Army Ponders Future Force: Not Too Large, Not Too Small, Just Right

By Sandra I. Erwin
In a pep talk to Army leaders recently, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta pointed out the obvious: There aren’t many countries out there building massive tank armies, and it is “unlikely that we will be re-fighting Desert Storm in the future.”

His predecessor, Secretary Robert Gates, already had professed in a speech to West Point cadets that they should not expect the United States to fight any large counterinsurgency wars in the foreseeable future, as that would be lunacy.

Channeling Goldilocks, the Army has decided to aim somewhere in between. Some call this middle area “hybrid threats,” or as Panetta described it, a conflict against enemies who have “high-tech weaponry that is easier both to buy and to operate, weapons that frustrate our traditional advantages.”

This posture, outside analysts and strategists agree, makes sense as it hedges risk and allows the Army to train and equip for a broad range of potential foes.

But the Army remains conflicted about how it will transition from a COIN-focused force to one that can multitask over a wide range of challenges.

With budget cuts looming, leaders are now more preoccupied by money issues than by the frustratingly futile task of trying to predict the future.

The Army is projected to downsize from 570,000 to 520,000 soldiers after the scheduled withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2014. But if the Army is serious about reshaping itself to be more adaptable against unpredictable enemies, it might find it hard to justify keeping more than a million soldiers — including active-duty, Reserve and National Guard — in addition to nearly 350,000 civilian workers and untold thousands of support contractors.

Also fueling anxiety among Army leaders is the prospect of ground warfare fading into irrelevance post-Afghanistan, and a subsequent reallocation of resources toward naval and air warfare. The culmination of the air campaign in Libya — which was relatively short and did not require any U.S. troops on the ground — is a reminder of Kosovo in 1999, when air power was so successful that it prompted the Army to overhaul its organization and weapons acquisitions as it sought to prove that it was no longer a plodding Cold War force.

At the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, the “future” is the dominant topic of conversation, said TRADOC Commander Gen. Robert W. Cone.

Budget cuts always are unwelcome, but for Cone, the more pressing issue is how to “excite this generation” of officers and enlisted leaders who have been at war for a decade, commanding troops and empowered to make life-or-death decisions, and may not want to stick around for a life of office chores and PowerPoint briefings.

The Army is reaching a crossroads, Cone said during a meeting with reporters in Washington, D.C. “It’s time for a careful reexamination of who we are, what we stand for and where we are going.”

Apprehension about where the Army is headed is palpable “every month when I go to Leavenworth,” said Cone, referring to the Army’s Combined Arms Center, in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., home to the service’s leader-development schools. Each month, said Cone, “I talk to 100 battalion commanders who are about to take command. … They know exactly what to do because that is what they have been doing for the last 10 years.” But when current wars end, “How are we going to continue to capture the imagination of these young officers in a peacetime environment?” Cone asked.

He believes that if the Army can make its training programs more applicable to the real world, it could go a long way to keeping the troops motivated.

He expects the Army to continue to practice its COIN skills. “We are not going to forget the importance of the population and many of the lessons we learned so painfully in the past 10 years,” said Cone. To prepare for hybrid threats, there will be more training focused on “offense” and “defense” against a mix of conventional foes, terrorists and criminal networks.

But rather than revert to traditional wargames against imaginary enemies, Cone would like to tailor exercises to actual regions of the world where U.S. ground forces might be expected to go. “Let’s not study a generic enemy, let’s study specific problem areas in the world,” he said. “That’s what we need to be doing in peacetime training.”

Once you’ve done this for real, as most junior leaders in the Army have, “it doesn’t really excite them to chase the Fresnovians or the Ballonians or whoever we’re making up” in a wargame, Cone said.

But no matter how much embellishing is applied to training, much of the Army — especially enlisted troops and small-unit leaders — will experience a culture shock once wars are over. “Suffice it to say, when you’re an E-5 in garrison … you have significantly less authority than you have in Iraq, outside the [forward operating base] FOB,” he said. “These youngsters are not going to put up with the garrison of old,” he added. “The pre-2001 Army does not excite them.”

Similar existential challenges also will affect Army procurement programs. Gates was able to rally the Army’s weapon-buying bureaucracies around the urgent needs for armored trucks, drones and body armor. But in the absence of a clearly defined mission, “the Army’s acquisition efforts will stay problematic, with every program subject to endless debate over need and schedule,” said Harvey M. Sapolsky, professor emeritus of public policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Army’s larger problem, he suggested, is that it has “lost the unifying threat” it had in the Cold War and after 9/11 that simply cannot be replaced by nameless “hybrid” foes.

Topics: Defense Department, War Planning

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