Soldiers and Marines have had the most deployments, seen the toughest fighting and suffered the greatest number of U.S. casualties in recent wars. And as with most post-war periods, ground forces also will see their career opportunities tighten faster than for other service branches.
The Army plans to shed 60,000 troops, or 11 percent of its active force, to reach 490,000 by fiscal 2017. The Marine Corps will cut 20,000-5,000 a year over the next four years — to reach an end-strength of 182,100.
Both services say they are determined through the drawdown to sustain force quality and to keep a proper mix of job skills and leadership experience to meet future requirements.
"Everything we do through the next five years is going to be about making the Army a quality force," said Al Eggerton, deputy chief of the officer division for the directorate of military personnel management.
"We've gotten an awful lot of experience in the last 10 years of war, and we're going to make selections to keep the very best of that that we can. And we're going to make sure we level our force across the optimum grades and skills and that we don't have any hollow points."
This time "we won't just be opening the door and allowing everyone to walk," he said. "We want to use precision, care and compassion."
Army leaders haven't reached final decisions yet on grade structure or skill mix for the post-drawdown force. So Eggerton can't say yet how force cuts will impact specific groups of officers or enlisted.
"That's a point of contention for field officers who would love to know exactly how we're going to do this. But at this point we've got the framework but not the decisions," Eggerton said.
When final decisions are made, perhaps soon after the election Eggerton said, "we will begin to look at each year group of the drawdown period and, by grades and skills, analyze our populations to determine where we need to pare and where there are shortages or gaps we have to fill."
In the post-Cold War drawdown of the 1990s, to meet force targets, Army cut recruiting too deeply, creating hollow areas that later impacted the career force. Recruiting this time is falling more modestly.
From 2004 to 2010, the Army was expanding and officer promotion selection rates "were allowed to go fairly high because we needed to keep all the fully qualified people we had," Eggerton said. In the last two years, rates moved "back toward what was the norm prior to our large expansion."
Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: