Inside The Pentagon
by Elaine M. Grossman
January 26, 2006
Pg. 1

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Composition of ‘brigade combat teams’ at issue

A study prepared for the Defense Department has found an Army plan to reorganize its forces into “brigade combat teams” will reduce net fighting capability rather than strengthen it, contrary to the service’s vision.

But the Army is hotly contesting the study’s findings and recommendations. The service was successful in keeping the critique out of the Pentagon’s wide-ranging Quadrennial Defense Review, to be released early next month, according to officials.

Under the service’s plan, brigade combat teams -- dubbed “BCTs” -- are becoming the central Army fighting unit to be deployed globally, drawing minimal support from higher headquarters.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker unveiled the concept in 2004 to allow the service a larger pool of brigades that it could field to meet increased demand for soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan and other global hot spots (Inside the Pentagon, Jan. 22, 2004, p1).

But to increase brigades without boosting overall manpower of the service, officials say they must strip each brigade of one “maneuver” battalion composed of infantry troops or heavy arms. Army leaders say they can field just two such battalions per brigade, rather than the traditional three, in part because each brigade will also have a reconnaissance battalion for support. The move results in a net loss of 40 maneuver battalions, according to analysts.

To serve as the essential link between joint commanders and troops on the ground, each brigade headquarters will grow from less than 100 personnel to about 250, Army officials say.

Both the newly expanded BCT headquarters and its reconnaissance battalion will employ new information technologies to develop better intelligence about enemy forces, according to service officials. They can act as “force multipliers” to strengthen or “enable” the more sparsely populated combat troops in each brigade, the thinking goes.

Yet a series of new reports, written last year by the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) for the Pentagon’s program analysis and evaluation directorate, concludes the Army could provide more valuable combat power to top commanders in Iraq and elsewhere if it beefs up the BCTs with three or even four maneuver battalions apiece.

Neither the Defense Department nor IDA has released publicly any of the eight or more reports the organization provided to the Pentagon.

“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.”

The organization describes maneuver capability as fundamental to the Army mission of controlling terrain. So the cut in maneuver forces, IDA says, translates to a 20 percent decrease in the service’s ability to control terrain.

“Under the guise of modernization, the Army is in the process of shrinking its combat forces and enlarging its headquarters overhead to meet existing manpower ceilings,” says Winslow Wheeler, a longtime Capitol Hill staff aide now serving as a visiting senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information in Washington.

“The fundamental question that must be answered,” IDA writes, “is what is the better metric for determining land power output of the Army to meet the [regional combatant commander] requirements? Is it the number of brigade headquarters or is it the total number of maneuver battalions in the Army?”

There are other ways to skin this cat, according to the analysts.

Adding a third maneuver battalion to each of the Army’s heavy BCTs, for example, “better leverages [brigade] overhead by increasing infantry squads and tanks by 50 percent,” IDA writes. The Army’s own “Task Force Modularity studies found a straight line correlation between the number of combat platoons (made up of squads or tanks) and the level of success of the BCT,” according to the organization.

In fact, the same Army study also found that in testing the BCTs in war games, “in most two-battalion cases, commanders traded the reconnaissance potential of some or most of the reconnaissance troops for the flexibility a third maneuver element provides,” according to an IDA briefing.

“If you grew up having three maneuver battalions and I throw you into a simulation, guess what: You’re going to choose three maneuver battalions,” an Army officer told ITP this week in countering the findings. “Change is hard.”

Yet IDA insists there is good reason to believe the third battalion will remain an essential asset into the future.

“A third battalion [also] makes the [heavy] BCT more robust and able to remain engaged longer during mid- to high-intensity conflict,” the IDA authors say in one of their reports. They found similar improvements in performance for infantry brigades with three maneuver battalions rather than the Army’s planned two.

IDA analysts also take issue with what they see as the decreased flexibility offered by the two-maneuver-battalion brigades. Though the Army is attempting to boost “modularity” in its forces -- which would allow a unit to more easily deploy and “plug into” a joint force -- cutting the quantity of maneuver battalions would seem to undermine that idea, IDA authors contend.

