Army Presses Case for Relevance of Ground Forces (UPDATED)

By Sandra I. Erwin

The U.S. Army has been frequently criticized for being slow and heavy, and therefore less likely to be called upon to respond to a crisis halfway around the world, whereas the Marine Corps or special operations forces can get there fast.

As per orders of its chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army must become “expeditionary,” which implies that it must be lighter and faster. Odierno has pushed back on suggestions that the Army is trying to displace the Marine Corps, and insists that he is simply preparing for a post-Afghanistan world in which U.S. forces will not be occupying countries but will be expected to intervene in unforeseen crises.   

A team of Army strategists, think tank analysts and academics recently gathered at the College of William & Mary, in Williamsburg, Va., to debate how the Army might change in order to be more relevant in a changing world.

“Based on the analysis we've done, we see things happening more quickly, not slower,” said Maj. Gen. Bill Hix, deputy director of the Army Training and Doctrine Command’s Capabilities Integration Center. The command is conducting a series of seminars to probe how the Army would organize and equip its forces after 2020.

“We do not see that we have the gift of time when crises arise in areas where our interests are at stake,” Hix said Jan. 22 during a conference call with reporters.

But how exactly the Army would become lighter and faster is still to be determined. Although the Army appears to be struggling badly to adapt to smaller budgets and massive troop cuts, Hix said the period between now and 2020 will be a transition like others the Army experienced before. “This is not the first time the Army has faced this,” Hix said. “These periods [of downsizing] have also been great periods of innovation.”

The wars of the past decade compelled the Army to turn into an occupation force that had to worry primarily about protecting troops from bombs and rocket attacks, and demanded a huge logistics tail. The conflicts of the future will be about “fast power” and “influencing events” at a rapid speed, said Hix.

These conditions, especially if future crises occur in far-flung regions such as the Pacific Rim, clearly favor forward-deployed branches of the military such as the Air Force or the Navy. Army officials are trying to make the case that there is, too, a role for ground forces because solving crises usually requires face-to-face human contact.

The United States can exert influence from ships off the coast and from the air, Hix said. But many missions cannot be performed “from 35,000 feet or 12 miles off shore,” he said. “There is a role for responsive land forces.”

The most immediate change happening in the Army is that its ranks are thinning. Army leaders announced last year they would cut a dozen combat brigades over the next five years, from 45 to 33. The force would drop from 535,000 to 490,000 soldiers by 2017. Further reductions that would bring the force down to 420,000 are a real possibility if the Army has to stay within congressionally mandated budget caps during the next decade.

Being expeditionary might make sense in theory, but not easy to implement. It will require a change in the Army’s mindset, officials said. This means “getting away from predictive deployment cycles,” said Col. Chris Cross, chief of science and technology at the Army Capabilities Integration Center. “We are not sure where we are going to go but we know we need to get there faster.”
Force size will not be as important as the quality of the force and equipment, Hix said.

The Army will need lighter vehicles that can be transported by air, although officials will seek to avoid repeating the procurement missteps that led to the failure of the Future Combat Systems, a $100 billion program that was conceived in the 1990s precisely to provide light vehicles and make he Army more expeditionary.

Although budgets are coming down, the Army intends to preserve research-and-development funding for technologies that can lighten the logistics load, such as robots and new materials to shield vehicles. “The Army is working very hard to protect its R&D budget,” said Hix. “We will look for opportunities to achieve a leaner force that is more capable, and more expeditionary, more responsible, able to deploy more rapidly.”

The Army already has embraced robotics and expects to do more with unmanned vehicles, said Hix. “There's potential to replace manpower,” he said. “At a minimum, robots will augment dismounted soldiers” in birddog-like roles. Driverless trucks also could be used in supply convoys.

“It is hard to conceive that we'll fight a fight in 2030 without the integration of some unmanned combat platform,” Cross said. The Army also will have to confront advanced enemy robots, he said. “We will fight against robotics platforms and adversaries' application of robotics technology.”

The toughest technological challenge will be designing combat vehicles that are more easily transportable. The failed Future Combat Systems sought unachievable 20-ton tanks. The emergence of improvised bombs and mines in Iraq and Afghanistan as the preferred weapons aimed at U.S. forces compelled the Army to add heavy armor. Early designs of its newest ground combat vehicle, or GCV — which would replace the Bradley troop carrier —  weighs 68 tons, or nearly as much as an Abrams tank.

“I think the GCV is evidence of the fact we have to make the science and technology investment” in lighter materials, Hix said. “The weight and size now is driven by the reality of the 360-degree combat environment. Improvised explosive devices are not going away.”

Cross said it will be a “cornerstone of Army science and technology efforts” to find lighter materials for vehicles. The bulk and weight of the Army’s equipment severely limit its options and prevent it from being expeditionary, said Cross. “The problem we face in the Army is that we are very predictable,” he said. “We go into a predictable point of entry. We drive predictable supply routes. We assemble large forces in predictable areas,” he said. Being able to surprise an enemy is a “principal driver in becoming expeditionary.” At the same time, commanders have to worry about protecting troops from rockets, missiles and smart bombs. That, today, requires heavy armor. “Enemy kinetic capabilities are increasing at a faster rate than the [technology for the] protection of vehicles.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post had an incorrect spelling of the last name of Maj. Gen. Bill Hix. 

Topics: Combat Vehicles, Counterinsurgency, Expeditionary Warfare, Advanced Weapons

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