Inside The Pentagon
by Elaine Grossman
July 15, 2004
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Revised Army Approach To Readiness Meets Kudos — And Obstacles
A new Army approach aimed at giving combat units greater stability signals a watershed in how the service views readiness for military operations, experts say. Soon service leaders will be able to acknowledge publicly a historically sensitive truism: namely, that forces just back from deployment abroad typically need time to recover, stabilize and retrain before being tapped to deploy again. The strains on Army combat units deploying and redeploying to Iraq and Afghanistan have all but made such reforms unavoidable, say service officials and observers alike.
New Army initiatives call for increasing by 15 the number of brigade combat teams the service fields over the next six years, while making each brigade smaller. At the same time, the service plans to begin putting units on a three-year cycle, keeping soldiers with their own units longer to increase stability and boost esprit de corps. Army officers believe embracing such a “unit manning system”—and largely discarding an “individual replacement system” in which soldiers moved in and out of deployed units—will increase the fighting effectiveness of each brigade combat team and division.
But experts differ over how much additional readiness to meet ongoing threats the Army might gain with the introduction of its “unit stabilization” approach, given that several major obstacles remain. Officials and experts often disagree, as well, over exactly what those obstacles are. Among them may be calls for a larger deployable force, complaints the service is too top-heavy with headquarters staff personnel, and a growing view that the Army personnel system must reform to reflect changing needs.
For years Army leaders have been reluctant to state that divisions or smaller units were at anything less than the highest level of readiness, dubbed “C-1.” The issue drew national attention during the 2000 presidential election, when then-candidate George W. Bush charged during the Republican National Convention: “If called on by the commander in chief today, two entire divisions of the Army would have to report, ‘Not ready for duty, sir.’” Though the assertion was disputed at the time by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said the problem had already been resolved, readiness lapses were detailed at one of the two divisions a few months later in a Senate staff aide’s trip report (Inside the Pentagon, Oct. 5, 2000, p5). [DNI Editor's note: All three trip reports by the Senate staffer are available here on DNI: http://d-n-i.net/second_level/readiness.htm and scroll down.]
Once implemented across the Army, the stabilization and manning initiatives could offer a new comfort level for units back home with less-than-perfect readiness, either because they have been worn out by recent deployment or are not yet trained for a future deployment, experts say. Just two to three months within the 36-month cycle might be regarded as “down time” for a unit, with specific dates possibly left to individual division commanders to determine, Army officials say. But in coming months and years, the Army system for rotating units on deployment will begin looking a bit more like Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps approaches, service officials say.
Reflecting their longtime expeditionary nature, the naval services for years have embraced a rotational readiness system for their units. For example, the Navy has maintained a deployment policy of having roughly one-third of its aircraft carriers at sea, another third recovering from recent deployment and another third gearing up for deployment—though the service has had to surge on occasion in response to crises. In 1999, the Air Force adopted a similar approach in which deployable forces are assigned to one of 10 “aerospace expeditionary forces” and designated as “on call” during preset 90-day windows. When Air Force leaders launched the program, they cited a need to offer airmen greater predictability about when they might deploy.
In contrast, Army “units today have people coming and going all the time,” said one retired Army officer this week. “Because of that high rate of turnover and turbulence, units have to go through the training cycle two or three times a year, because they never get to that state of readiness” desired for deployment, said this source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The defense community has been cognizant of the problem for years. The individual replacement system “has had a devastating impact on Army units in wartime,” according to a 1992 white paper published by the Institute for Defense Analyses. “The wartime system treated soldiers as anonymous spare parts from the day they arrived in their replacement training centers.”
Beginning this fall, three Army units will begin the 36-month operating cycle, according to Army Brig. Gen. Howard Bromberg, who heads the Human Resources Command’s enlisted personnel management directorate. Troops will remain with the same unit for those three years, training together and deploying to hotspots perhaps once or twice in that time frame, Bromberg told ITP in a June 24 interview.
Within these brigade combat teams—or so-called “units of action”—under a stabilized system, “you’ll know what your cycle is,” Bromberg said. “You’ll either be in a train-up period, a period where you’re scheduled for deployment, [or] a period where you’re maybe ready for deployment if called,” he said.
