Army Anxiety

James Kitfield has a superb piece (“Army Anxiety,” National Journal Sept. 18 [$]) examining the stresses the Army is undergoing a massive organizational transformation as it juggles two simultaneous wars.

The 1st Armored Division reflects the tumultuous forces that are both transforming, and contorting, the U.S. Army. The division prepared to fight a high-intensity war in Iraq and ended up engaged in a yearlong campaign of counterinsurgency. Many of the changes in doctrine and tactics that the unit adopted in response to the insurgency mirror wider reforms the Army is implementing as a result of the war on terrorism, which itself is essentially a global counterinsurgency campaign. Scheduled to deploy to Iraq for a year, the 1st Armored had to stay an extra three months because of an unexpected wave of violence in Iraq. The extended stay raised concerns about its impact on military families back home and, ultimately, on soldier retention. Adding to those concerns is that, like most other major units in a stretched-thin Army, the 1st Armored is scheduled to return to Iraq sometime next year for another 12-month deployment. The Army acknowledges that such a pace of operations for all of its units is simply unsustainable. With the Pentagon’s recent announcement that it is pulling 70,000 troops, including the 1st Armored and 1st Infantry divisions in Germany, out of Europe and Asia and bringing them back to the United States over the next decade, chances are good that the division’s next deployment out of Baumholder will be its last. “Early on, Secretary [of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld saw that the pressures of wartime, and the subsequent stresses on personnel and force structure, would create incentives to use our people more efficiently and position our forces smarter,” said a senior Pentagon official. “In terms of units deploying out of Europe, Rumsfeld said very clearly that we shouldn’t just put them back in the same configuration from which they deployed. He saw a real opportunity to shuffle the deck.”

In the U.S. Army, which among the armed services is bearing the heaviest burden of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, this deck-shuffling in a time of war and “transformation” has created many management challenges and has resulted in one of the most profoundly unsettling periods in the service’s long history. “We’re making some of the most significant changes in our Army that we have made since World War II,” Gen. Peter Schoomaker, Army chief of staff, said at a recent news briefing. “While we are engaged in operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, we are also transforming the force. And I’ve often compared this to tuning a car engine while the engine is running, which is not only a complex task, but as you know, it could be dangerous as well.”

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A first glance at this prototype of the future Army suggests that the service — so far — has maintained the delicate balance between managing ongoing combat operations at the same time it pushes for rapid change. In the case of 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, for instance, abundant funds and a supply chain that gave absolute priority to units in Iraq allowed mechanics to quickly replace worn parts in the brigade’s equipment. Indeed, they achieved a 90 percent “mission capable” rate for major combat systems — tanks and armored vehicles and the like — even at the end of the brigade’s deployment. The brigade also was upgraded; it received the most-advanced M4 rifles, the latest body armor, and the Army’s state-of-the-art night-vision equipment. In addition, commanders were able to exceed re-enlistment goals while in Iraq with the help of lump-sum re-enlistment bonuses ranging from $10,000 to $40,000 per soldier. Now back in Germany, the brigade is also making sure that its troops get plenty of rest. The brigade’s leaders are taking a purposefully gradual approach in bringing its soldiers back up to speed after their extended deployment to Iraq. After a mandatory “block leave” of 30 days, soldiers are being eased back into a work regime of five-day weeks, with most getting four-day weekends on federal holidays. Barring a crisis, commanders are determined to see that soldiers spend Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays at home with their families; for many, this would be the first time in years. “A lot of senior leaders in the Army right now were brigade commanders around the time of Desert Storm, when the Army tried to reconstitute returning units so fast that they physically and materially wore them out, to the point that units took years to fully recover,” said Lt. Col. Jim Danna, the executive officer for 2nd Brigade. “Remembering all those horror stories, Army senior leaders designed a much more gradual reintegration program to avoid those mistakes. Our philosophy now is that the nation is at war, we’ve just finished one campaign in that war, and we have to prepare smartly to be ready for the next campaign in that war.”

