A Reckoning for The Army

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In a recent essay entitled The Force of Tomorrow, General Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, describes a globally engaged Army, an Army that promises all things to all people inside the Beltway, an Army that if reduced in numbers will be unable to flood the battlespace with masses of ground troops and, hence, win or deter conflict.

The piece, posted earlier this week on Foreign Policy’s website, is more than simply a plea for no further cuts in the Army’s strength. It’s the Army’s prescription for what Odierno calls “precision results” in future conflict.

It’s also a statement of belief from the chief of staff that what the nation, and its Army, need is more of the same, an unchanging military doctrine, along with an institutional culture and organization for combat. It equates capability with mass and athleticism inside an Army that responds to action from the Tet Offensive to Anbar province with requests for more troops, more money, more air strikes and more time.

Of course, to many of us, Iraq and Afghanistan teaches that masses of soldiers do not equal capability, and that no amount of money, air strikes or goodwill can compensate for the problems of tribalized, corrupt and dysfunctional societies.

This point notwithstanding, just 48 hours after General Odierno published his essay, news surfaced that an impending $18 billion cut in the Army budget will result in the cancellation of critical warfighting training for 78% of the Army’s non-deployed,  non-forward, combat brigades. Training will apparently be limited to “squad level” exercises and instruction.

General Odierno will no doubt blame the Army’s fiscal crisis on the directive Defense Secretary Leon Panetta issued at the beginning of the fiscal year, a directive that forbade the Armed Services from reducing 2013 spending below last year’s levels.

But as Army Chief of Staff, General Odierno should have protected his “freedom of action.” He should have recognized that Panetta’s directive was a bluff, and managed the Army’s funds to ensure the Army’s combat formations are kept in a state of readiness to deploy and fight.

Eliminate the post exchanges, close down golf courses, recreation centers and defund the Pentagon Channel and the Armed Forces Network broadcasting operation. Stop work on overseas construction, but don’t sacrifice the Army’s capability to deploy and fight as part of the Joint Force.

The bad news is that America’s Army confronts far more serious problems than fiscal austerity. In addition to being acutely vulnerable to even modest changes in funding, the Army is fundamentally distracted from its core war-fighting missions and, to be blunt, it’s mismanaged.

And mismanagement is not a new problem inside the Army.

After World War II, the Army generals’ failure to effectively prepare for a future fight produced an Army of 553,000 men that General Omar Bradley said “could not fight its way out of a paper bag.”

When General Matthew Ridgway took command of the beleaguered 8th Army in December 1950 he noted, “The primary purpose of an army – to be ready to fight effectively at all times – seemed to have been forgotten…. The leadership I found in many instances was sadly lacking…”

In other words, the U.S. Army did a fine job policing postwar Germany and Japan, but it could not fight.

This goes to the heart of the problem with the multitude of missions Odierno describes – dismantling terrorist networks, delivering medical supplies in Africa, deterring the ambitions of potential non-state and state enemies, or shaping regional environments to promote peace.

These missions involve the entire Joint Force and, in many cases, aerospace and naval power, augmented by Special Forces, is better-suited to execute these tasks than an intrusive footprint on the ground in other people’s countries. In addition, many of the tasks General Odierno describes may be “nice to do,” but they are not essential Army tasks in an era of shrinking defense resources.

Ridgway’s point is still the salient one.

The mission of the U.S. Army is to be ready and able to destroy the enemies of the American people. Beyond America’s borders, the Navy and the Air Force move the Army to wherever the Army executes this mission, providing the Joint Force with the critical capabilities it needs to win. At home, the U.S. Army defends the nation and constitutes the final authority in the defense of the American state.

So what should the Army do?

First, develop a laser-like focus on the creation and maintenance of critical Army fighting power that can be directed inside the Joint Force to conduct decisive operations on relatively short notice in areas of vital American strategic interest. Organize the Army for Joint, integrated, “all arms” operations, operations that capitalize on America’s intelligence, surveillance reconnaissance (ISR) and strike capabilities. As General Eisenhower asserted in 1947, “Separate ground, sea, and air warfare is gone forever.”

