An Army sergeant protects the perimeter outside his unit's MRAP vehicle during the U.S. military's last combat patrol in Iraq. (The Associated Press)
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New combat uniforms
The Army in 2012 will select three new combat uniforms: a woodland variant, a desert variant and a "transitional" variant that covers everything in between.
The current Universal Camouflage Pattern is not an option.
Officials this month will unveil the top five selections three from industry and two from the government. Wear and field tests will follow. If all goes as planned, production will begin in October.
For now, design and colors are anyone's guess. For example, digital patterns work well in some environments but not as well in others. Sometimes a vertical orientation is best, while other times horizontal would be optimal. And when it comes to colors, there are 15 different military operating environments with unique colors that change with elevation and seasons.
The Army will spend as much as $10 million on the effort. The new pattern must provide the best possible concealment for soldiers deploying worldwide.
New PT test
More than 10,000 soldiers took a new physical training test in 2011, and you are likely to follow suit when the test becomes official in late 2012.
This will mark the first changes to the PT test since its inception in 1980. Officials are finalizing the details, but the new test will likely include:
A 60-yard shuttle run.
A two-minute rower.
A standing long jump.
A two-mile run.
Initial tests had a one-minute rower, push-ups instead of pull-ups and a 1½-mile run. Data collection and soldier input drove leadership to make the test tougher.
The Army is likely to add full body armor to the Army Combat Readiness Test, as well.
The ACRT incorporates sprinting, climbing drills and other high-intensity exercises that mimic the challenges soldiers face in combat. It kicks off with a 400-meter run with a weapon. This segues into an obstacle course with low hurdles, high crawls and over-under obstacles to test individual movement techniques. Soldiers then do a 40-yard casualty drag, followed by a 40-yard run with ammo cans atop a balance beam. Next comes point, aim and move drills, followed by a 100-yard ammo can shuttle sprint. The ACRT wraps up with a 100-yard agility sprint.
Smartphones on the job
The Army is only months away from secure, battle-ready smartphones, according to an official spearheading the effort to harness mobile technology.
The National Security Agency is expected to certify a secure version of the Android operating system, and the operating system used by the iPhone and iPad, iOS, is being considered separately by another agency which regulates cryptographic standards.
With NSA-approved smartphones, soldiers would be able to connect smartphones to secret-level mission command computer systems, finally unlocking the potential of the mobile revolution for the Army, said Mike McCarthy, director of the mission command complex of the Future Force Integration Directorate at Fort Bliss, Texas.
He said he expects NSA approval for a secure version of the Android operating system, called a hardened kernel, in early 2012. Afterward, it would begin the process of gaining further certification for use with classified networks.
Smartphones and tablets will likely be fielded to soldiers in deploying units by mid- to late 2012, McCarthy said. The Army will officially open its own app store in early 2012. The selection, at first, will include unclassified apps for training and administration, which won't interface with battle command systems. A secure Army app store will open on an Army network in 2012, officials say.
The coming year will see significant momentum in a reorganization that will result in fewer, stronger brigade combat teams. The effort is designed to make brigades more effective as the Army shrinks from 570,000 to 520,000 or fewer.
Brigades are expected to add a maneuver battalion and redistribute headquarters units. Combat enablers such as engineers and fire teams will also get a boost. But the cost is expected to be 10 to 15 fewer BCTs. Details of what officials have called a "rigorous examination of risk and trade" are expected to be part of the annual Total Army Analysis, due to service leaders this month.
The Army has 73 BCTs: 45 in the active component and 28 in the reserve component.
More time at home
The Army will move to nine-month deployments and increase soldiers' time at home during the coming year.
Active-duty units deploying after Feb. 1 will do nine-month tours, said a senior Army planner, who spoke on background to Army Times.
There will be some exceptions, including corps headquarters and individual deployers, who will still go for 12 months.
Other exceptions could include units with high-demand capabilities, such as explosive ordnance disposal, some intelligence specialties and military working dog teams, the planner said.
If Army planners determine a high-demand unit should deploy for 12 months instead of nine, they must seek an exception to the policy. Depending on the type of unit deploying, approval for that exception can be granted by officials on the Army staff up through the secretary of the Army.
Aviation units remain in high demand, but the planner said he expects to see improved dwell times for those units, and deploying aviation units should, for the most part, be able to do nine-month tours instead of 12.
The Army's minimum guidelines for active-duty units are one day at home for every day a unit is deployed, or a 1:1 deployed-to-dwell ratio. The minimum for reserve-component units is three years at home for every year a unit is mobilized.
