U.S. and Afghan National Army soldiers take cover as a CH-47 Chinook helicopter lands to transport them during an operation in Afghanistan. Future Army strategy emphasizes its own ability to rapidly transport troops. (David Furst/AFP)
WASHINGTON — There was a singular moment late last year during a briefing for senior Army leaders on the service’s just-concluded yearly war game when one general laid out the future challenges facing the force.
“Let’s assume we’re not going to get a significant investment in joint strategic power projection,” he said, interrupting two officers who were explaining how they intended to move troops to future battlefields.
While the briefers shifted in their seats and their presentation hovered in PowerPoint limbo on a large projection screen, the general explained that the Army has no control over how the Navy and Air Force spend their money.
“Like it or not [transporting Army troops], that’s not their priority,” he said, as every service struggles with smaller budgets. “We have to control our own destiny, and to control our own destiny, we have to reduce the amount [of troops and equipment] that has to be moved.”
That’s the problem facing Army planners today as they put together their yearly and long-term budget projections, and work to reset the force after 12 years of continuous combat in two theaters of war.
And there is little that the service appears unwilling to tweak as it heads into the future.
Leaders have already said they may shrink the nine-man infantry squad, possibly to as few as six soldiers, at a time when the brigade combat team is undergoing its second major organization shakeup in a decade.
But according to the Unified Quest game and comments by service leadership since then, the force that the Army wants to build will be faster, lighter, more lethal — and yes, smaller — than it is now.
“Based on the analysis we’ve done, we see things happening more quickly, not slower,” Maj. Gen. Bill Hix, deputy director of the Army Training and Doctrine Command’s Capabilities Integration Center, told reporters in January.
“We do not see that we have the gift of time when crises arise in areas where our interests are at stake.”
To that end, the service is looking for technologies that will allow it to piggyback on existing communications networks while deployed, and wants lighter vehicles that can be quickly shipped to a hot spot should US ground forces be called upon for combat or stability operations.
But while the service is selling the message that speed is of the essence as it transforms to meet an unpredictable future, history shows that mass concentrations of US ground forces have rarely, if ever, been called upon to strike at a moment’s notice.
“If you look at major operations, historically we have not moved that quickly,” said Maren Leed of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “Now, once you’ve made the decision to move, you have to be able to move quickly, so operationally and tactically the need for speed is evident, [but] strategically it’s much more complicated, I think.”
Another issue with the Army’s new emphasis on speed and maneuverability is that the national defense strategy released by the Obama administration in January 2012 prioritizes naval and air power to achieve power-projection and self-defense needs, with an emphasis on the “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific region.
The strategy also frowns upon conducting in the near future another resource-intensive stability operation requiring ground troops.
“The national strategy has sort of defined the Army out of a mission,” one civilian Army adviser said. “So while they can look at the world and say, ‘this is what the Army’s role is,’ the strategy says we’re not going to do any of that.”
Still, the Army’s emphasis on speedy deployments and an “expeditionary” mindset, isn’t an idea without a foundation.
“Speed of deployment, whether by being there already or through prepositioning or through lift, will become more important than it’s ever [been],” Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last October.
Winnefeld raised the ire of ground pounders everywhere when he added — with a surprising degree of certainty — that when it comes to “a national commitment on a large scale to a long-term combat operation ... we just don’t see that happening in the near future.”
But CSIS’ Leed said “the counterargument to that is that if there’s an implosion in North Korea or in Pakistan. You are going to have to move extremely fast.
“But the question is, how much are we willing to pay nationally for a force optimized to those extreme cases? The Army’s right to recognize that that is probably a real-world requirement, but I don’t think there’s been a policy consensus developed around it.”
The Army has recently revised and republished a host of doctrinal manuals to address the problems and the complexities of the postwar world that it envisions, and the service insists that it is redoubling its efforts to train the next generation of leaders to meet those threats while not repeating the mistakes of the past.
But as the force shrinks from a wartime high of 570,000 to 490,000 troops by the end of 2015 — and as low as 420,000 or even dipping below 400,000 by 2019 — there will have to be tradeoffs among force structure, modernization and the service’s ability to project power globally the way that it traditionally has done. ■