U.S. soldiers stand guard at the site of a suicide attack near Kandahar airport on Jan. 19. Some in the Army are expressing interest in "regionally aligned forces," which would enable the Army to avoid situations like those in Iraq and Afghanistan where U.S. soldiers operated with little knowledge of the countries. (Jangir / AFP via Getty Images)
As Army leaders look ahead to 2020, they are weighing the pros and cons of specialization within a force that has to be prepared for just about everything.
Should the Army create a special cadre of China experts? Should it devote entire brigades to the sole mission of security assistance? Or should every soldier master a handful of core skills that make him or her ready for any mission that may come?
These are familiar questions, but now they are being posed against the backdrop of shrinking resources and fewer soldiers.
"As you're shaping downwards, how much specialization can you afford?" Gen. Robert Cone, commanding general of Army Training and Doctrine Command, said at an event called Unified Quest, an annual brainstorming and war-gaming exercise for senior Army leaders. This year's series of seminars focuses on how the Army should be structured, equipped and trained in 2020.
Listening to the feedback from the audience and the comments from the generals, it is clear there is an appetite for creating what the Army calls "regionally aligned forces," or units that focus their training on specific geographical regions.
By creating regionally aligned forces, the Army could avoid situations like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, where U.S. soldiers operated with little knowledge of the countries' culture, language and history, Cone said. "We cannot go into a conflict cold again. We need to get it into the training."
While the Army's top leaders welcome this level of specialization, there is far less interest in creating permanent units responsible for security force assistance.
Cone said he believes this would detract from the Army's operational flexibility, an attribute that was needed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We have learned over the last 10 years that this kind of operational adaptability is essential to a force in the 21st century," Cone said.
For him, getting the balance right between specializing and being prepared for an uncertain future lies in the details — how the Army is structured and organized — and that's what the Unified Quest exercise is supposed to help figure out.
The Army already has some sense of how small it could be in 2020. Current plans call for the Army to drop from today's 565,463 active-duty troops to 490,000 by 2017. However, some people believe that number could fall further.
The Army also has announced that it will cut at least eight brigade combat teams, including two in Europe. The service is conducting a review that could result in the elimination of further brigades while beefing up capabilities within the remaining brigades, DoD officials have said.
With fewer soldiers, specialized forces could come at a higher cost, said Lt. Gen. Keith Walker, director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, which is part of TRADOC.
"The more specialized forces you have, the less adaptability the rest of your force has should the situation change," he said.
The debate over who should perform security force assistance has been around for a while. The Army was forced to decide on it as the U.S. shifted from combat operations to an advise-and-assist role in Iraq.
Instead of designating permanent force structure to the task, the Army took its heavy, infantry and Stryker BCTs and gave them special training before deploying. By building upon the BCT structure, the Army decided it would have uniquely flexible units that would be ready to conduct offensive and defensive operations in addition to the advisory role.
"Last time around, we decided we needed to err on the side of flexibility and adaptability," and that was when the Army was still expanding in size, Walker said. With fewer soldiers, that flexibility becomes even more important.
In the Pentagon's new strategic guidance, released Jan. 5, "provide a stabilizing presence" is listed as one of the 10 primary missions for the U.S. armed forces. This mission is described as building the "capacity and competence of U.S., allied, and partner forces for internal and external defense," strengthening alliance cohesion and increasing U.S. influence.
Maj. Gen. Patrick Donahue, who works with Walker at the Army Capabilities Integration Center, noted that this mission is only one of 10.
"We still have those other nine missions to do, so it's clearly something we have to do, but it can't be the only thing we do," he said. "If we try to optimize the Army instead of maintain our operational adaptability, we may not be able to do all those other missions as well as we have been up until this point."