Army Force Mix Problems

An issue I’ve been writing about since the early days of Operation Restore Hope in Somalia (1992), is finally coming to a head.

WSJ: Army Seeks Ways To Bolster Force In Iraq ($)

With security in Iraq deteriorating, the U.S. military is laying plans to increase by about 10% the number of National Guard forces moving into Iraq this fall as part of the next rotation of troops at the same time it retrains more than 100,000 soldiers so it doesn’t run out of troops in more than a half-dozen critical specialties.

The most-stressed specialties include military intelligence, aviation, construction, trucking and military policing — skills most often found among members of both the Army National Guard and the Army Reserve. To cover the shortfall, the U.S. also is looking at increasing its reliance on private contractors.

A U.S. Army working paper describes the shift, which will occur during the next five years, as “the most significant Army restructuring in the past 50 years.”

This strikes me as precisely the wrong solution to this problem. For years, it has been apparent that our active duty force is still mired in a Cold War structure, with more heavy maneuver assets than are ever likely to be used and far too few of the critical combat support and service support forces necessary for what we now call peace and stability operations. It makes no sense to contract out–at a much higher cost than would be sustained by simply restructuring the force–the most critical duties. The obvious solution is to transfer many of our armor, mechanized infantry, and heavy artillery forces into the Reserve Component and move more military police, civil affairs, engineering, and other assets into the active force.

The shortages are the result of the insurgency in Iraq and the Pentagon’s heavy — and growing — reliance on National Guard and Reserve forces in overseas deployments. Current Pentagon plans call for the National Guard to send about 37,600 troops to Iraq as part of the next rotation of forces beginning this fall, up from the 34,800 there now, said Brig. Gen. Frank Grass, deputy director of the Army National Guard. The Reserve expects its commitment to stay at the current level of about 22,000 troops in Iraq, military officials said. In total, the National Guard and Reserve constitute about 40% of the U.S. force in Iraq.

The proposed changes, along with the continued heavy reliance on National Guard and Reserve forces in Iraq, seem certain to intensify the election-year debate over whether the Bush administration adequately planned for the complications of occupying Iraq, and whether “citizen soldiers” are being asked to do too much. Calls from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers to increase the size of active-duty armed forces could grow. Already, some want to make permanent an emergency 30,000-soldier increase in the size of the active-duty army, which U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has approved through 2008.

Many of the shortages in critical specialties are caused by the current policy regarding Guard and Reserve call-ups. National Guard and Reserve forces can be called to active duty only for a cumulative total of two years under the Bush administration’s current call-up order, which covers all deployments associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as post-Sept. 11, 2001, homeland-security missions.

While this problem was certainly something the Bush team should have anticipated, it is not an Iraq-specific issue but rather a post-Cold War one. Like it or not, peace ops have been and will continue to be the modal mode of our armed forces. Even though we’re on a war footing, the combat operations will almost all be very quick and not particularly labor intensive. And certainly not the type of operations where tanks and rocket artillery are going to play a sustained role.

Right now, the Guard and Reserve forces in shortest supply are some of the most desperately needed in Iraq, military officials said. For example light-infantry battalions, critical in counterinsurgencies and peacekeeping operations, are in high demand. If the current pace of deployments holds steady through 2005, the Guard would need 14 more battalions than currently exist, Guard officials say.

The National Guard also is burning through military police, or MP, units, which are being used to train Iraqi police and maintain order. About 12,585 National Guard MPs out of a force of about 15,800 have been called up since Sept. 11, 2001. The majority of those soldiers no longer are eligible for 12-month deployments in Iraq under the Guard’s current policy, Army National Guard officials said.

The army is running short of construction-engineer units — including electricians, plumbers and large-equipment operators. By early 2006, when the next major rotation of forces is scheduled to end, the Army National Guard will have used up all 15 of its 600-soldier construction-engineer battalions.

The Army National Guard’s medium- and heavy-truck units, used to move food, fuel and other goods in Iraq, also are in short supply. By the end of 2005, “we will have basically used all of those units,” Gen. Grass said.

Military officials are examining whether they can, in some instances, turn over such work to civilian contractors, both in Iraq and in places such as the Balkans and Afghanistan. “As the security situation [in Iraq] improves, you can contract out,” Gen. Grass said.

Right now, however, contracting out more work in Iraq, where large numbers of National Guard troops are deployed, looks dicey. A recent surge in violence across Iraq already has hampered reconstruction work by private companies across Iraq. If the violence continues, the military is likely to become more reliant on the heavily stressed National Guard construction-engineer units, not less.

Most of the looming shortages will be covered by retraining soldiers. To address the shortage of infantry soldiers, for example, the army is reducing the number of heavy-armored-tank brigades and retraining many of those soldiers as infantry troops, which are more effective in peacekeeping operations.

Clearly, the Army is making some good moves here. Still, it is still too wedded to its WWII and Cold War mentality that high speed armored warfare is the essence of combat and everything else just something that they are stuck doing from time-to-time. It’s a huge waste of resources and a major contributor to the opstempo squeeze that’s been ongoing now for a dozen years–with no end in sight. It makes no sense to contract out the main things the Army is going to be called on to do in combat zones. Civilian contractors are radically more expensive and much less reliable. When more contractors start getting killed–and they will–they’ll start to bug out in a hurry. And until then, we’re paying field grade officer salaries for junior enlisted responsibilities. That’s lose-lose.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan 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. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.