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One retired colonel is campaigning for more cuts - and Congress is listening

Jul. 28, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Reductions in end strength have to equate to thinning the operating force, Army leadership explains.
Reductions in end strength have to equate to thinning the operating force, Army leadership explains. (Army)
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Drawdown at a glance

After more than 12 years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, amid shrinking budgets and the 2011 Budget Control Act, the Army has dropped from a war-time high end strength of 570,000 to about 518,000 today.
There will be 490,000 by the end of fiscal year 2015, and the Army is slated to shrink to about 450,000 soldiers by 2019. But if sequestration returns in 2016, which appears a distinct likelihood, the force will shed even more soldiers for an end strength of 420,000 soldiers.

The Army insists cutting the service down to 420,000 cannot be done. That would mean 98,000 fewer soldiers than there are today, and that’s an unacceptable risk, Army officials have said, and will continue to say, so long as the threat of budget cuts remains.

And while the Army is already prepared to drop down to 450,000, that additional cut of 30,000 soldiers would be a grave mistake, officials warn. It would mean a limited capability, at the same time there are new and emerging threats in Europe and the Pacific.

The Army currently meets about 93 percent of the requirements given to it by the combatant commanders, said Maj. Gen. Gary Cheek, the assistant deputy chief of staff for operations (G-3).

“We bend over backwards, and we squeeze everything we can to meet the requirements they give us,” he said. “In the future, as we get smaller, it becomes more and more difficult. We’re going to reach limits where we can’t meet a requirement based on the stress it puts on the force.”

The Army may be forced to deploy soldiers and units that are not properly trained, and it will be less able to replenish losses and casualties in a unit downrange, he said.

It also may have to mobilize large numbers of National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers — who can only be trained as quickly as the Army’s generating force can go.

Cheek makes a compelling argument for avoiding in 2016 another round of sequestration, the across-the-board budget cuts imposed by Congress that have forced the Defense Department to dial back programs and thin the ranks.

But there’s an interesting and opposing viewpoint out there. One in which cutting the Army to 420,000 would actually make the service stronger and smarter. This plan could save the nation money and — according to its proponents — course-correct a service that’s struggling to overcome its old-minded thinking and bloated bureaucracy.

Retired Col. Doug MacGregor, a decorated officer and leader during Operation Desert Storm, has pitched this idea of a smaller Army before. His unorthodox strategy — which includes dismantling the brigade combat team, for example — has long been spurned by Army brass, and he claims it even contributed to the early end of his career.

But he hasn’t stopped pushing his plans and now members of Congress are actively seeking his audience to learn details of his plan.

Today’s Army is a large force but a “much less capable force,” MacGregor told Army Times.

“I know the men at the top think they’re doing the right thing, and I believe they’re very sincere,” he said. “I just happen to think they’re dead wrong. What the United States needs now is a new force, not the old industrial age force.”

The case for 420,000

The MacGregor Transformation Model, as the retired colonel calls it, would overhaul the entire force — from its structure to the way it promotes soldiers to the way it fights.

“I see a force that needs to be reinvigorated through a fundamental reform to be ready for future wars that are going to be much, much more dangerous and challenging than what we’ve seen before,” MacGregor said. “We don’t have time to lose.”

His modeleliminates brigades and divisions and favors a force that falls in between in size. These structures, called battle groups, would each have 5,000 to 6,000 soldiers. They would be organized in four specialties: strike, maneuver, sustainment, and ISR, or intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

With an end strength of 420,000, the Army would have an equivalent of a 250,000-man field Army with 51 battle groups, MacGregor said.

“You put these on rotational readiness through a four-phase readiness program, and you’ll always have 40,000 to 50,000 men ready to deploy and fight at any given time,” he said.

Unlike a BCT, which is led by a colonel, the battle group would be led by a brigadier general.

With an increased need for one-stars, talented officers would move up the ranks more quickly, MacGregor said.

That’s key to MacGregor’s strategy, which would put younger officers in higher leadership positions.