They note the Stryker brigades the Army has built include the full complement of three maneuver battalions, an inconsistency the authors say remains unexplained.

If a commander seeks to deploy just one of a brigade’s two combat battalions, “one wonders . . . whether it makes sense to have an organization so fragile in design that the temporary absence of one maneuver battalion renders the remainder of the BCT only marginally effective,” IDA writes.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s program analysis and evaluation directorate commissioned the analysis as part of its quadrennial review, an end-to-end study of Pentagon programs and policies. But when it became clear the Army would adamantly reject IDA’s findings and recommendations, Rumsfeld’s team declined to stand behind the new analysis, according to officials.

IDA briefed its study to the Army and to a quadrennial review team on land forces in September, according to officials and documents.

“The [Quadrennial Defense Review] should consider this issue as a matter of significant importance,” IDA argued in one of its papers.

Upon seeing the briefing, “the Army said, ‘Interesting, noted,’” according to one military officer.

Behind the scenes, it became clear the IDA recommendations were “dead in the water,” says retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, who has similarly proposed building up Army brigades into semi-autonomous combat maneuver groups that could more effectively serve joint commanders. “It has been dismissed out of hand.”

“Why was [the IDA study] even commissioned?” asked the active-duty Army officer in an interview this week. “The programmers wanted a second opinion, not the [Army] operators.”

In fact, says this officer, IDA is merely pointing out the obvious.

“IDA’s position is that three maneuver battalions is more capable than two maneuver battalions. Guess what: We agree,” says the Army officer, speaking on condition of anonymity. The disagreement comes in assessing the value of other elements of combat power -- information and leadership among them -- in compensating for the planned cuts in fires and maneuver capability.

For starters, Army force design officials take issue with IDA’s numbers, one service officer states in an e-mail sent Dec. 27 to general officers at the service’s Training and Doctrine Command at Ft. Monroe, VA, and the Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth, KS. He questions “what IDA was counting and what they were not counting as ‘maneuver’ units,” noting IDA should have viewed reconnaissance troops as dual-capable in their ability to perform some combat missions.

“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,” adds the e- mail, 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.”

Still, according to the Army officer interviewed this week, the service “didn’t dismiss [the IDA analysis] offhand or embrace it purely as written.” The papers are still under review, this source says.

To many officials, the debate boils down to the question of whether beefed up “enablers” like information technology and more-capable brigade headquarters can effectively substitute for a maneuver battalion at each brigade. Some Army officials characterize the IDA analysis as an example of “old think,” lacking openness to the idea that new technologies might make two, highly advanced maneuver battalions the fighting equivalent of three old ones.

Yet IDA contends in one of its papers that “the Army has not provided an analysis of how this increase in combat power is to be accomplished.”

Rather, the organization cites Army literature stating “that there is risk associated with the two-battalion design but it was chosen in order to field more brigades and speed the process of conversion.”

The IDA study implies “that emerging technology is [still] emerging,” and thus it is too soon to count on its effects to compensate for a full battalion per brigade, says one official who asked to remain unnamed in this article.

Even looking into the future, technology may not prove to be a full substitute for combat “boots on the ground,” according to supporters of the IDA view.

Draft versions of the quadrennial review report suggest Rumsfeld’s team embraced the Army view rather than IDA’s. Officials say Rumsfeld’s program analysis directorate was not inclined to take on the Army over this issue, since in the end it is the service’s responsibility to “train, organize and equip” the troops under Title 10 of the U.S. Code.

Instead the Quadrennial Defense Review will likely cut the number of active-duty BCTs to 42, according to a draft copy of the Pentagon report. Army officials say the new figure better facilitates rotation plans to deploy active-duty soldiers for one year every three years.

