New Chief Will Seek to Redefine the Role of the U.S. Army

By Sandra I. Erwin
The Army has begun a clean-sheet review of what it sees as its role after the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan end. Chief of staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey has kicked the effort into high gear so the review can be completed before expected budget cuts begin at the Pentagon next year.
Dempsey wants to clearly define the role of the Army in 2020 and estimate, accordingly, the size, make-up and equipment that future forces will need, he said May 5 at an Association of the U.S. Army’s Institute of Land Warfare breakfast meeting in Arlington, Va.
A draft should be completed by June 14, the Army’s 236th birthday, he said.
This latest attempt to revisit the Army’s purpose and identity comes less than a year after the service unveiled an “operational concept” for how it envisions fighting wars from 2016 to 2028. That document, written by Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster, a senior adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, cemented into doctrine the lessons from the current conflicts, and stressed the Army’s role in non-traditional warfare such as counterinsurgency and stability operations.
But a looming budget crunch and declining public support for the war in Afghanistan are forcing the Army to rethink assumptions. Some “enduring requirements” will never change, such as the need to defend the nation, Dempsey said. Nevertheless, the Army will have to articulate more specifically how it will contribute to the nation’s security in 2020, when current conflicts presumably will be over, he added.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates set the tone in aFebruary speech to West Point cadets, when he predicted that massive ground force deployments and Afghanistan-like occupations are not likely to be repeated in the foreseeable future. He cautioned the Army to begin thinking about how it will transition to a new era of unpredictable threats and leaner budgets.
“I do think it is important to think about what the Army will look like and must be able to do after large U.S. combat units are substantially drawn down in Afghanistan,” said Gates. “The need for heavy armor and firepower to survive, close with, and destroy the enemy will always be there. … Looking ahead, though, in the competition for tight defense dollars within and between the services, the Army also must confront the reality that the most plausible, high-end scenarios for the U.S. military are primarily naval and air engagements – whether in Asia, the Persian Gulf, or elsewhere.” The Army has to come to grips with the idea that the past decade of counterinsurgency fighting soon will be part of history and not likely to repeat itself, Gates said.
Dempsey’s predecessor, now retired Gen. George Casey, had pushed back on suggestions that the Army needed to change. He had for years insisted that the Army should prepare for an era of “persistent conflict” and could not afford to downsize. In his last speech to an AUSA audience, Casey said, “We simply cannot afford to dismantle this incredible Army that we have so painstakingly built over the past decade.”
But lean times, indeed, are coming, Dempsey acknowledged. The point of the ongoing review, he said, is to “get ahead of the resources” and try to reshape the Army rather than endure wholesale cuts.
As to what weapon systems might be on the chopping block, Dempsey said it’s too early to say. “I think we have a pretty well framed modernization strategy for the Army we know today,” he said. Priorities might shift over time, though. “When we figure out that army of 2020 and we get a little bit more granularity, I think it’ll change … We’ve got a well-articulated strategy that is servicing the army of 2011 … but that may not be what we need in 2020.”
One area that is being studied more in-depth is how to better equip infantry squads, which are the Army’s most technologically disadvantaged formations. “I think there’ll be some things we want to deliver at the lowest tactical level,” he said. Most of the Army’s current major weapon systems were designed decades ago, “when we were looking at the Army from the top down … Some [weapon systems] were optimized for echelons above brigade.”
Over the past several years, the Army has transferred more authority and equipment to smaller units, especially companies. “A captain at a combat outpost on the Pak-Afghan border has as much capability or access as I did as a division commander in Baghdad in 2003,” Dempsey said. “That is not an exaggeration.” But one of the unintended consequences has been overburdening small units with a huge logistics tail. Soldiers bring so many electronic devices to combat now that, “all of a sudden you find the squad is overwhelmed by the requirement for batteries,” Dempsey said. “You can follow a U.S. infantry patrol in Afghanistan by the disposable batteries they leave behind … like bread crumbs.”
Dempsey has asked the Army Training and Doctrine Command to take a detailed look at squad-equipment needs.
“As we look to build our future Army, I believe it's important to see it from the bottom up, not the top down — beginning with the squad,” Dempsey posted on hisFacebook feed. “Why the squad? I believe that across just about every echelon in our Army, we have ‘overmatch’ against a future adversary with the exception of the squad. I would like to hear some ideas about how we can achieve overmatch.”
Former commandant of the Army War College, retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales, has been anoutspoken critic of what he calls a chronic inattention to the needs of dismounted infantry, which have borne the brunt of the fighting. “Army units still go to war with M2 .50 caliber machine guns, which were originally issued in 1921, and fly Vietnam-era Chinook helicopters,” Scales said. The Army spends on average $17,000 to equip each soldier, but troops are still hugely vulnerable to enemy ambushes and roadside bombs.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, War Planning

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