by Elaine M. Grossman
March 2, 2006
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Critique of Army Redesign Proves Highly Contentious Inside Service
March 2, 2006 – An Army plan to redesign its fighting forces is drawing some sharp criticism from an unusual group: a growing number in Army uniform. The debate comes as lawmakers raise questions about a Pentagon- commissioned study that found the service blueprint will reduce net fighting capability.
The Institute for Defense Analyses performed the controversial assessment of the Army’s so-called “modularity” plan last year for the Office of the Secretary of Defense as part of the Pentagon’s recently concluded Quadrennial Defense Review. Under the service vision – unveiled in 2004 – “brigade combat teams” numbering up to 3,800 troops will become the central unit around which the Army deploys and fights.
The institute – commonly known in defense circles as “IDA” – supported the Army’s general concept for focusing combat power in the brigades rather than in larger units like divisions (typically numbering 15,000 or more troops) or corps (30,000-plus troops). Defense experts say the new tack is appropriate for an era in which the Army must remain ready to rapidly deploy forces as part of multiservice or multinational operations anywhere around the globe.
But the IDA team took issue with the Army plan to strip each brigade combat team, or “BCT,” of one “maneuver” battalion, which the analysts define as troops in armor or infantry units. The move results in a net loss of 40 maneuver battalions across the service, the analysts found.
“The current Army plan for fielding 43 [active duty] two-battalion brigade combat teams] does not provide the optimum allocation of scarce Army manpower resources,” according to one of the IDA papers, obtained by ITP. “The essence of land power is resident in the maneuver battalions that occupy terrain, control populations and fight battles, not in headquarters and enablers. Yet the Army plan reduces the number of maneuver battalions by 20 percent below the number available in 2003, while increasing BCT headquarters by 11.5 percent.”
(In the quadrennial review, the Pentagon opted to drop the number of active-component BCTs the Army will build to 42.)
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker has said the measure is necessary in order to boost the total number of brigades available to meet increased demand for ground troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere without increasing overall manpower in the service.
But the chief also questions the accuracy of IDA’s assessment.
Schoomaker and his staff contend that a reconnaissance battalion included in every brigade combat team should be counted as a maneuver unit just like its armor and infantry counterparts. Though not heavily armed or well protected in tracked combat vehicles, the reconnaissance troops will use state-of-the-art sensors, sometimes aboard unmanned aircraft, to detect enemy locations and will share intelligence with the rest of the brigade using advanced communications technologies, according to Army officials.
The recon unit thus becomes a “force multiplier” in the service concept, facilitating more effective missions for the entire brigade team.
The Army is also beefing up brigade-level headquarters, growing them from less than 100 to about 250 personnel, and equipping them with high- technology command-and-control systems. Like the reconnaissance battalion, the headquarters is envisioned as “enabling” maneuver forces by more effectively linking joint commanders to troops on the ground, according to proponents of the Army plan.
Not buying it
But many Army officers – including a number of those who have served recently in Iraq or Afghanistan – aren’t buying it. According to some in uniform, the loss of an infantry or armor battalion from every brigade hampers the service’s ability to perform stability operations or counterinsurgency efforts like those engaging U.S. forces today.
Given the frequency with which the Army has been called on to perform stability operations over the past 15 years – from Haiti to Somalia to Bosnia to Kosovo and now in Afghanistan and Iraq – the Army should optimize its force structure for such missions, many are arguing.
“In a conventional fight, I believe that the current BCT plan to use technology [in the headquarters and reconnaissance battalion] could work,” says a former battalion commander who recently returned from a yearlong deployment to Iraq. “However, I do not think that it is the right structure for a counterinsurgency fight which, in my experience, requires a very personal approach. We were very successful in our [area of operations] because we were out on the ground every day meeting with people and the local leaders – and you can’t replace that personal contact with technology.”
“The Army is too focused on high-end threats and doesn’t take into full account the environment we’re fighting in today,” says another service officer. “In order to hold ground, you have to put boots on it. New technologies are necessary but there are still too many limitations, as we’re seeing today.”
These two active-duty officers, like many others interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity associated with criticizing an official Army plan. Only current and former Army officers were interviewed for this article, and for several this was a rare occasion on which they broke ranks with service leadership.
A common theme in the debate is that the technology just isn’t sufficient to substitute for “muddy boots on the ground” – and may never be:
“No matter how good the technology, the enemy will always find a way to negate its effectiveness,” says one officer in Iraq. “Overreliance on anything is a bad course to follow.”
