

Kingston’s phrasing could use some fine-tuning.

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He seems to imply that the number of troops will be around 1940 levels through his comparison. But they are actually much closer to the numbers seen in the late 1990s and even early 2000s. There were only 479,026 active troops in 2000, and from 1998 to 2001, the number stayed close to 480,000.

The current numbers are low, but historically speaking, they aren’t that low – especially when considering the nation’s unstable finances

.Now for the second question: what risk does a smaller military pose for U.S. citizens?

That’s a bit less cut and dry.

Center for a New American Security fellow Travis Sharp addressed the issue in a policy brief, noting that the comparison to 1940 was "interesting," but "not particularly useful."

"Since the 2014 Army is not going to fight in the 1940 strategic environment," Sharp wrote, "comparing them does not help us decide what to do today."

He writes later that size does matter in many combat operations, but that decreasing ground forces in peacetime is "both precedented and logical," given budgetary concerns.

For its part, the Defense Department report states that active duty strength will diminish, but will be replaced with continued investments in cyber capabilities, missile defense and nuclear deterrence.

We called Ricky Smith, a senior army official and director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, a military think tank, to get his take about the connection between today’s troops and their 1940 counterparts.

"It really is an apples to oranges comparison. The quality of today’s individual soldier is so much higher than it was," Smith said. "What they’re able to do the squad level, versus World War II, is amazing."

Smith said the Army should still be able to handle single operations, but might struggle from its diminished force when attempting to fight in multiple arenas, like when U.S. troops fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Technology does decrease the need for on-the-ground troops, but those units are also still necessary for the vast majority of tasks.

The military’s status as a global force may be lessened by cuts.

"You ultimately have to have some kind of human contact," Smith said. "There’s something to be said about putting boots on the ground and having tanks."

But that desire is balanced with fiscal realities.

"By reducing our capacity, you are in some ways accepting risk," Smith said. "The question is, what is prudent risk?"

In short, Kingston accused the Obama administration of reducing active troops to pre-WWII levels and putting "us all" at risk. While it is true that the numbers are at their lowest since 1940, they are substantively similar to the active enrollment numbers seen in the 1990s and early 2000s. Changing technologies and strategies for deployment make the comparison to the pre-Pearl Harbor days a bit of a stretch.

The reduction of active troops has a clear effect on the scope of missions the United States can take on globally. But whether citizens at home are seeing a greater risk is less clear.

Though Kingston’s ad contains some truth there is a lot of context missing.

We rate Kingston’s claim Half True.  

Our Sources

Email interview with Chris Crawford, Jack Kingston spokesman, on June 30.

Phone interview with Ricky Smith, director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, on June 30.

"Backward Priorities," ad, posted on the Jack Kingston YouTube channel on May 12.

"Hagel Outlines Budget Reducing Troop Strength, Force Structure," American Forces Press Service release, published Feb. 24 on the Department of Defense website.

The Quadrennial Defense Review 2014, military budget proposal.

Army figures detailing active-duty numbers over the years, compiled by PolitiFact Wisconsin.

"Gambling with Ground Forces: The 2015 Defense Budget and the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review," policy brief by Travis Sharp.

"The U.S. military is at risk of losing its "military superiority" because "our Navy is smaller than it’s been since 1917. Our Air Force is smaller than older than any time since 1947,"



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