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Army Ponders Its Post-War Identity
By Sandra I. Erwin

Army leaders are entering familiar territory as they contemplate how to reshape their forces for leaner times.

The current Army is too large, too expensive and mostly geared to fight counterinsurgencies, and it is now seeking to forge a new identity as a multifaceted force that can adapt to a broader range of threats.

Today’s existential crisis of sorts is not unlike the one the Army experienced in the late 1990s, when it was struggling to adjust to the post-Soviet world. The transition was interrupted by the 9/11 attacks, a gush of money and a massive reorganization that was needed to fight two wars.

With the Army now facing draconian budget cuts, Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said his most immediate fear is that the Army will become “hollow.” But his warnings have not helped avert the cuts, and the fiscal reality is gradually sinking in. Officials must now wrestle with a central question: How does the Army become leaner without losing its fighting edge?

Army strategists have waded into the issue in recent war games but have yet to come up with clear answers.

“We know there will be an Army in 2030. But we don't know its composition or size,” said Rickey E. Smith, director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center (Forward). The center, part of the Army Training and Doctrine Command, organizes strategy war games. This year's series is called “Unified Quest.”

Army leaders now face a dilemma similar to the one it confronted in the years following the end of the Cold War, when generals worried that the force was bloated and ill-equipped for quick-fire response to crises. In the most recent strategy seminar, the Army was sent to a hostile Syria-like country where terrorists had obtained chemical weapons that were used in an attack against U.S. citizens. The Army's job was to secure the weapons and keep them locked down until civilian authorities decided how to proceed.

The war game raised questions about the Army’s ability to deploy forces quickly enough to influence fast-moving events. In the fictitious operation, the force was “pretty slow,” Smith said. Because most of the Army is based in the United States and carries a heavy logistics tail, the amount of airlift and sealift required to move even one brigade makes it difficult for the service to respond quickly. In the game, it took the Army 45 days to deploy. “They can't get there quickly enough to prevent a WMD leak,” Smith said.

A different scenario had the Army intervening in the same crisis, but with a drastically slimmed down force, with minimum heavy equipment and a new high-speed cargo helicopter. The lighter force was agile, but also more vulnerable, Smith said. “It moved so fast that it didn't have enough endurance. It had difficulties sustaining itself.”

The lesson? When the Army is stripped down, it is not as robust, Smith said. “Faster is always better, but not if it can't sustain itself.”

The challenge is finding a happy medium so forces can get to hotspots faster and still have sufficient staying power, Smith said. “Somewhere in the middle we have to decide where to invest,” he said. “Should we pursue a future lift vehicle? Should we work on more sealift?”

More than 12 years in Afghanistan and eight years in Iraq turned the Army into an occupation force that could stay in one place and was more concerned about protecting troops from enemy attacks than about its mobility. Now the Army sees its heavy logistics tail as a potential weakness. These concerns have echoes of NATO's war in Kosovo 14 years ago, when the Army's Apache helicopters were sidelined because they were not ready for the fight. “The vaunted helicopters,” the Washington Post observed in Dec. 1999, “came to symbolize everything wrong with the Army as it enters the 21st century: Its inability to move quickly; its resistance to change; its obsession with casualties; its post-Cold War identity crisis.”

The post-Afghanistan Army is dramatically different from the one that didn’t get to fight in Kosovo. But its mobility problems are still there. A stark illustration is the Army’s communications gear. The service has spent billions of dollars building its own wireless communications infrastructure so it can have connectivity in any war zone. That has created a huge logistics load. “Could you have used a civilian network instead of shipping truckloads of hardware to set up your own cell towers?” Smith asked. “That's an interesting thought.” The Army prefers to not rely on the local infrastructure because it might not be secure, but when a force has to move fast, these equipment demands create significant burdens. The Army has to weigh risks, said Smith. “Yes, civilian networks are less secure, but we could reduce the tooth to tail ratio if we used existing commercial networks and secure the data, as opposed to bringing the entire infrastructure. That's something we have to continue to work with.”

Smith credits Odierno for attempting to plan for the distant future even as the Army leadership remains bogged down by the sequester budget cuts and continued uncertainty about future funding. “In times of fiscal constraint, you need innovation,” Smith said.

Military officials also recognize that the political environment is such that the last thing the country desires right now is to plan for another war. “No one wants to go do another land operation again,” Smith said. “But doesn't mean you have that option.”

