A recent pilot program could change how armored crews achieve and maintain readiness, which the Army hopes will lessen the burden on its high-demand, overstressed armored brigades.
Two units, the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armor Division at Fort Bliss, Texas and 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas are taking part in a pilot program that would qualify armor crew members individually rather than as a collective team.
Currently, if a single individual on a crew is removed from the team — for extended leave during workups, medical reasons, change of station or discharge — the entire crew is considered unqualified and must re-qualify together once the crew is made whole.
If the pilot program proves successful and is adopted, a unit leader could mix and match certified individual crewmen and officers to create ready crews instead of having to re-certify the whole crew each time one member leaves or falls below certification requirements.
Armor brigades, along with air defense and Stryker units are some of the most high-demand units for overseas rotations and training exercises and have been so since at least 2015 as the force began to shift back to combined arms after large-scale deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan wound down.
Recommendations on the pilot could head to Army senior leaders by next year, officials said.
But as those combat deployments decreased, presence, deterrence and rotational deployments, especially to Europe, increased, Army Times previously reported. As those demands rose, the number of total soldiers in both the active duty Army and its armor force fell.
In 2017, Gen. Robert Abrams, then the head of Army Forces Command, said that the focus could no longer be “solely on the next assigned unit mission,” but instead the service needed to implement a new approach to sustaining readiness at all times, “whether at home station or deployed.”
Army Times reported an overview of a new armor readiness plan in October 2022 that was scheduled to debut this year. Experts shared more details publicly during the Association of the U.S. Army Warfighter Summit and Exposition held in late July at Fort Liberty, North Carolina.
Maj. Gen. Curtis Buzzard, the Maneuver Center of Excellence commander, called upon retired Command Sgt. Maj. George DeSario, the top civilian expert at U.S. Army Armor School, at Fort Moore, Georgia, whom Buzzard called the “oracle of armor.”
During the panel, DeSario gave a short update on the pilot, noting crews will be certified by position.
“Now we qualify a whole crew, and we say, ‘that’s a qualified crew’ and when one of them goes away for some reason, that’s an unqualified crew,” DeSario said.
The pilot program, which started earlier this year, is expected to run through the fall as units gather data to share with the Armor School as it evaluates the potential of the program for senior leader consideration and potential Army-wide adoption.
The current certification runs through six “tables” from gunnery skills tests to situational training exercises, virtual and live, practice sessions and qualifications, DeSario told Army Times in an email response to queries.
The move may also cut out the need for “sustainment gunnery” training in between larger, certifying armor crew training, which would further reduce training demands, DeSario said.
Any potential certification change would have wide-ranging effects on many soldiers.
Across the Army — including the active duty force, the National Guard, and Army Reserve — there are more than 12,000 soldiers and officers who hold an armor military occupational specialty.
Among those, there are nearly 7,500 enlisted armor crewmen and more than 1,300 armor senior sergeants, based on data provided by the Reserve, Guard and Human Resources Command for active duty.
Roughly 60% of those armor soldiers are on active duty and the remaining are in the Guard or Reserve.
The Armor School graduates an estimated 1,200 armor crewmen and 500 armor officers annually, according to Armor School data.
The number of active duty soldiers dropped from an end-strength of 570,000 active duty soldiers during the height of the Global War on Terrorism to fewer than 455,000, Army Times reported in May.
In 2020 then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said the service was looking to reduce longer deployments, especially on high-demand units. Despite that plan, armor unit deployments continue to average nine months, which was what they were three years ago, according to information provided by Forces Command. However, they are down considerably from often extended 15-month deployments during the early years of the two-war era of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Current deploy-to-dwell ratios, for armored brigades stand at 1 to 3, meaning a unit is home for three times the amount of time deployed. For example, a six-month deployment would mean an 18-month dwell time at home station. This is on par with non-armored brigade combat teams, according to Forces Command.