The Army's dwell time goals remain two days at home for every day an active-duty unit is deployed, and five years at home for every year a reserve-component unit is mobilized, the senior planner said.
Some units have already reached the 1:2 deployed-to-dwell ratio, the planner said, but building dwell takes time about a year after leaving Iraq, he said.
The Army will welcome a new vice chief of staff and several other key leaders in the coming year.
Gen. Lloyd Austin, who brought the U.S. military's mission in Iraq to a close, will succeed Gen. Peter Chiarelli as the Army's 33rd vice chief of staff Jan. 31.
The career infantryman has led divisions and joint task forces in combat. As commander of XVIII Airborne Corps, the 1975 U.S. Military Academy graduate became the first African-American to command a corps in combat.
Chiarelli, who has served as vice since August 2008, will retire.
Austin will again work directly alongside Gen. Ray Odierno, who became the Army chief of staff in September.
Odierno and Austin served together in Iraq, when Odierno was the top commander there and Austin commanded the XVIII Airborne Corps during its deployment from January 2008 to April 2009. Austin would later succeed Odierno as the top commander in Iraq.
Two other changes at the top involve the deputy chiefs of staff for personnel and intelligence. Maj. Gen. Mary A. Legere, commanding general of Army Intelligence and Security Command, had been nominated for a third star and assignment as the deputy chief of staff for intelligence, or G-2. Legere would succeed Lt. Gen. Richard Zahner, who has been the G-2 since February 2009.
Maj. Gen. Michael Tucker, commanding general of the 2nd Infantry Division, had been nominated for a third star and assignment as the deputy chief of staff for personnel, or G-1. Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, who is the current G-1, was nominated in April to lead the Army Corps of Engineers.
The Senate had not confirmed the nominations of Legere, Bostick or Tucker as of Dec. 15.
Also in transition is the Army Reserve. Lt. Gen. Jack Stultz, chief of the Army Reserve and commanding general of Army Reserve Command, has announced he plans to retire in May. No announcement has been made about his successor.
At the Army National Guard, a new director is learning the ropes. Lt. Gen. William Ingram, a former adjutant general of the North Carolina Guard, assumed the duties of the director of the Army Guard in late November. He succeeded Maj. Gen. Raymond Carpenter, who had served as the acting director since Lt. Gen. Clyde Vaughn retired in May 2009.
Year of the professional
The coming year will see a focus on the profession of arms, especially for junior officers and noncommissioned officers.
Along with revamping leader courses and intermediate-level education, the Army will place a greater focus on common military courtesies, as well as drill and ceremonial skills. NCOs will take ownership of daily unit activities.
These skills have been dulled during the busy deployment cycle of the past decade. Most of the Army has served during this period 72 percent of soldiers and 81 percent of staff sergeants and below entered service after the Sept. 11 attacks, as did 40 percent of warrant officers. Forty-five percent of officers and 72 percent of company-grade officers are also in that category.
Senior leaders described the post-9/11 soldiers as tactically experienced, culturally aware, eager and ready to serve. But they also are "at risk [of] disenchantment in a garrison environment," prone to leadership through texting rather than personal contact, and described as an "entitlement" and "train-me" generation.
Big changes to grooming standards are also coming. Hot topics include military haircuts, earrings with the Army Combat Uniform and whether soldiers should be allowed to use cellphones while walking or have visible tattoos on their hands and neck.
The Army also will crack down on body-fat regulations in 2012. Chandler is leading a review of body-fat percentages and the tape test.
"The Army has gotten a little bit larger, and I have some concerns about that," the Army's top enlisted soldier said.
Troops seeking to go to school on the government's dime should do so now because the military's tuition assistance benefit could change dramatically in the near future.
Many top military officials want to scale back the TA program, cutting the benefit offered and adding new restrictions. TA costs have more than tripled since 2001 to well over half a billion dollars a year.
Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that students may be unable to use TA money as freely as in the past because of a dispute over the Pentagon's proposed new rules. Many schools are balking at signing the new agreement because they say it comes with too many bureaucratic strings attached.
The Pentagon recently delayed the planned Jan. 1 effective date of its new rules for 90 days to allow for more discussion, so for now, troops can still tap up to $4,500 a year in benefits at nearly any school they choose.
But that could easily change.
Career tracking online
A one-stop online tool for plotting careers, assignments, training and education is on schedule for fielding to the Army's entire military and civilian workforce in 2012.
Called Army Career Tracker, the personalized professional development application already has been fielded to most enlisted soldiers.