The biggest “aha” moment of the seminar, he said, was the realization that the Army needs to educate its future leaders so they can cope with crises that cannot possibly be predicted. Right now, because most of the Army has focused on counterinsurgency, “we are kind of out of balance,” he said. “We have a lot of COIN experience. But a lot of officers and NCOs haven't gone through the education system.”

The Army wants to retain its counterinsurgency doctrine but also expand its repertoire. “We are not going to pull it like we did after Vietnam,” Smith said. “It needs to be there, along with combined arms. … We don't see a wholesale departure from COIN.”

Former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and U.S. ambassador there Karl W. Eikenberry recently weighed in on the future of the Army in a Foreign Affairs article, where he urged the service to avoid repeating costly mistakes. More than three years after Afghan “surge,” he wrote, COIN proponents might, “with some merit, claim that the experiment was too little, too late — too late because an industrial-strength COIN approach was not rigorously applied until eight years after the war began, and too little because even then, limits were placed on the size and duration of the surge, making it more difficult to change the calculations of Afghan friends and enemies.” But the political realities in that country “made the counterinsurgency campaign increasingly incoherent and difficult to prosecute. In short, COIN failed in Afghanistan,” Eikenberry said.

U.S. policymakers must know that “deploying highly trained U.S. soldiers and marines to Afghanistan to serve as social workers or to manage development projects comes at a very high price," he said. The U.S. government spends about $1 million per year per soldier deployed in Afghanistan.

At the height of the surge, Washington had about 100,000 troops in theater, costing about $100 billion annually. Eikenberry said it was “sheer hubris to think that American military personnel without the appropriate language skills and with only a superficial understanding of Afghan culture could, on six or 12-month tours, somehow deliver to Afghan villages everything asked of them by the COIN manual.”
But even as the United States ponders the limits of intervention, he noted, “it should not reject all the techniques and procedures put into practice in Afghanistan and Iraq. Fragile and failing states will continue to endanger U.S. and international security, and the choice of responses is not limited to doing nothing or deploying massive numbers of troops and civilians.”

The risk for the Army, and for the U.S. armed forces more broadly, is that the disappointments of recent conflicts will push the nation to an isolationist posture and render the military irrelevant, experts said.

“When America comes out of a period of war, we are tempted to turn inward as isolationist impulses assert themselves,” said former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy. “When I look at the world, I see problems for which it's difficult to imagine solutions without an international response,” she told an Aspen Institute forum.

“We need to resist that temptation to turn away from the world,” she said. Spending cuts create risks, she added. “We try to balance too much of the budget on the back on the force, and we end up with a hollow force. I am worried this will happen because we are not able to manage the drawdown in a smart way.”

University of Virginia history professor and former senior State Department official Philip Zelikow said these are opportune times for a fundamental reform of how the military is organized and equipped. “American levels of defense spending are at still near historic highs, even accounting for projected cuts,” he said. “But expenditures are poorly allocated. And the inefficiency is likely to get much worse. High spending in a period of low threat is buying less and less meaningful defense.”

In the 1990s, the defense establishment had become less relevant to the way the world was changing, Zelikow said. “After 9/11, huge adjustments had to be made to develop new capabilities that were strapped in an ad hoc way to the old established capabilities.” The result has been significant bloat and inefficiency that now have to be addressed, he said. The U.S. military needs “high readiness” and “high response” in future crises. “What we need in Asia is formidable military capability by sea and air that can deter and defeat rapidly any potential opponent with forces in hand available in hours or days,” Zelikow said. “A very small portion of our forces is able to meet those readiness requirements.” 

U.S. forces are overwhelmingly concentrated in the continental United States, while “what we need is a base structure that is projected outward so we can get a larger effects from a smaller force.” The nation, he said, needs to downsize its military, but also build a force that is more responsive.

Photo Credit: U.S. Army


Re: Army Ponders Its Post-War Identity

Unless the Army cuts fat, it needn't worry about combat at all. If it shrinks a modest 20% from its pre-9-11 end strength, it will have no manpower left for combat units. We'll end up with an army of 400,000 active troops backed by 300,000 civilians with no ground combat brigades. The Army must begin to shed excess headquarters and outdated overseas bases, but it is doing nothing right now, as Odierno says the Army might cut some fat after 2015.

Where to begin. Here is a list of 100,000 unneeded positions.
Carlton Meyer at 12/2/2013 9:38 PM

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