Commission Overrules Army Aviation Decisions, Paints Grim Fiscal Picture
The National Commission on the Future of the Army released its final report Jan. 28 as an acrimonious debate heats up in Washington over the proper size and missions of the U.S. armed forces.
The highly anticipated report rebuffs a controversial Army aviation restructuring plan that angered the National Guard and created a political spat. Most of the panel’s recommendations, however, focus on the Army’s struggles to meet growing demands while downsizing the force.
The commission endorses the Obama administration’s proposed Army force levels of 980,000 soldiers for fiscal year 2017 and cautions against any further downsizing. “The commission finds that a regular Army of 450,000, an Army National Guard of 335,000, and an Army Reserve of 195,000 represent the absolute minimum to meet America’s national security objectives,” the report said.
Congress charged the panel a year ago to examine the size and force mix of the Army, including how duties and resources should be divvied up between the active-duty and reserve components. The commission was specifically required to review a controversial proposal to transfer Army National Guard AH-64 Apache attack helicopters to the regular Army.
The aviation restructuring initiative — introduced by the Army in 2013 — was put on hold by Congress pending the review by the commission. The ARI would eliminate about 800 aircraft from the Army’s inventory by divesting older helicopters like the OH-58 A/C/D Kiowa Warriors and TH-67 Creek — moving all National Guard attack helicopters to the active force, and replacing the Guard’s 192 Apaches with 111 utility helicopters from the active force. The Apaches would replace aging Kiowa Warrior scout helicopters that the Army can no longer afford to maintain.
The National Guard fiercely objected to losing its attack helicopters and the combat role they represented. Congress responded in the fiscal year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act by restricting the transfers and creating the National Commission on the Future of the Army.
The commission concluded that the ARI, while well crafted, “results in a lack of strategic depth, providing for no wartime surge capability in the Army National Guard,” and also creates disunity. The commission, though, rejected the Guard’s counterproposal to retain six Apache helicopter battalions as too costly. The panel instead recommended that the Army maintain 24 manned Apache battalions: 20 in the regular Army and four in the Army National Guard. The commission also proposed the Army retain a forward stationed combat aviation brigade in Korea.
The National Guard Association of the United States welcomed the panel’s conclusions. "We asked the commissioners to engage Army National Guard soldiers, listen to their concerns and to consider with open minds what this force can and should contribute in the future. Our quick initial review of the commission's final report released today suggests the panel did just that,” said NGAUS president retired Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett.
More broadly, the commission sought to resolve disagreements between the Army’s active and reserve components over how to conduct the postwar drawdown. This calls for tough decisions on how to balance “capacity” against “capability,” and how to allocate resources among the services. Emphasis on capacity would require the Army to have a larger force that can deploy globally and be ready to respond to a wide range of crises. If the focus shifts to capability, the force would shrink in size so that more funding can be spent on high-tech weaponry to fight sophisticated potential adversaries like China and Russia.
The Army in recent years has attempted to avoid this debate by insisting that its capability is its capacity, but so far it has failed to make that case and has largely served as a bill payer for the other services, said military analyst Mark Cancian, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The commission’s report gives the Guard a symbolic victory but the “downside is you’ve essentially made a compromise where you bridge the differences by adding more helicopters. That’s quite expensive and in fact there are a lot of recommendations that are going to cost a lot of money,” Cancian said. “They make a fair argument for that, but in the current budget environment that may be hard to do.”
Congress will be onboard with the aviation proposal but to pay for it, “they have to cut other places. It wouldn’t shock me to find that the Congress funded this out of war funds, even though this does not meet the sort of established criteria.” In general, Cancian, said, “I think some of their recommendations will have teeth.”
The commission, however, “sidestepped the broader issue of the usability of National Guard combat units,” he noted. “There has been quite a debate about that. The argument by some is that the
Guard units just can’t be ready in time to be usable in the kind of contingencies that we foresee. That issue I think will linger.”
There’s a lot of rhetoric about “keeping all the components ready and relevant and how they’re all important,” but where to find money to pay for that is the looming question, Cancian said. “People are very expensive.”
The Army announced it would cut units at 30 installations in order to hit the 450,000 troop target. The hardest hit are Fort Benning, Ga.; Fort Hood, Texas; Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska; Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.; Schofield Barracks, Hawaii; and Fort Bliss, Texas. Instead of deactivating whole brigades, the Army will reduce them to smaller “task forces” to ease the impact on individual installations.
The fiscal year 2016 budget funded an Army active-duty force of 475,000 troops, Army National Guard at 342,000 and Army Reserve at 198,000. The projections for 2017 are that the Army will lose 25,000 active-duty soldiers, 7,000 members of the Guard and 3,000 Reserve troops.