“I’m trying to get talent upwards in the system faster and more effectively,” he said. “That means you have to eliminate some echelons, and one thing we can do is eliminate the colonel level of command. We have people languishing for years and years and years, and by the time they become brigadier generals, these are gray-haired old men. You don’t win wars with gray-haired old men. You win wars with young men.”

MacGregor said that “doesn’t mean everyone over 50 is useless, but right now most people conclude by the time they’re captains the probability of becoming a general officer and commanding anything is almost zero,” he said. “You want smart men and women in uniform. They’ll get the job done every time if you let them. The key is that you don’t stifle them.”

The force also would be more robust in terms of mobility, firepower and war-fighting capability, he said. How does he accomplish this? Simply put: Battle groups cut out the overhead, which means more trigger-pullers on the ground.

“I think we’re on the road to a potentially dangerous warlike environment, in which we are not fighting enemies with no armies, no air forces or missile defenses,” MacGregor said. “We’re likely to be involved in interstate conflicts where we have to contend with very real and capable enemies. Recent events in Ukraine reinforce that.”

If that were to happen, “we may end up finding out the hard way just how badly prepared and badly organized and badly equipped we are,” he said. “But the people at the top right now don’t see it that way. They’re very, very profoundly affected by what they’ve just experienced for the past 12 years. I understand that, but we can’t afford to march into the future that way.”

If MacGregor’s plan gains traction, he would not envision changing the Guard and Reserve right away.

“You’ve got to deal with the active component first,” he said. “Once you’ve adopted the new organizational structure, then you can turn to the Guard and Reserve, and, within the guidelines, they can reorganize accordingly.”

The Guard and Reserve are meant to augment and reinforce the active Army, MacGregor said.

It’ll be easier to reorganize the Guard to mirror the Army, since both components have similar formations such as brigade combat teams and division headquarters, he said.

The Reserve is a tougher case.

“We’ve treated the reservists as Christmas help,” he said. “We need to decide what we want the Reserve to do. These are issues that go beyond the organizational construct that I have advocated. They’re political, and they have to be resolved in a political forum, and we have to determine what we want from the Reserve in terms of capabilities.”

Counted among MacGregor’s fans is Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, an armor officer who is also no stranger to controversy. Last year he wrote an essay titled “Purge the generals: What it will take to fix the Army,” in which he cast a dire picture of the Army’s future at the hands of current leadership.

“Getting smaller does not have to mean we get less capable,” he said.

Davis advocates reorganizing into the battle groups envisioned by MacGregor and eliminating the division headquarters structure.

Brigade combat teams need a division headquarters above them, but combat groups, led by a one-star, do not, Davis said.

“It can operate independently, truly plug-and-play,” he said. “You can pick it up and it can immediately go into action by itself, and if you need a bunch of them, you’ll need a three-star joint task force.”

Army opposition

MacGregor said his plan has gotten no traction from the Army brass.

“Army leaders are obstinately opposed to changing anything,” he said. “The only hope for the Army is external pressure, and that has to come from a legislative body and, ultimately, the White House and the [defense secretary].”

Cheek said the Army is open to all ideas, but he defended the role of the two-star division headquarters that MacGregor would like to see disbanded.

“Everyone likes to talk about elimination of headquarters and making things more flat,” Cheek said. “We would agree, but our experience in the past 13 years has put probably more demands on our headquarters elements than even many of our troop units.”

The headquarters are needed to run day-to-day operations, support the higher echelons of command, and provide training, oversight and leader development to their subordinate units, Cheek said.

For example, Cheek cited the Army’s decision to stand up the 7th Infantry Division headquarters at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, to help I Corps oversee the brigades and soldiers assigned there.

“The more levels of command you eliminate, the greater burden you put on whatever the residual [force] is,” Cheek said.

Having cohesive headquarters elements — instead of pulling individuals from across the Army to form a headquarters staff — provides leaders with better support, Cheek said.

When he deployed to Afghanistan in 2004 as the division artillery commander for the 25th Infantry Division, Cheek said he was fortunate to be in theater with his parent division.

