Master Sgt. Charlie Sanders (left) provides an update on a Mission Event Synchronization List to Capt. Lashon Bush in the Joint Cyber Control Center during Operation Deuce Lightning in 2011. The Army plans to add more cyber soldiers this year. (Lawrence Torres III / Army)
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Editor's note: This is the third of three stories on changes that will affect soldiers in 2013.
The drawdown of troops in Afghanistan will continue in 2013 as the U.S.-led coalition continues to transfer more security responsibility to Afghan security forces. President Obama has promised a "steady" withdrawal between now and the end of 2014.
Even as U.S. and Afghan officials discuss the role of U.S. troops after the 2014 deadline to end combat operations, the Army does not yet see a significant decline in demand for boots on the ground.
One major shift in 2013, however, will be the deployment of Security Force Assistance Brigades smaller, tailored units formed out of brigade combat teams. The first SFABs, primarily tasked with training and advising Afghan troops, began deploying in late 2012. This type of unit is expected to replace regular, full-size BCTs across theater by the middle of the year.
The deployment of SFABs also marks a significant shift in the way the Army will conduct business in Afghanistan. The Americans will step back into an advisory role as Afghan forces take the lead in planning and conducting combat operations.
The SFABs, with 1,500 to 2,000 troops, are similar to the Advise and Assist Brigades deployed to Iraq toward the end of the mission there.
At their core, SFABs will be made up of a number of security force assistance teams of 10 to 20 officers and NCOs each, who will rely on the remainder of the brigade for security, logistics, intelligence and joint fires needs.
About 66,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon will continue to maintain a total force of about 50,000 in the Persian Gulf region, which includes about 13,000 troops in Kuwait and a steady rotation of Navy ships moving through ports in Bahrain. And since the number of mobilized reservists has fallen steadily in recent years, the burden of those deployments will fall mostly on active-duty members.
Big changes are on the way for the Army's brigade combat teams in 2013.
Soldiers should find out if the Army will add a third maneuver battalion and more engineers to the BCTs, and how many and which BCTs might be cut as the Army continues to restructure itself.
The Army's Stryker brigades already have three maneuver battalions, but the armored, infantry and airborne brigades each have two.
The Army has conducted a thorough and extensive review of its BCT design, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said during an interview Nov. 20 with Army Times.
"In every case, a three-battalion brigade performs significantly better than a two-battalion brigade," he said. "As we go forward here … I suspect that we will make a final announcement sometime after the first of the year on this. But all of the analysis points toward the best thing for us to do is have a three-battalion brigade. This means that we will have to have fewer brigades."
The Army already will cut eight of its 45 BCTs as the active-duty force shrinks along with the budget. If the Army adds a third maneuver battalion to its BCTs, it's estimated that five more brigades will be cut, leaving the Army with 32 BCTs.
So far, only two BCTs have been identified for inactivation the 170th and 172nd BCTs in Germany. The 170th has already been inactivated; the 172nd is scheduled for inactivation in October.
Regionally aligned forces
Soldiers from 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division will begin deploying for training exercises and military-to-military engagements in Africa this year as the Army prepares to regionally align the rest of the force with combatant commands around the world.
Commanders in U.S. Army Africa already plan to use the soldiers from 2nd Brigade for at least 96 activities in 34 countries including Uganda, Egypt and South Africa during the first six months of their employment.
The brigade's alignment with AFRICOM will serve as a pilot for the Army, as it hopes to gain lessons learned before aligning more units with the geographic combatant commands.
Also regionally aligned are I Corps, of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., with U.S. Pacific Command; and III Corps, of Fort Hood, Texas, with U.S. Central Command.
The XVIII Airborne Corps, of Fort Bragg, N.C., will be the global response force, available to respond to the other combatant commands. In addition, combatant commands without a corps aligned to them will be aligned with divisions.
As further details are worked out, leaders anticipate at least three more BCTs will be regionally aligned in 2014, with the rest of the force to follow in 2015.
When it comes to cyber threats, the future is now. As the Army races to meet the need for cyber soldiers to defend against those threats, 2013 will see the launch of the next new battalion in the service's first dedicated cyber brigade.
The 782nd Battalion of the 780th Military Intelligence Brigade will grow from the 40 or so people it employs now to its approved end strength of 300, Col. Jennifer Buckner, the brigade's commander, told Army Times in December.
The 782nd Battalion is based at Fort Gordon, Ga., and works with the 706th MI Group. The 781st Military Intelligence Battalion, the 780th's operational battalion, is based at Fort Meade, Md. Many of the soldiers who make up the 780th will come from a new career field, the 35Q or cryptologic network warfare specialist, which offers years of specialized training. The goal is to boost the brigade's approved end strength to 1,023 people in 2014 or 2015. Of those, more than 500 are meant to be 35Qs. The brigade now stands at about 600 people.
The Army is offering retention bonuses of between $3,200 and $13,100 to soldiers ranging from private to sergeant, according to an Army Times analysis Army officials declined to confirm.
In November, Lt. Gen. Mary Legere, deputy chief of staff for intelligence, called the effort to train Army cyber warriors "a conscious development of some of the brightest and most skilled soldiers we've ever attempted to create."
"We are building intelligence soldiers that can operate out there to detect threats against our networks, to characterize where those threats are coming from and to provide [analysis] to defenders and hunters inside the network who will cut that threat off," Legere said.
Integrated disability evaluation system
The drawdown in Afghanistan and a reduction in end strength will force a wave of soldiers into the already-bottlenecked disability evaluation system next year, and the Army is adding personnel to ease the strain, according to an official with the Army's Office of the Surgeon General.
The Integrated Disability Evaluation System was launched in 2008 to combine the separate Defense Department and Veterans Affairs systems into one and cut wait times. Instead, the process ballooned, and now across DoD it takes an average of 384 days for active-duty and 420 days for reserve-component personnel.
Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho, in a recent article, discussed plans to add personnel, including analysts, statisticians, operations specialists and IDES experts as part of a new oversight organization aimed at straightening out the kinks.
That organization, or "service line," has published new and updated guidance, provided training to soldiers and commanders, clarified the complex appeals process and enforced uniformity of standards.
The main choke points for IDES are Medical Evaluation Boards conducted by the services and the transition from military to VA care.
The Army is launching Medical Evaluation Board Remote Operating Centers to increase IDES enterprise capacity for all components, Horoho has said. Already, the Army has added $90 million to hire providers that would alleviate bottlenecks in the MEB phase of IDES, according to the Army official. "We are continuing to improve communication, satisfaction, trust, and understanding of this complex system to support our Soldiers, their Families, and other stakeholders in order to maintain the Army's and the Nation's readiness posture," Horoho writes.
The Veterans Affairs Department ended 2012 with almost 900,000 pending benefits claims two-thirds of which have been pending longer than VA's 125-day processing goal. The total is a modest 2.3 percent higher than a year earlier, but the number of old claims jumped 6.6 percent.
VA officials have promised that a variety of changes in how claims are processed will lead to the complete elimination of the backlog of claims older than 125 days by the end of 2015.
To meet that goal, VA will have to make big progress in 2013. If it does, claims from Afghanistan and Iraq War vets could be among those that move faster because of promised improvements in automation and electronic record sharing between VA and the Defense Department.