McConville made that statement at the 2020 Fires Conference at Fort Sill, Oklahoma and singled out armor units with a direct message to the company-level leadership, emphasizing the strain they face. that overtasking was putting on the force.
“Most of your time needs to be spent on training individuals in crews, squads and platoons,” McConville said. “And quite frankly, you’ve got to figure out how to do the rest of the stuff on your time, not their time.”
Later that year the service rolled out its Regionally Aligned Readiness and Modernization Model, noting that 60% of worldwide combatant command needs were being filled by soldiers as compared to the other military services.
The regional alignment plan aims to match units with specific areas and use their capabilities in that region unless other demands supersede the planned rotations.
“It doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t go to a war somewhere else on the globe,” then-Lt. Gen. Charles Flynn, deputy chief of staff for Army operations, plans and training said. “It just means that if we call you, because the crisis is in that theater, you’re going to go first because your equipment is tailored for that, you understand the environment, you know the conditions, you know the allies and partners, you know the adversary [and] you know the plan.”
The realignment had another aim, to help buy time to modernize the force. While nearly every corner of the Army is seeing new equipment, revamped training and career-guiding assessments and tools, the armor force will be one of the most overhauled of all operational combat arms units.
In March 2022, McConville told reporters at a media event in Washington, D.C. that he preferred a deployment every four years for units such as armor. At the time, the average cycle was once every three years.
The Army has 11 active armor brigades and five in the Army National Guard. The Guard saw its own shift a few years ago when additional armor brigade combat training center rotations were added to ensure Guard unit readiness.
That’s necessary to balance the load on the active force but has created its own strains on an already overworked Guard, which serves two masters, its state bosses and its federal commanders.
At the same media event, McConville explained that it takes three armored brigades in the deployment cycle to deploy a single armored brigade overseas for rotational deployments. The common practice is one brigade recently returned from deployment and resetting, refitting, one brigade deployed and another on preparing for deployment.
As demands for armor deployments ramped up in early 2022, the 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, at Fort Stewart, Georgia was in the middle of major equipment and training modernization changes.
Competing demands of modernization and the Russia-Ukraine War collided for another unit at Fort Stewart.
In May 2022, Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston held a town hall with families of the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division following the unit’s short-notice deployment of nearly 4,000 soldiers to Europe in March 2022 to support U.S. efforts in the Russia-Ukraine War.
It was the 1st Armored Brigade’s second deployment in two years, on the heels of a nine-month deployment to Korea. The brigade was doubly tasked in part because the 2nd Armored Brigade was completing its modernization cycle.
Beyond those modernization aims, other armored brigades were either already in Europe or on other missions, Grinston told the families.
The number of U.S. soldiers stationed overseas permanently, specifically in Europe, has plummeted over the past three decades. At the height of the Cold War there were an estimated 350,000 soldiers in Europe alone. As of 2022 there were approximately 40,000.
The crew certification pilot is one of a multi-prong effort that then-Armor School Commandant Brig. Gen. Thomas Feltey laid out for Army Times in 2022.
Beyond the crew certification, the armor school looked to apply a “digital job book” to its soldiers and use the “readiness level progression,” similar to what Army aviation does for its helicopter crews qualifying them individually and tracking their skills and proficiencies wherever they go in the Army, Feltey said.
The focus would apply to not only tank crews but associated crews for Bradley Fighting Vehicles or whatever comes next, such as the Next Generation Combat Vehicle, currently under development.
Feltey wanted to “transfer readiness across operational units from the institution to the operational army.” The move could also reduce accidents and training incidents by keeping crew members up to date on skills and safety measures.
That effort folds within the larger Armor 2030 strategy to build and maintain high levels of readiness alongside modernization for the armored force, Feltey said.
The strategy has a four-phase approach: Responding to the changing operational environment; modernizing the force; a shift to multi-domain operations; and improving platform proficiency, or how well soldiers operate and fight with their tanks.
This plan emerged from the Army’s III Corps study that looked at the gaps in the armored and mechanized forces created after two decades of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism work.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.