U.S. Military Forces in FY 2022: Peering into the Abyss—The Budget and Strategy Overview

CSIS annually produces a series of papers on U.S. military forces, including composition, new initiatives, long-term trends, and challenges. The first white paper in this year’s series analyzes the strategy and budget context for military forces in Fiscal Year (FY) 2022, early actions by the Biden administration, and unresolved questions pending publication of the administration’s long-term strategy.

 Key Takeaways

  • For strategic and budgetary reasons, force structure is “staring into the abyss.”
    • Many strategists would trade force structure, particularly Air Force and Army force structure, for investment in advanced technologies to counter China.

    • Growth in the defense budget ended in FY 2021, and the Biden administration’s proposed FY 2022 budget continues that no-growth pattern. If that continues, force structure will shrink rapidly. Congressional proposals to increase the defense budget, if adopted, would likely allow force structure to remain at about its current level.

  • In FY 2022, active-duty end strength declines slightly, from 1,351,000 in FY 2021 to 1,346,400 (-4,600). Long-term force structure is undetermined pending publication of national security documents at the end of the year.

  • In the long term, force structure faces the same four challenges as last year. Unfortunately for force planners, these challenges pull force structure in different directions.
    1. The need to meet heavy day-to-day deployment demands for crisis response, allied engagement, gray zone competition, and ongoing regional conflicts works against reducing force size.

    2. The opening of a gap between resources and strategy―as budgets are flat or reduced and the strategy remains unchanged―increases risk, as military capabilities may not be able to back foreign policy commitments.

    3. The desire to move more aggressively toward a structure designed for great power conflict would increase modernization and trade off force structure if necessary. A major uncertainty here is how the concept of “legacy” systems will be applied—does that means old systems or old types of systems?

    4. Many libertarians and progressives support a foreign policy of “restraint” that would have the United States less involved with nations overseas and more focused on climate change and global health. This view has not gained much traction, despite the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and lingering effects of the pandemic.

  • The best course would be to implement a high-low mix (high-capability forces for great power conflict, lower-capability forces for regional conflicts and other operations), increase reliance on reserve forces, and promote a gradual transition toward new technologies as they prove themselves.

  • The public will be the ultimate arbiter. Polling indicates public support for a force of about the current size.

  • The overview concludes with an analyst’s plea for a clear explanation about how the administration calculated force structure requirements, something missing for nearly 20 years.

This report is made possible by general support to CSIS. No direct sponsorship contributed to this report.