“Much of the thinking behind the BCT organization is sound and the combined arms battalion is a very capable formation,” says another Army officer with recent experience in Iraq. “The effort has been corrupted, however, by the assumption that surveillance platforms and information technology will deliver a high degree of certainty in war.”
The service plan to enable trimmed down maneuver forces with new technologies is “another manifestation of the Pentagon’s insistence on buying high-end video games technology to fight some non-existent near- peer competitor” instead of buying more combat troops “armed with technology that can be operated by a scared, hungry, dirty, exhausted 19-year-old high school grad,” says one retired Army intelligence officer.
Others emphasize a loss of strategic “depth” in the brigade, denying commanders a reserve battalion that may prove critical in a fight:
“I was trained for 30 years to maintain a reserve force,” says retired Army Col. Stephen Robinette, whose combat experience includes command of an armored cavalry unit during the first Persian Gulf War. “Once you committed that reserve to deal with a developing enemy situation, I was trained to look at how to constitute another reserve force. How do you do that with a two-battalion BCT?”
“We learned early in the last century – and to some extent in the Civil War – that three of a kind was better than four or two of a kind,” according to retired Army National Guard Brig. Gen. David McGinnis. “It’s a maneuver dynamic of flexibility and depth.”
“Quantity has a quality all its own,” one active-duty officer says. “Commanders at all levels want depth and flexibility to hedge against friction and uncertainty of combat.”
“You can’t do business this way,” says retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, another former armored cavalry officer with combat command experience in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. “How do you take casualties and keep on fighting?”
Macgregor’s 1997 book, "Breaking the Phalanx," proposed reorganizing the Army into modular brigades numbering 5,000 or more troops and offering capabilities sought by top combat commanders, a concept implicitly supported by last year’s IDA assessment.
Lawmaker says he’s ‘alarmed’
In a service known for its can-do attitude and staunch loyalty throughout the ranks, such breaks with official Army policy verge on heresy, in the eyes of some. The controversy boiling just beneath the surface has not escaped notice on Capitol Hill.
At a Feb. 14 hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Joseph Lieberman said he was “alarmed” to read IDA’s conclusions that the Army plan would result in a 20 percent decrease in the service’s ability to control terrain. The Connecticut Democrat’s questions about the IDA assessment echoed queries Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) made at a Senate hearing a week earlier.
Army Secretary Francis Harvey told Lieberman the IDA study “missed the mark” because, in fact, the service’s modularity concept actually increases maneuver units below the battalion level.
“When you do all the arithmetic . . . what we call the pre-modular force had 323 companies, [while] the post-modular force has 532 companies,” Harvey said. Companies typically number 120 to 170 forces.
Schoomaker, testifying alongside the secretary at the mid-February hearing, agreed.
The Army plan foresees “four companies per battalion, whereas before we had three,” according to the service chief. “And we’ve also added a reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition squadron. . . . So the reality is if you want to count maneuver elements, there’s actually 11 now inside of a brigade instead of nine in the old [unit design].”
Army officials say the designs for heavy and infantry BCTs call for four companies per battalion, but Stryker brigades will continue to field three companies per battalion. The Stryker is a wheeled combat vehicle making its debut in Iraq.
“In a small unit fight like Iraq, platoons and companies are the real measure of combat power,” agrees one Army officer.
Recon battalion’s value under debate
Yet several note that already-redesigned units, like the 3rd Infantry Division that deployed to Iraq last year, found the reconnaissance units inadequate to the task and were forced to augment their two-maneuver- battalion brigades by borrowing units from other forces.
“No one in the 3rd [Infantry Division] truly regards these humvee- Bradley [fighting vehicle] units as having either the firepower, armor or manpower to undertake complex missions like armed reconnaissance in wartime,” says one retired officer.
“We never said these [BCTs] are never to be augmented,” responds one service proponent on active duty. But by creating the smaller brigades, the service is “getting more [troops] into the rotational force,” this officer says.
Some Army proponents take issue with IDA’s decision not to count the reconnaissance battalions as supplying any combat value at all. In its analysis, IDA regarded maneuver forces as comprising only infantry or armor troops – “as if that was the sum total of combat power,” says one supporter of Schoomaker’s concept for the brigades.