Creating 42 BCTs in the active component and 28 in the Army National Guard “equates to a 46 percent increase in readily available combat power and a better balance between combat and support forces,” according to a recent draft version of the quadrennial review report, obtained by

That stands in sharp contrast to IDA’s contention that the Army’s BCT plan will “lead to a deployable force that will be 43 percent smaller in terms of total maneuver battalions and companies in 2011 than was deployed in early 2005,” according to one of the papers it provided to the Defense Department. “If the Army is strained today by the current operations in Iraq, would it not be logical to assume that in the future fewer maneuver battalions would exacerbate the strain even further?” IDA writes.

In one of the papers provided to Defense Department leaders, IDA asserts the Army can actually save manpower by boosting maneuver battalions to either three or four per brigade. For example, a three-battalion brigade would cut total active-duty brigades to 35. Fewer brigades mean fewer brigade headquarters, freeing up manpower to be put into maneuver battalions instead, according to the IDA analysis. The net result is more troops under combat arms, which IDA maintains better reflects the real-world needs of combatant commanders.

Whereas an Army BCT is composed of 3,500 and 3,800 forces (depending on whether it is designated as light or heavy), IDA’s four-battalion brigade would run between 5,900 and 6,000 troops (light and heavy, respectively).

“It is possible to increase the number of maneuver battalions planned by the Army by up to 25 percent by trading off brigade overhead,” IDA writes in one paper provided to the Pentagon. Giving each brigade three or four maneuver battalions “offers the [combatant commander] more sustained land power per BCT and for the Army overall than the Army plan.”

The Army “still has an opportunity to change its plan,” according to the organization. “At a minimum, the three-battalion option seems achievable and the four-battalion option appears even more attractive.”

Retired Army Brig. Gen. Huba Wass de Czege, the first director of the service’s elite School of Advanced Military Studies at Ft. Leavenworth, KS, has lent support in recent years to the notion of carefully balancing brigade composition with the influx of new technologies. In an April 2002 article in Army Magazine, the retired general noted he initially had high hopes that “digitization” of the service would allow for substantial changes in the force structure.

But toward the late 1990s, Wass de Czege wrote, he realized the “Army After Next” war games failed to account for subtle ways -- like deception and concealment -- in which future enemies could undermine the precision firepower the United States brings to the battlefield.

“The number of infantry squads and fighting crews grew in our experimental designs while ‘overhead’ from platoon headquarters upward grew at a much lower rate,” the retired general wrote.

A comprehensive Army analysis would likely result in BCTs with a different composition, agrees Macgregor, a former armored cavalry officer with combat command experience in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

“You have to have sufficient density of combat power at the lowest levels, where the fighting occurs,” he says. “You have to be able to take casualties and keep fighting.”

The new brigades, numbering 3,800 or fewer troops, “can’t do that,” he says. Macgregor and others note the newly reorganized 3rd Infantry Division, which deployed last year to Baghdad, was immediately augmented with battalions borrowed from other units.

No matter what the composition of the BCT, “we can still task-organize,” responds the Army officer. Brigades combat teams in the 3rd Infantry Division or other such units may be temporarily assigned elsewhere or augmented, depending on the situation on the ground. And not every future fight will be as demanding as the security environment faced in Baghdad, adds this officer.

According to some officials and experts, one impediment to having a full and open debate about the merits of the BCT plan may be the political investment Schoomaker has made in launching his plan to increase brigades. An alternative like IDA’s that would decrease the number of brigades to 35 is a non-starter because that would directly undercut Schoomaker’s stated goal to field more than 40 brigades, according to this view.

“If you come in and say it’ll be less than that, you might find yourself somewhere else rather rapidly,” says one official.

IDA suggests more rigorous analysis and consultation should have been done up front.

“There is no evidence of any effort by the Army to find out whether the [global combatant commanders] actually agree with the Army’s assertion that the planned reduction in maneuver battalions will better meet [commander] demands than the current structure,” according to IDA. “Nor is there any indication that the [combatant commanders] were offered alternative designs with discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of each. Evidence to date suggests that the Army determined on its own that its preferred option is best.”

But the Army officer interviewed this week rejects the assertion that the service’s analysis was inadequate, saying ground officials weighed many alternatives over the past two years and continue to make changes to improve the BCT design.

—Elaine M. Grossman

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