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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, America's military presence in Afghanistan is shrinking at a time when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is proposing significant cuts to the size of the U.S. Army. The Army could drop to its lowest number of soldiers since the early days of World War II. And some generals and defense analysts say this is a risky move. NPR's Tom Bowman set out to answer the question: When is a smaller Army too small?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Even the boss at the Pentagon says today's Army is too big.

SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: An Army of this size is larger than required to meet the demands of our defense strategy.

BOWMAN: Translation? Hagel isn't planning on the U.S. occupying any countries. So he wants to cut the Army, partly to save money. So here's a quick rundown of the numbers: peak of the Iraq War: 566,000 soldiers. Hagel's target for a smaller force: about 450,000. It could go even lower if Congress imposes across-the-board spending cuts. Just for a little perspective - those troop cuts would be equal to the invasion force for Sicily in World War II. Republican Congressman Buck McKeon grilled the Army's top officer, Gen. Ray Odierno, about the numbers.

REP. BUCK MCKEON: If it's a fairly high risk at the 450,000 level, what level of risk do you assume at the 420,000 level?

GEN. RAY ODIERNO: I'm very concerned. I doubt whether we could even execute one prolonged, multiphased operation.

BOWMAN: Like an operation on the Korean peninsula. But some argue that a bigger Army is not necessarily a better Army.

DOUG MACGREGOR: I could give you an Army at 420,000 that has far more fighting power in it, more deployable capability, than what you have today. It's a function of how you organize.

BOWMAN: That's retired Army colonel and combat veteran Doug Macgregor. He worked up a plan for the Army. It includes cutting staff and the number of generals; creating highly trained, fast-moving units; shedding Army artillery and instead, using the firepower of the Navy and Air Force in a war.

MACGREGOR: The United States Army remains a 1942 construct that expects lots of warning before it actually slowly organizes and equips to deploy.

BOWMAN: Macgregor says his idea showed promise in Army war games, but the Army leadership is resistant to making any changes. No surprise there, according to Gordon Adams, who worked on Pentagon budgets under President Clinton.

GORDON ADAMS: The Army does not want to shrink. The Army doesn't want to lose the segment of the defense budget it's had.

BOWMAN: Adams says the Army has often cut back when wars end, like World War II and Korea.

ADAMS: And it made sense - it wasn't a mistake - because the ground force is the thing you can most easily regenerate. It's really hard to regenerate a pilot.

BOWMAN: Far easier to train an infantry soldier. Adams said Army war planners could make better use of troops it already has and Guard and Reserve units, which deployed in large numbers to both Iraq and Afghanistan.

ADAMS: So the Guard and Reserve we have today is a truly ready Guard and Reserve, not a Guard and Reserve that's waiting to be called up and trying to figure out how to find its way to the battle station.

BOWMAN: Senior Army leaders say it would still take months to train those part-time soldiers, and the generals have powerful supporters among members of Congress.

ADAMS: They are not asking the hard questions. They are mostly advocates for a higher budget. You're not going to get the analytics out of the Armed Services Committee that you would hope to.

BOWMAN: Studies have been done, says defense analyst Dan Goure, by the Army, the Pentagon and think tanks. They conclude a smaller Army comes at a price. One example, Goure says: It could embolden foreign leaders. Case in point: Russia's annexation of Crimea.

DAN GOURE: Other countries, adversaries, may be tempted, as we've seen recently, to use their military power to try and seize territory.

BOWMAN: Because the U.S. is cutting back on its ground forces, you think?

GOURE: In part because the U.S. is cutting back - because our allies are cutting back.

BOWMAN: Goure says the U.S. now has the only large, capable Army in the Western world. It still would be - even at the lower levels. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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