“I benefited enormously from the leadership of my division commander, from the assistant division commanders that were there, and the guidance I got from the division on the operations that we did,” Cheek said.

In addition, if the Army dismantled its 10 division headquarters, each with about 500 soldiers, it would gain about 5,000 slots in the force structure, Cheek said.

“That’s one and a half brigade combat teams,” he said. “The math doesn’t suggest we gain greater combat power.”

Instead, the Army is looking at what the force should look like in the long term, out to 2025 and beyond, Cheek said.

“Our thinking is more toward: can we develop an Army that needs fewer soldiers but has the same lethality and capability?” he said. “We welcome ideas from people like Col. MacGregor (ret.), but we want to take a much broader view. We would have to evaluate very, very carefully if we were going to make a dramatic change. At the end of the day, the Army’s going to be responsible for the effectiveness of our soldiers when the bullets start to fly.”

The Association of the United States Army supports the service’s position, said retired Lt. Gen. Guy Swan, the association’s vice president.

“450,000 is, frankly, too low,” he said. “This is when we start getting into a discussion about whether we’re cutting into the bone of the Army.”

The Army provides more than just brigade combat teams, Swan said.

“The Army is, in our national defense, a foundational force,” he said. “The Army provides a lot of other functions for the Defense Department and the joint force above and beyond the war-fighting mission.”

One example Swan cited was Marine artillerymen training at the Army’s artillery school at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The Army also provides critical enabler capabilities, including the Army Corps of Engineers, air and missile defense and training and education in its schoolhouses, Swan said.

“When the Air Force builds an Air Force base, who builds it? The Army Corps of Engineers builds it,” Swan said. “The Army delivers your mail. The Army delivers your fuel. The Army delivers your ammo. There are all these functions that are being overlooked.”

Swan, who was a West Point classmate of MacGregor, said he’s familiar with the retired colonel’s proposal.

“When Doug says we can do it at 420,000, I think he’s overlooking the myriad functions the Army does for everyone else,” Swan said. “I follow Doug, I admire his intellect very much, but he tends to focus very much on battle groups and not at all on the ‘corporate Army,’ if you will, which, I’m sure, in his view is bloated.”

'This is no way to fight'

MacGregor said he realized in 1991 that the “structure the Army uses to organize itself for war was ineffective.”

He came to this realization after serving in Operation Desert Storm, where he earned the Bronze Star with V device for his leadership during what became known as the Battle of the 73 Easting, the Army’s largest tank battle since World War II.

“I watched units organize and assemble, and I saw it took six-and-a-half divisions to bring four divisions up to full strength,” he said. “And I saw them hastily assemble the force, and I watched as we massed this enormous number of troops in Saudi Arabia.”

“I concluded this is no way to fight,” he said. “We needed cohesive formations that were effectively staffed and commanded and could act decisively.”

In 1997, MacGregor released “Breaking the Phalanx,” in which he first outlined his Transformation Model.

MacGregor said his book was well received by the troops and in Navy and Air Force circles, but it was “categorically rejected” by most of the Army’s leadership at the time.

But, now 17 years after his book, MacGregor’s idea is back and getting renewed attention.

MacGregor declined to name names, but he said he has been invited to brief his plan to lawmakers from both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill.

“I go when I’m asked,” he said. “We have lots of uncertainty in the economy, the financial system is not sound, we don’t know what’s going to happen, but there isn’t much bright sunshine on the horizon, and everyone knows it.”

The lawmakers and staff have been receptive to his proposal, especially in light of shrinking budgets, he said.

“I think they’re finally beginning to understand that simply pouring money into defense doesn’t guarantee any capability,” he said. “The structure we have right now is going to absorb all the money you can throw into it, but it doesn’t mean it’ll get any better.”

The proposals in the MacGregor Transformation Model, though sweeping and dramatic, can be accomplished, he insists.

“We have an almost limitless quantity of extraordinarily talented and gifted young officers,” he said. “Our problem is keeping them in the Army and advancing them. They need to know if they turn in the performance, they will be rewarded. They need to be rewarded for talent, not longevity.”

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