Operating in M3A2 Bradley fighting vehicles, armed reconnaissance troops associated with the heavy BCTs are better armed and protected than dismounted infantry, according to this officer. The heavy BCTs – whose maneuver units include M1A2 main battle tanks and Bradleys – also field sniper troops for the first time.
Reconnaissance troops attached to infantry BCTs, though, move across the battlefield in humvees. The lighter footprint offers them greater mobility and agility than their heavy counterparts, but also can make them more vulnerable to enemy attack, officials say.
How much value do the recon battalions add to the fight? “Let’s not ask the Army,” says a redesign advocate. “Let’s ask the adversaries” who fight against U.S. forces, the officer said.
Though “you don’t want them caught up in a decisive battle,” they do offer firepower, survivability and lethality, the service proponent says.
“We have maintained comparable direct and indirect lethality, increased organic [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capabilities two- to three-fold, and increased access to internal fires,” according to an e-mail a proponent of the Army design sent in December to general officers, obtained by ITP. “The point to be made is that combat power is not just your organic capability, but also the ability to leverage external capabilities.”
By the time most modular combat formations and headquarters are fielded in 2008, the force will be “as capable as what it replaced,” says one supporter of the redesign.
Getting the right balance
In its “2006 Posture Statement,” the Army says its primary goals in transitioning to a modular force are to:
“Increase the number of available brigade combat teams to meet operational commitments while maintaining combat effectiveness that is equal to or better than that of previous divisional brigade combat teams;
“Create brigade-based combat and support formations of common organizational designs that can be easily tailored to meet the varied demands of the geographic combatant commanders – reducing joint planning and execution complexities; [and]
“Redesign organizations to perform as integral parts of the joint force – making them more effective across the range of military operations and enhancing their ability to contribute to joint, interagency and multinational efforts.”
Army leaders agree with critics that – simply on the face of it – a three-maneuver-battalion brigade would be better than one that fields just two infantry or armor battalions. But they say the reduction was necessary to produce more deployable brigades and they urge doubters to give the change a chance to succeed.
Others say that amounts to putting the cart before the horse:
“We’ve been told ad nauseam about some future intelligence capability that will permit us to reduce the number of fighters while maintaining the same ability to defeat an enemy. . . . Where is the evidence of this capability?” asks one Army officer who recently returned from the Persian Gulf region.
“Did it find Saddam? Has it even four years later found [al Qaeda leader Osama] bin Laden? Has it found [Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi [or al Qaeda deputy Ayman al-] Zawahiri? No, no, no and no again,” this officer continued. “And yet with this astoundingly poor track record, our senior leadership wants to tell everyone that magically in the future it will, so in the meantime we’ll cut – up front – our physical combat power in anticipation of that capability which has so far eluded us.”
“The new technology is good and necessary but we’re asking too much from it,” says another officer. “We should not overreact to the advantages it provides us.”
Some proponents of the Army plan characterize the widespread skepticism about the value of electronic surveillance technologies as “old think,” evidence of a failure on the part of some to adjust to new realities.
“Change is hard,” one advocate of the modularity design told ITP in January.
Conversely, those emphasizing boots-on-the-ground insist they are anything but dinosaurs. They say a new generation of elusive and adaptive adversaries will place a premium on well trained U.S. forces and quickly make almost any technology obsolete.
“The intel enhancements designed to provide total situational awareness won’t tell a commander in an Iraqi-like environment whether the residents of a particular village are going to detonate a [roadside bomb] or just sit and watch the patrol pass because they may not know themselves until the last minute,” says one retired senior officer. “Assuming that high-tech sensors and [unmanned reconnaissance drones] will predict enemy actions seems a little optimistic in a theater where the very definition of ‘enemy’ is often an after-action determination.”
“Classified technologies [to] find and fix [targets] have proven very successful in Iraq and, in particular, [in] disrupting insurgent leadership,” says one Army officer currently deployed to the troubled Persian Gulf nation. “At the same time, security requirements mandate the constant presence of soldiers in order to dampen down insurgent activities. The best strategy is a careful blend of boots on the ground and technology.”
Schoomaker, who retired as a special operations leader before being called back to serve as chief of staff in 2003, has in the past emphasized a similar point.
In 1999, as head of U.S. Special Operations Command, Schoomaker said the first two rules of thumb or “truths” for special operators are that “humans are more important than hardware” and “quality is better than quantity.”