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“The crux of the matter is that we built this Army to be a world-class sprinter, making it the most high-tech, capital-intensive army in the world,” said Andrew Krepinevich, an Army expert and the director of the Center for Strategic & Budgetary Assessments in Washington. “Now in Iraq, it’s being forced to run a counterinsurgency marathon, which is the most manpower-intensive type of warfare. That creates a real problem for an institution that got out of the counterinsurgency business 25 years ago after Vietnam. Culturally, psychologically, and materially, the Army just wasn’t predisposed toward this kind of war.”

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To get more boots on the ground quickly, the Army is quietly increasing its authorized size by 30,000 troops over the next two years. All of this will be paid for by the supplemental funding granted by Congress for the global war on terrorism. Army leaders hope to add the troops only temporarily, so they won’t become a permanent drain on a budget already squeezed by the expensive transformation initiative and the need to replace an arsenal that is wearing out much faster than anticipated, given the demands of ongoing combat. “We should be honest and admit that it is very unlikely the Army will not need those 30,000 extra troops permanently, and even with them, it will be stretched thin for the foreseeable future, because it was not sized with these wars and this level of effort in mind,” said Dan Goure, a longtime Army expert with the Lexington Institute, a defense consulting company. But adding troops under emergency authority may be smarter than creating whole new units and getting Congress to lift the official troop ceiling, Goure said, because it gives the Army more flexibility to move those troops about freely, where it needs them most.

The Army needs those new troops to support its new Brigade Combat Teams. In essence, the Army is taking its 10 divisions, which normally have three or four brigades each (the Army currently has 33 brigades), and making them into 43 Brigade Combat Teams — an addition of 10 more units total. The 43 new teams will be larger and less specialized than the 33 old brigades, and will require more support troops. The Army has to complete this reconfiguration by 2006, all while fighting two wars. But the Army says if it can reach that point, it will have a new and sustainable force structure, in which, at any one time, eight to 12 brigade teams will be deployed overseas on six-month tours. And each brigade will come home for 18 months before it has to deploy again.

Compare that with where the Army is today — brigades, sometimes entire divisions, deploy for 12 to 15 months at a time to Iraq and Afghanistan and are given only 12 months’ downtime back home before they have to depart again for another year abroad. A year back home may sound like a lot of time, but it isn’t. Under that scenario, troops get a short vacation and then have to ramp up quickly to retrain, get all their equipment up to snuff, replace departed soldiers, and prepare for a new mission. To do all of that in a year is a stretch. It’s easy to see why virtually no one believes the service can maintain its present level of effort without potentially catastrophic results on morale, retention, and recruiting. As the Pentagon learned in the 1970s, when an overextended and underfunded military devolved into the infamous “hollow force,” such a 1-to-1 ratio of deployments to downtime, with yearlong combat tours, will eventually break the force.

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“I know the strains that back-to-back deployments can put on a great relationship and a great family. There’s a threshold beyond which people will say, ‘I just can’t give any more,’ ” said Baker, who is anxiously awaiting his brigade’s fourth-quarter re-enlistment figures. The demographic group Baker worries about most is married soldiers who are nearing the midcareer mark — about 10 years in uniform — but have yet to make a lifetime commitment to the military. Those experienced captains, senior noncommissioned officers, and seasoned warrant officers are the heart of a modern, high-tech army, and not easily replaced. “If we start losing those midcareer soldiers because their wives are unhappy and saying, ‘Don’t you dare re-enlist,’ then the Army will be at risk,” Baker said. “That’s essentially how we broke the professional Army we took into Vietnam. At some point, people decided they could no longer weather the back-to-back deployments.”

Some of the changes in personnel rotation and assignment policies currently underway will help. So, too, will be the reshuffling of the active-reserve force structure that will put more of the “right” kind of forces on active duty, reducing the need for constant reserve call-ups. But, rather clearly, we need more soldiers. The current force was downsized in the aftermath of the Cold War in order to secure a “peace dividend.” We’re no longer at peace and it’s unlikely that we will be anytime soon. It’s time to act accordingly.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, Military Affairs
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.