The remaining effort for the enlisted component will focus on several state National Guard organizations.
Full deployment with commissioned officers, warrant officers and Army civilians is slated for late summer or early fall.
When fielded with the entire force, Career Tracker will provide some 1.3 million soldiers and civilians with a tool that integrates training, assignment history and education information from 15 databases and systems into one interactive, easy-to-use interface.
ACT delivers that information in a personalized way that takes account of an individual soldier's experiences, education, training and needs. It also shows the general career progression status of other members of a soldier's peer group. For example, the system is designed so that it can show what percentage of soldiers in a particular MOS and grade have completed the recommended level of professional military education for that grade.
Soldiers who are interested in reclassification also can draw on information provided by an MOS proponent, typically a branch service school, about requirements of a new specialty, as well as assignments and future training and schooling requirements.
The system is designed to show officers how they measure up to professional development requirements. It also lets officers share long-term goals with their Human Resources Command career managers who, in turn, can assist the officer in achieving career milestones. This is a departure from the assignment preference statement, or "dream sheet," of the past.
ACT's tailored information and online delivery also is seen as a boon for the professional development of National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers. Reserve officials note that because ACT is online, information is available every day, so that leaders, mentors and part-time soldiers do not have to go to a monthly drill, training noncommissioned officers or readiness NCOs for professional development information.
As the Army draws down, it will shape the force by making some re-enlistments contingent upon soldiers reclassifying to a new military occupational specialty, according to the top enlisted soldier.
"For some folks, that may not be palatable," said Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond Chandler, according to an Army release.
With the Army on the verge of launching a five-year, 50,000-soldier drawdown, re-enlistment options will be tightly managed in the coming year, according to service officials.
"The retention piece (of the drawdown) is the one that is going to affect a lot of folks in our Army," Chandler said.
"Everybody will be touched in some capacity," Chandler said at a blogger's roundtable Dec. 7. "For soldiers who are eligible to re-enlist, the standard is going to be excellence. We are looking for the best and brightest to offer the privilege of service."
The 2012 retention campaign has two phases, each with different re-up goals and eligibility windows.
The two-phase approach requires that soldiers whose terms of service expire in fiscal 2012, and who want to re-enlist, do so by Jan. 31.
Phase I: The goal for the first phase, which opened Oct. 1, is to re-enlist 10,800 to 11,800 soldiers.
That option is limited to a relatively small cohort of soldiers and will close Jan. 31. Only soldiers whose current enlistments expire Jan. 31 through Sept. 30, 2012, are eligible to re-enlist under Phase I.
Phase II: The second phase of the campaign is expected to begin in early March and probably will focus on soldiers whose enlistments expire in fiscal 2013.
While the specifics of that program will not be determined until February or March, sources speculate the re-enlistment goal will be about 50,000.
An Army policy requiring soldiers to re-enlist at least 90 days before their expiration term of service remains in effect. Soldiers whose 90-day window falls before Jan. 31 are subject to the restriction. For example, soldiers with an ETS of March 30, 2012, must re-enlist no later than Dec. 30 to avoid hitting their 90-day window.
The Army continues to offer retention bonuses for soldiers in priority MOSs. Programs now in effect include the Tiered Selective Re-enlistment Bonus program, the Critical Skills Retention Bonus program, and the Bonus Extension and Retraining program.
NCO promotion forecast
More than 44,000 active-component soldiers will advance to the ranks of sergeant through sergeant major in 2012, according to a promotion forecast developed by Army personnel officials.
The projected total of 44,141 represents a 6 percent reduction from 2011, when 47,129 soldiers added stripes.
More than half of the 2012 promotions will go to corporals and specialists on the servicewide recommended list for sergeant, and one-quarter will go to promotable sergeants competing for advancement to staff sergeant.
While the 2012 promotion plan calls for nearly 3,000 fewer NCO advancements than last year, it is similar to the annual totals authorized before the Army launched a major force buildup from 2005 to 2009.
NCO promotions vary each month, based on requirements to fill current and projected vacancies, by grade and MOS, throughout the Army.
The Army will begin a campaign in 2012 to reduce active-component manning by nearly 50,000 soldiers. However, personnel officials note that no major personnel authorization changes are planned for 2012, which means there will not be a big slowdown in promotions.
Promotion points have been adjusted for thousands of specialists, corporals and sergeants under changes to the Promotion Point Worksheet that take effect Jan. 1.
The changes put a greater emphasis on education. Under the revised format, the Military Education section of the worksheet has been divided into subcategories, each with a maximum point value designed to encourage soldiers to pursue a mix of resident and correspondence courses.
