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WASHINGTON — Budget reductions could render the Army at "high risk to meet even one major war," according to documents obtained by USA TODAY, a warning the Army is sounding because it sees another war as inevitable before long.

The dire assessment by top Army officials to Pentagon leaders provides a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes struggle for the future of the military in a time of declining budgets.

The Army provided its assessment as each of the services is conducting a four-year scrub of its strategy and the resources needed to meet it, a process called the Quadrennial Defense Review.

Military budget analysts say the Army is crying wolf. If it changed the way it organizes itself and how it fights, the Army can make do with far fewer soldiers, they say. They say the Army has not fully taken into account President Obama's 2012 strategic guidance calling for smaller, more agile forces.

"They can get smaller," said Todd Harrison, a budget expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "They will just have to fight differently. If you can't even fight one war, what's the point of having an army?"

Top Army officials briefed Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter late last month on the Army's future and the risks associated with cutting its forces. The presentation drew dire conclusions about reducing the Army's size beyond the 490,000 active-duty soldiers — down from a wartime high of 570,000 — it plans to have in 2017.

An Army with 450,000 soldiers is "too small" and at "high risk to meet one major war," the documents say. The Pentagon has been structured for decades to win two separate wars.

War is likely to break out again, according to the briefing.

The Army did not respond to requests for comment from USA TODAY.

An Army of 450,000 soldiers is not too small to conduct counterinsurgency and stability operations, said a study from the Stimson Center, a non-partisan think tank. "Under such a strategy, powerful ground forces are still needed; they are a critical part of U.S. military capabilities and of our ability to reassure friends and deter potential adversaries," the report says, but they can be significantly reduced in size.

Size isn't the key element, said Russell Rumbaugh, a budget expert at the center. More important is preparing a smaller force to deal with operations for a limited time. He pointed out that the Army and Marine Corps expanded rapidly after 2006 to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Harrison said the Army could restructure itself by moving away from its traditional armor and infantry battalions. It could emphasize new capabilities such as missile defense and offense.

"The other services are looking at options in changing their capabilities with a different mix of forces," Harrison said. They're finding they can have fewer troops and "be just as effective."

The CSBA is one of the main contractors for the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment, which conducts research to determine the military's future threats and needs.

Since May, the Army, Marines and Special Operations Command have been emphasizing the importance of ground forces in future conflicts.

The Strategic Landpower Task Force states that some in the defense community believe wars will be fought primarily with weapons fired from a safe distance. The task force was created by the Army chief of staff, Gen. Raymond Odierno; Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos and Adm. William McRaven, commander of Special Operations Command. These commanders said in a statement that operations on land are most effective at achieving national objectives.

They referred to the need to influence what they refer to as the "human domain." Compelling people to act in U.S. interests is best accomplished by land forces, they said.

Follow @tvandenbrook on Twitter.

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