“The four ‘truths’ were not original with him but they have been accepted as gospel throughout the community for almost 20 years,” says a retired senior Army officer. “It looks like he’s now being forced to argue that hardware is more important than humans.”
If ground commanders come to rely on electronic sensors for information about the enemy that provide less than a full picture, they may be less than aggressive in future combat, according to a paper written in 2003 by Army Col. H.R. McMaster, who has led the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Iraq’s Tall Afar area for the past year.
“Leaders will be predispositioned to wait for information rather than take resolute action,” he wrote in the piece, titled “Crack in the Foundation: Defense Transformation and the Underlying Assumption of Dominant Knowledge in Future War.” “Indeed, they will have to act cautiously to ensure their force’s survival. Ironically, a force that was designed to be fast and agile will operate ponderously.”
“Fiscal constraints,” asserts an active-duty Army officer, have “prevented the Army from designing the formation based on combat effectiveness and lessons of recent conflict.”
Retired Army Col. David Hunt, a former airborne Ranger and Green Beret, agrees. “This is an attempt to hide the fact that we have run out of combat power between Iraq and Afghanistan,” he says. “Technology should assist the soldier, not replace him.”
Asserts one active-duty officer: “In the end, this is another step in hollowing the force and may be [a] false debate, driven by the exigencies of current demand.”
The details of the Army redesign reflect Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s longstanding conviction that technology can be more valuable on the battlefield than large numbers of troops, according to some.
“It’s useful to remember that the Army’s [manpower] end strength numbers come not from an objective warfighting analysis but from [a defense secretary who] came into office thinking we didn’t really need much of an Army at all and has consistently underestimated the requirements for and value of boots on the ground,” says one retired senior Army officer.
“Only an Army with severe budget problems would argue that reducing the number of combat soldiers and increasing the size of headquarters should be viewed as an increase in capability.”
According to IDA, the Army could take alternative measures to strengthen its combat power while staying within congressionally mandated manpower limits. They recommend the Army shift hundreds of staff personnel assigned to brigade headquarters under its current plan to serve instead on the point of the spear in armor or infantry units. Creating either three or four maneuver battalions per brigade, rather than the current two, would more effectively meet the needs of joint commanders, according to IDA.
Army leaders disagree, arguing instead that the smaller brigade teams are more easily deployable and serve joint commanders more effectively.
The BCTs include an array of combat arms – including units for close combat, combat support and combat service support – making them more like tiny divisions than like brigades of the past, according to service officials.
Even if the official Army view prevails, questions about affordability may yet undermine the service’s ability to bring its vision to life, according to some sources.
Many lawmakers “worry that the Army continues to understate the cost of its modularity program, so even if it ends up making sense on the merits, the Army may never be able to actually complete the reorganization,” says one former Army officer now on Capitol Hill. “That could lead to the worst possible situation: an Army that has divided up into smaller units, but can never afford all the enabler technologies and additional people that the Army says makes up for having one less battalion” per brigade, according to this source.
The debate can be expected to heat up in coming weeks as pressure grows on the Defense Department to publicly release the IDA analysis, according to Army officials.
Redesign critics argue the stakes could not be much higher.
The Army is “destroying with a stroke of a pen what we’ve got and it will take us decades to recover,” Macgregor worries. If the plan proceeds without alteration, the service “will remain top-heavy with unneeded, single-service headquarters and incapable little brigades that will simply fail against any enemy more capable than the Iraqi or Afghan enemy we have fought to date,” he says.
“We are building vulnerabilities into our force that current and future enemies will exploit,” agrees one active-duty Army officer with recent Iraq experience.
Though the Army reportedly fought to keep the IDA analysis out of the Quadrennial Defense Review report, service officials hint the redesign remains subject to change.
“Is it perfect? It’s all about balance and risk management,” responds one advocate of the Army redesign, noting the plan is a work in progress. “We’ve got to build a bridge while we’re walking on it,” he said.
In fact, the Army leadership is “so open to changes” that it continues to field assessment teams with redesigned units exercising at the National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, CA, and deployed abroad, this source said.
Not all critics of the Army plan are pessimistic about the end result.
“I do not believe that we will fail in the [counterinsurgency] fight with only two maneuver battalions because creative battalion commanders, company commanders, platoon leaders and [non-commissioned officers] will figure out a way to succeed,” says an active-duty commander who recently returned from Iraq, reflecting a perpetual propensity for optimism seen across the service’s ranks. “It will just be more difficult.”
—Elaine M. Grossman