The three subcategories are Professional Military Education, Resident Military Training and Computer Based Training.
In a change from the previous scoring template, 40 percent of the points soldiers can potentially earn are related to NCO Education System achievements, such as graduation from the Warrior Leader Course or Advanced Leader Course. That compares to 35 percent for sergeant promotions under the old system, and 32 percent for staff sergeant scores.
The change intentionally limits a soldier's ability to max out the PME subsection to soldiers who are designated as distinguished honor graduates or distinguished leadership graduates of an NCOES course, according to Army officials.
A review of the mid-ranks promotion system indicated many soldiers were maxing out the military education section of the worksheet by avoiding NCOES and loading up on correspondence courses and computer-based training.
Graduation from the Warrior Leader Course and Advanced Leader Course are considered key components of the Army's leader development strategy and are used as promotion incentives.
The Army has added several other new features to the Promotion Point Worksheet that are effective for January promotions and later.
The new form has five sections, rather than two. They are Military Training, Awards and Decorations, Military Education, Civilian Education and Total Points.
Senior NCO promotions
Big improvements are in store for senior NCO promotions for 2012.
Selection rates from the fiscal 2012 master sergeant promotion boards that met in the fall bode well for other senior NCO panels that meet in the coming year.
Results of the Regular Army master sergeant board released Dec. 8 show that nearly 3,000 soldiers were the beneficiaries of a new promotion policy that sharply increases selection rates for advancements to the senior NCO ranks.
Another 458 Army Reserve soldiers were selected for promotion to master sergeant by the annual Active Guard and Reserve board.
The overall select rate for the RA board was 16.2 percent, a sharp increase from last year's rate of 6.9 percent, and 8.7 percent in fiscal 2010.
The overall select rate for the AGR board was 14.7 percent, about triple the rates of other boards in recent years.
The increased selection rates are the result of new policies that increase the time-in-grade requirement for primary- and secondary-zone master sergeant consideration by one year. The same policy will apply to the sergeant first class boards that convene in late January, and the fiscal 2013 master sergeant boards that meet this fall.
The time-in-grade requirement for promotion consideration increases from three to four years for the primary zone, and two to three years for the secondary zone. The time-in-grade requirement for senior NCO promotion eligibility in the non-AGR categories of the Army Reserve has increased from two to three years. Also, the minimum time-in-service requirement for master sergeant consideration in the non-AGR categories of the Army Reserve increases from 11 to 12 years, and for sergeant major from 13 to 17 years.
The changes mean a smaller inventory of soldiers competing for promotion and increased selection rates.
The time-in-grade requirements support the Army's leader development goal of having soldiers complete their requisite NCOES courses within three years to qualify for advancement to the next higher grade.
Active-duty and retired service members will be watching to see if retirement reform rises on the radar again this year.
Last year, the frenzy to cut federal spending led to fairly serious discussion of changing or even scrapping the traditional 20-year retirement model that has been in effect for almost two generations.
The talk died down a bit after troops and retirees expressed widespread outrage and top Pentagon officials tried to tamp down the furor. Congress considered, but eventually dropped, a proposal to create a new "commission" to review military compensation, but Pentagon officials said they are working internally on possible changes. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said spiraling military personnel costs must be addressed somehow.
Help with transition
An ambitious program to help soldiers prepare for post-service employment or schooling begins in the coming year.
Soldiers will need to begin transitioning counseling no later than one year before they leave the Army, according to policy.
The effort to improve the breadth, quality and integration of Army transition services comes at a time when departing soldiers face one of the toughest civilian job markets in years.
"We want to prepare them so they can meet whatever their goal is when they leave the Army," Chiarelli said. "We want them to be able to get a job."
A key theme of the program is the early preparation of soldiers for separation.
"Army studies have found that the earlier a soldier begins preparing for separation … the more successful he or she will be," said Walter Herd, director of the Army Career and Alumni Program.
Commanders will have responsibility for overseeing the process using tracking tools and supervisors in a soldier's chain of command to assist in transition preparations.
New simulation gear will make force-on-force training on posts as realistic as running ops at Maneuver Combat Training Centers.
The new "laser tag" system registers injuries caused by simulated improvised explosives devices, artillery rounds and machine-gun fire, and assigns wounds based on weapons effects.
The Homestation Instrumentation Training System also allows leaders to replay battles with up to 8,000 participants within a 20-kilometer-by-20-kilometer area on screens or listen to radio chatter during after-action reviews, according to Col. Patrick E. Connors, a program director at the Training and Doctrine Command.
