Generals Get Real About Missions, Budget

By Sandra I. Erwin
The Army’s 101st Airborne Division returned to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in February after a one-year deployment in Afghanistan. By September, the division headquarters was again mobilizing for action in Monrovia, Liberia, to support international efforts to contain an Ebola pandemic.

“Going to Africa to fight Ebola was not on anyone’s radar screen,” says Brig. Gen. Ronald F. “Ron” Lewis, who was deputy commander of the 101st until June, and is now the Army’s top spokesman.

These short-notice assignments, he says, “illustrate how things are changing for the Army and the type of Army needed in the future.”

Life in the “post-war” Army indeed will be different. It will not be one of dreary rotational deployments but one of multitasking and responding to unforeseen events.

Generals for years have organized, trained and equipped forces for “one big fight” even when the world’s geopolitical currents have been clearly moving in a different direction.
Confronting today’s problems and what might come next requires a different mindset, says Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno. “In the future, we have to be able to handle multiple small-scale crises simultaneously. That’s the way the world is developing. We have to be adaptable, get there quickly [and] understand the economic, cultural and political environments.”

For the Army, the future is already here.

Within the last several months, in addition to the 101st deployment to Africa, the 1st Infantry Division headquarters was ordered to return to Iraq to join the campaign against the Islamic State. Soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division were on their way to Europe for training exercises requested by Poland and other Baltic nations. And Stryker units departed for Asia-Pacific to forge military relationships with countries in the region.

In the Army’s newly rewritten doctrine, there is an attempt to infuse more reality and resist wishful thinking in planning for the future.

The Army Operating Concept, which looks at anticipated missions and needs for the decades from 2020 to 2040, bears the imprint of Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the director of the Army Capabilities and Integration Center under the Training and Doctrine Command.

McMaster has been both hero and enfant terrible during his storied Army career. Notably, he was passed over for promotion to brigadier general in 2006 despite a stellar resume. The speculation was that McMaster was held back because he spoke uncomfortable truths that unnerved the Army establishment.

Because of McMaster’s influence, there is likely to be less pie-in-the-sky in Army doctrine. As he has stressed over the years, the debate over whether the Army should prepare for high-end or low-end warfare is deceptive because future enemies ultimately will have a say in how they choose to fight the United States. 

In a New York Times op-ed article published last year, McMaster advises against indulging in the “pipe dream of easy war.” And he calls out the Army for living in denial. “We apply history simplistically, or ignore it altogether, as a result of wishful thinking that makes the future appear easier and fundamentally different from the past.”

An overarching theme in military circles these days is that U.S. forces have to be realistic about the limits of technology. “Although advances in technology will continue to influence the character of warfare, the effect of technologies on land are often not as great,” says the new Army doctrine.

The heavy U.S. casualty toll in Iraq and Afghanistan, mostly from crude bomb attacks — shook the American military and especially caused generals to question their long-held belief that superior technology ensures victory.

The asymmetric battlefield is not going away. And things might get even tougher as the world becomes a technologically level-playing field where adversaries flush with cash can buy the same night-vision goggles and precision-guided missiles that U.S. troops have. The Army, especially, has to understand that its “secret sauce” is not its equipment but its professional cadre of soldiers, says Gen. David Perkins, head of Army Training and Doctrine Command. “Of all the things that set us apart, technology is the most transferrable.”

Former adviser to the Army chief of staff Maren Leed, now a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the fundamentals of ground war — like combined arms maneuver and achieving positional advantage — are not going to change. “But these things have to be done in a different way, in smaller, more targeted ways,” she says. “If the primary idea is that we have to organize the institution for smaller, simultaneous contingencies, that’s a pretty significant change for the Army. That’s not how they have organized since the Indian Wars.”

Another reality that has proven difficult for generals to cope with is fiscal austerity. After a decade of boundless spending, the Army is being told to downsize abruptly. From a peak of 45 brigades during the Iraq War, it is headed to 32 by the end of 2015.

Odierno has not yet given up in the fight against the Budget Control Act. “Forces have to operate in multiple continents simultaneously. That causes me great concern about the size of our military,” he says. If Congress enforces sequestration next year, the Army’s budget of $120 billion is going to go down by $9 billion. “We’ll have a significant degradation in readiness and modernization,” says Odierno.

Generals and admirals from every branch of the military have denounced budget cuts for causing “readiness” problems. But the military’s definition of readiness — how many soldiers are in the unit, how trained they are, and whether their equipment is ready to roll out the gate — does not help explain why the nation should spend more on defense. “It does not address the broader question of strategic readiness — whether the United States as a country has prepared for the right types of threats, and developed the right types of policy instruments to address them,” says Brookings analyst Michael O’Hanlon.

By most projections, defense budget cuts are here to stay.

McMaster is not on the front lines of the Washington budget wars, although he has suggested that the Army should learn to live in leaner times. “Although the defense budget is under pressure, clear thinking about war costs nothing,” he writes. “What we can afford least is to define the problem of future war as we would like it to be, and by doing so introduce into our defense vulnerabilities based on self-delusion.”

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, International

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