The Army must get bigger so that it can better balance today’s missions with training for a future battlefield that promises to be increasingly lethal and complex, the service’s top officer said.
“I believe, and have believed for quite some time, and I have testified to it, that the Army needs to get bigger,” said Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley. “We need to grow in order to meet the demands that the nation expects at the readiness levels it expects.”
The operations tempo in the Army is still “very quick,” Milley said.
“Superficially, you would say the op tempo of the Army has come down because we do not have 100,000 troops in Afghanistan or Iraq,” he said. “People need to remember … we have reduced the size of our Army significantly over the last several years, so the ratio of operations to the size of the force did not radically change.”
The Army fulfills about 50 percent of the Defense Department’s steady state, predicted, year-to-year demands around the world, Milley said.
That number jumps to 60 percent or even 80 percent when there’s an unplanned or emergent demand from a combatant commander, he said.
Ideally, the Army can run on and sustain a one-to-three deployment to dwell time ratio, Milley said. That’s nine months deployed and 27 months at home, for example. But “we are not anywhere close to that,” Milley said.
The Defense Department standard is a one-to-two deployment to dwell ratio for the active Army. Some, such as the Army’s division headquarters, are at one-to-one. Others are at even less than that.
“Very few forces, I would say less than half, are in the range of one-to-two,” Milley said.
On top of that, the Army has placed increased training demands on soldiers.
“You have got to take your artillery out and fire more tables. Your armored units and Bradley units are making more gun runs down the range,” he said. “There is a ton of churn going on in units that is not necessarily reflected in the calculations of op tempo. The soldiers out there today are still very, very busy.”
After years of drawing down from a wartime high of 570,000, the active Army in fiscal year 2017 added 16,000 soldiers for an end-strength of 476,000.
Milley in the past has said the active Army needs between 540,000 to 550,000 soldiers. But he declined to provide a firm number pending the completion of a national strategic review led by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
“The size of a force is relative only to the tasks you want it to do,” Milley said. “We are reviewing the tasks. One way you can change the equation is to reduce or change the tasks. Another way is to increase the size of the force. We are moving through a detailed analysis with Secretary Mattis on that.”
Milley also has his eye on the future.
After 16 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has become very good at counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations, Milley said.
But that’s not enough.
“We have to be able to fight against near-peer or regional significant nation-state threats. We have to be able to fight against guerillas and terrorists. We have to be able to deal with homeland crises such as hurricanes,” he said. “You have to be able to do a lot of things if you are the American Army, and you have to be able to do them globally anywhere in the world, and you have to do them in all kinds of terrain against lots of different potential adversaries.”
To get there, the Army must up its training and hone its ability to conduct combined arms warfare.
“We want to make sure that we can operate in a very active, threatening cyber environment. We want to make sure that we can operate in an environment where the enemy has significant artillery capabilities,” Milley said. “We want to make sure we are trained and have the capability to operate in an environment where the enemy has significant electronic warfare jamming capabilities, where the enemy has a significant capability to bring in missiles or rotor wing or fixed wing attack aircraft.”
This requires repetitions at the Army’s combat training centers and at home station. But leaders also are looking to simulators and virtual reality as a way to get soldiers the critical training they need to succeed.
“What I want to do is radically increase the lethality of those soldiers who are primarily tasked with closing with and destroying the enemy at close range,” Milley said.
Shoot, move, communicate
To do that, Milley is looking at the synthetic training environment, he said.
He cited, as an example, F-35 pilots who spend hours in virtual trainers before they climb into the fifth-generation fighter. But the Army doesn’t do the same for its ground combat forces even though the technology is there, he said.
“We know that your ability to shoot, move and communicate and fight at small unit levels is largely a derivative of training and conditioning and habituating your physical and mental reflexes to the conditions and time,” he said. “It is sort of like, to use a sports analogy, hitting the sled. You want to hit the sled over and over and over again in a wide variety of conditions.”
It is very expensive and time-consuming to achieve those repetitions through live-fire training, Milley said.
And yet, “you can today put on a set of goggles, and you can travel to any urban area in the world,” he said. “You can get high fidelity, walk through buildings, walk down streets. And you can do it not only as an individual, but you can do it as a collective, a fire team, squad, a platoon or a company.”
But in order for it to succeed, these synthetic training environments must be easily available, Milley said.
Any investment will be worth it if the Army’s combat troops get the training they need, Milley said.
“The probability of the Special Forces soldier or infantry soldier or cavalry soldier engaging in combat is very high,” he said. “Yet the amount of money we spend on repetitive synthetic training on them and all the skills to make them highly lethal is not necessarily in accordance with other priorities.”
Michelle Tan is the editor of Army Times and Air Force Times. She has covered the military for Military Times since 2005, and has embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Haiti, Gabon and the Horn of Africa.