The system, which includes an electronic vest and transmitters for weapons, can also track ballistic missiles of friendly and enemy personnel and number of rounds fired.
Past generations of Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System gear don't provide that type of feedback, said Brian Lucke, a training coordinator at Fort Campbell, Ky.
Twenty-one posts will begin fielding the latest version of HITS this spring, and fielding will run through 2017.
A battalion set includes about 1,160 player radios, antenna nodes and an Exercise Control Station that assists in storing electronic, audio and video information for feedback, according to Army Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation.
The set costs about $9 million and works with Tactical Engagement Simulation Systems.
The vehicle dilemma
The coming year will be one in which combat vehicles will be scrapped, upgraded and purchased.
Roughly $4 billion is needed annually to recap, divest and buy new tactical wheeled vehicles, but the Army can only afford about $2 billion. To cut costs, the Army will not recapitalize as often, which means vehicles will have to run longer than expected.
The Ground Combat Vehicle, poised to become the next-generation infantry fighting vehicle, is under attack. Army leaders have said the final cost must come in below $13 million per vehicle. But the Pentagon's Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office predicts each vehicle will cost closer to $17 million.
The Army also wants to replace one-third of its 150,000 Humvees with the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, a program the Senate appropriations defense subcommittee has recommended be terminated. The House appropriations defense subcommittee in July recommended a $50 million cut from the program, noting "the operational niche to be filled by the JLTV appears to be shrinking." To keep the program, the Army cut costs to that of a recapped Humvee.
Up to 5,000 M113s must also be replaced. They will likely be replaced with Bradley Fighting Vehicles; mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles; Strykers; or a combination of those.
About 9,000 Humvees are scheduled to be recapped in 2012, and thousands more will be updated using a competitive recap program, which will give the Humvees the same level of protection as MRAPs. About 1,000 MRAPs will get engineering upgrades and other changes in 2012.
The defense budget
The $600 billion question to be answered in 2012 is whether lawmakers really will let across-the-board cuts in federal programs go forward because of their failure to approve a $1.2 trillion, 10-year deficit reduction plan in 2011.
Defense and service officials have used the words "catastrophic," "devastating" and "dangerous" to describe what will happen if automatic cuts, known as sequestration, take effect Jan. 2, 2013, as required by the Budget Control Act.
Republicans in Congress are working on plans to exempt defense from its $500 billion to $600 billion share of sequestration by cutting more deeply into other programs, which sounds great for the military but is unlikely to be signed into law. Only a bipartisan plan that includes governmentwide spending cuts without exempting defense is likely to prevent sequestration.
Gays in the military
The legal skirmish over gays in the military likely will move into a new phase this year. Benefits will be the key issue now after the final repeal of the ban on gays serving openly in uniform last September.
Can gay couples live in base housing? Can same-sex spouses count as dependents for the purpose of calculating a housing allowance? Should same-sex spouses get Tricare health benefits? So far, gay-rights advocates say the transition has gone remarkably well and troops have reported few problems.
Nevertheless, harassment and discrimination claims by gay and lesbian service members may crop up this coming year.
Stolen Valor Act
By this summer, the Supreme Court will issue a decision on the constitutionality of the Stolen Valor Act, the 2005 law that made it a federal crime to lie about receiving military medals or decorations.
Specifically, the court will hear the case of Xavier Alvarez, a Southern California man who campaigned for a seat on his local district water board in part by claiming he was a retired Marine and a recipient of the Medal of Honor neither claim was true.
A federal judge sentenced Alvarez to three years probation, but an appeals court later said the 2005 law violates the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and was no different than "criminalizing lying about one's height, weight, age or financial status on Match.com or Facebook."
Tricare pharmacy turbulence
Barring an 11th-hour breakthrough between retail pharmacy giant Walgreens and the contractor that manages Tricare's pharmacy benefit, more than a half-million Tricare customers will start 2012 looking for a new pharmacist if they haven't done so already.
Contract negotiations between Walgreens and pharmacy benefit company Express Scripts ground to a halt in June, setting off a public dispute that affected countless Tricare beneficiaries.
Those customers will have to switch to another Tricare network pharmacy in 2012, use Tricare's mail-order service, or stay with Walgreens but pay full price and file reimbursement claims, which are subject to deductibles, out-of-network cost shares and Tricare-required co-payments.
Customers who still need to switch can take their prescription bottles to another Tricare network pharmacy, found at www.express-scripts.com/TRICARE/pharmacy, or call 877-363-1303.