With different brigade readiness cycles starting at various dates staggered through time, “somebody’s going to be ready, no matter what,” he said. “But the cycles will be more clearly defined.”
For the time being, troops may continue to be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan in typically yearlong stints, followed by another 12 months at home. The Army’s objective is to reduce deployments to nine months, coupled with another nine- to 12-month period for recovery, training and certification, service officials say (ITP, July 1, p1).
“But right now, we’re not close to that,” said one Army officer this week.
The Army’s version of rotational readiness may involve just one-third or one-fourth of the force in what the service calls “reset” mode, with the vast remainder deployed or about to deploy, Army officials and experts say.
Between the three-year cycles, the approach “focuses personnel turbulence to a scheduled one- or two-month period,” according to newly published briefing slides on the Army Campaign Plan. During that time, the service anticipates 50 to 70 percent turnover within units, the document states.
The initiative “synchronizes [a] soldier’s tour with the unit’s operational cycle,” which “increases unit continuity during deployments,” states the briefing, released last month. It “maximizes unit cohesion, deployability and readiness,” according to the Army.
“I think it’s perfectly appropriate for what the Army wants to do,” the retired Army officer said. The approach is “a departure from the past ... These units [will] now train much more effectively together and the soldiers [will be] happier together. So the units are much more capable, more quickly,” this source said.
The Army has come to realize that “to sustain itself, the units need down time,” says Maj. Don Vandergriff, an armor officer who has written extensively on the value of unit stabilization and manning concepts and briefed his views throughout the service leadership. The Army’s revised approach to readiness takes into account a need to be prepared for new and ongoing expeditionary operations around the globe, he told ITP this week.
“If we want to win this global war on terror, we need to sustain the Army over a long period of time,” Vandergriff said. “Once they accept the fact that one-third of the force will be down and reconstituting, that will be great.”
But, he asserts, “we need parallel changes to make this work.”
Vandergriff argues the Army must flatten what he calls a “Napoleanic” headquarters structure that burdens operating forces to such a great extent that they cannot perform core tasks as well as they could. Battlefield commanders have become so laden with meetings, teleconferences, e-mail requests for information and taskings from senior leadership that a top-heavy organizational structure “has diminished their operational effectiveness,” Vandergriff says.
Not everyone agrees that Army headquarters must trim down to make the new readiness approach function.
The biggest obstacle for the Army’s rotational readiness concept is that the service doesn’t have enough operating forces, says Lawrence Korb, who served as a defense personnel official during the Reagan administration. Until the service gains more personnel end strength and fields the new brigades, it cannot institute a predictable pattern of sufficient reset and sustainment time for its operational forces, says Korb, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington.
Army end strength is currently capped at 482,400 active-duty forces, though Congress has granted the Pentagon emergency authority to man the force up to 500,000 troops to better handle the Iraq and Afghanistan operations. In separate defense authorization bills for fiscal year 2005, the Senate boosts Army troop strength by 20,000, while the House offers an increase of 30,000 forces. The two bills must be reconciled before becoming law.
Shifting thousands of headquarters personnel into operating jobs has some merit, but is not enough to fix the problem, Korb says.
“Marginally it would help but that’s not the whole issue,” Korb told ITP this week.
At the same time, readiness to combat the insurgent threat in Iraq or unconventional threats from terrorists remains a real challenge for an Army that was largely garrisoned during the Cold War, some experts say. Attaining that readiness will require some sweeping reforms in the Army personnel system, some say.
For starters, “they’ll need to put intellectuals in uniform” into more operational command slots, says one Army officer, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Another challenge will be changing a personnel system that traditionally has rewarded leaders for moving swiftly up the command chain—not for sticking with the same unit for three years, some observers note. For example, it remains to be seen if officers will be promoted if they miss a professional education opportunity but have stayed instead with a three-year life-cycle unit, experts say.
And then there is the issue of whether a commander’s career will suffer if the unit is rated less-than-ready during a period of down time—a risk that experts say has often led to the artificial inflation of readiness ratings in the past.
“It’s a black mark to be a commander of an unready unit,” says Winslow Wheeler, visiting senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information in Washington and a longtime expert on military readiness. “But coming back from a deployment to Iraq or Bosnia, it [should be] an acceptable circumstance.”
—Elaine M. Grossman