At its war peak in 2010, the active-duty Army had 566,000 soldiers. Proponents of downsizing the active force contend reservists are more “cost effective.” In its 2015 budget request, the administration proposed that reserve components make up 54.1 percent of the Army by 2017, compared to 53.6 percent in 2001 and 49.1 percent when the Army was at its topmost size during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Even with budgets permitting a force of 980,000, the Army faces “significant shortfalls,” the commission concluded. It pointed to Army aviation as a glaring example. “Today, some aviation assets cannot meet expected wartime capacity requirements.” The commission suggested the Army should reverse course on aviation cuts and retain an 11th combat aviation brigade in the regular Army.
Another gap is short-range air defense, the commission said. “Recent activities in Ukraine and Syria have demonstrated the threat environment has changed. Yet, no short-range air defense battalions reside in the regular Army.” Further, a “sizeable percentage of the Army National Guard’s short-range air defense capability is providing essential protection in the National Capital Region,leaving precious little capability for other global contingencies.”
Other equipment deficiencies include tactical mobility; missile defense; chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear; field artillery; fuel distribution; water purification; watercraft, and military police.
“Remedying these shortfalls within a 980,000-soldier Army will require hard choices and difficult trade-offs,” said the report. One option would be to cut two infantry brigades from the regular Army in order to provide the manning necessary to strengthen aviation, short-range air defense, and other capabilities.
How the Army would pay for these improvements is the elephant in the room. “The Army can help by working with the administration to propose efficiencies and reduce redundancy in its operations,” the report said. “But more efficiencies and fewer redundancies will not be enough; added funding will eventually be needed if major shortfalls are to be eliminated.”
The commission’s recommendations are “going to drive a lot of the debate about the structure of the Army and how the active and reserve components relate to each other,” said Cancian.
Congress created the commission “to try to resolve the civil war in the Army,” he said. To be sure, tensions between regular armies and militias have existed since the beginning of the Republic, he noted, but periodically those tensions flare up. The latest outbreak started in 2013 with the Army’s aviation restructuring initiative that prompted an angry backlash from the National Guard.
The panel said all Army components should work more closely and share assets. Commissioners criticized Army leaders for a “lack of focus on multicomponent units that bring together capabilities from all components, the absence of an integrated recruiting force, and the inability to manage pay and personnel across the entire Army with a single system. Regrettably, parochialism, some tension among components, and the lack of predictable and responsible budgeting exacerbate the lack of unity.”
Mackenzie Eaglen, military analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said the commission’s report is an “agreeable enough compromise that Congress will likely support.”
One concern is whether they can afford the compromise, she said. “The commission itself admitted that it’s going to be very expensive to go with the compromise solution.” There is not enough money in the 2017 budget to do this unless other programs are cut, Eaglen said. The proposals, though, are “certainly not dead on arrival. Why? Because the politics of the aviation restructure are powerful. Any time we’re dealing with the National Guard in particular and the nation’s governors, Congress is going to be sympathetic,” she said. “So they’re going to want to be supportive of the commission’s findings in particular on the aviation restructure.”
Army leaders, for their part, will be “supportive of the desire to find a compromise but they’re going to be very cold-eyed when it comes to the math of how to pay for it and will fight to protect potential offsets that Congress might identify,” Eaglen said. “The Guard constituency has a reputation for fighting to win and getting everything they want all the time. So there may be some pushback but I do believe Congress will give the commission the last word.”
Army spokesman Brig. Gen. Malcolm Frost said the service “appreciates the independent insights and recommendations provided by the National Commission on the Future of the Army.” Officials are “assessing the report and expect its recommendations to provide opportunities to strengthen the effectiveness of our force,” Frost said in a statement. “That assessment process will be led by the
Secretary of the Army and Chief of Staff of the Army and include the coordinated efforts of the Director, Army National Guard and Chief of Army Reserve.”
Military experts over the years have been skeptical about blue-ribbon panels, and whether they have enough teeth to stir action. Naysayers doubt that any commission these days can spark meaningful policy changes in an environment of institutional deadlock and deep polarization.
“Throughout American history, Congress has found commissions to be useful entities in the legislative process,” said a report by the Congressional Research Service. “The nonpartisan or bipartisan character of most congressional commissions may make their findings and recommendations more politically acceptable, both in Congress and among the public.” Critics argue, however, that congressional commissions are “expensive, often formed to take difficult decisions out of the hands of Congress, and are mostly ignored when they report their findings and recommendations.”
The commission was chaired by retired Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, former chief of U.S. Africa Command. Members included former assistant secretary of the Army Thomas R. Lamont, retired Sergeant Major Raymond F. Chandler, retired Gen. Larry R. Ellis, former chief of Army Forces Command, former Pentagon Comptroller Robert F. Hale, former assistant secretary of defense for policy Kathleen H. Hicks, former chief of Army Reserves Lt. Gen. Jack C. Stultz and retired Gen. James D. Thurman, former commander of U.S. Army forces in Korea.