What the Army must provide is modernized, penetrating, high-lethality mobile, armored combat power, trained, organized and equipped in a range of formations for integrated, Joint operations. Equally important, the Army’s organization for combat must be aligned with the right mix of air- and sealift with which to move Army forces in a timely manner. In all future operations, the Army’s deployable combat power, its combat forces-in-being, must be linked to the larger Joint Force within a Joint Rotational Readiness framework, both to save money and provide soldiers and their families with a predictable training and deployment regimen.

Road-bound constabularies and light air mobile infantry forces have value as support and back up to Special Forces and Special Operations Forces in fights with criminals and non-state actors, or for border security. But these forces lack the protection and firepower to take hits and keep fighting. They cannot conduct decisive Joint operations on land nor will they encourage partners or allies to join us if the enemy employs capable armed forces. In America’s past, the low end warfare niche was a Marine Corps mission and one that required far fewer Marines than we have today.

No one service can do everything. It’s time to sort out these missions.

Second, plan now for future operations with partners and allies to ensure no one great power or coalition of powers can dominate the Eurasian land mass. Understand where these areas of interest and cooperation are and what Army capabilities the Joint Force commanders will need in them. To achieve clarity, contemporary developments in the Middle East and Africa must not be confused with the emergence of serious, existential military threats to the United States and its allies. Equating the Bolshevik war mobilization state in the 1920s and its dramatic expansion under Stalin and his successors with a nation like Iran is ill-advised.

As Admiral William “Fox” Fallon, former U.S. Central Command chief, said of the Iranians, “They are ants. We can crush them anytime.” Admiral Fallon understood that Central Command was created not to overthrow the Iranian or any other regime, but to ensure no one disrupted the free world’s oil supply. That core interest and mission focus is unchanged.

Third, institutional culture is inextricably intertwined with changes in organization and leadership. For most of the last decade, soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan struggled under bloated, fragmented command structures with as many four-star generals in Central Command as the U.S. Army had in World War II when it fielded 8 million men.  More efficient, effective and agile command structures, especially Joint Force Commands at lower cost are essential! Churchill’s philosophy that “Failure in war is most often the absence of one directing mind and commanding will,” needs to be implemented.

Since 2001, serious equipment problems, a misguided emphasis on brute force, alienated Arab and Afghan populations, as well as detainee abuse, plagued U.S. military operations. Too many of the Army’s industrial-age inefficiencies and duplications reduced the service’s operational impact, and perpetuated unsustainable “cost exchange ratios” involving trillions of dollars — and thousands of American lives — with exceptionally weak opponents in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Finally, the generals in Baghdad lived (and still do in Kabul) in luxurious headquarters, dining on the finest cuisine behind impregnable fortifications. Meanwhile, the soldiers who actually left the forward operating bases, perhaps 15% of the deployed force, lost limbs and lives conducting raids, patrols, and checkpoints, in pointless occupations that backfired.

The point is that President Obama and his new secretary of defense cannot afford to do what President Bush and his defense chief did, and what every Administration has done since President Eisenhower left office: settle for the Army and the generals they found upon taking office.

What the Bush defense team found in 2001 was a smaller, less-capable version of the Cold War Army, preserved and unaltered through the 1990s as a kind of monument to Desert Storm. At the top were general officers whose institutional culture and thinking about warfare were seriously flawed. The stage was set for strategic disaster long before the first soldiers set foot inside Iraq or Afghanistan.

Unless Americans want to relive the past again, bold action to appoint new military leadership with guidance to reorganize is essential. Otherwise, we risk going down the same path, with fewer and fewer resources, until failure in a future conflict is a foregone conclusion.

Douglas A. Macgregor is executive vice president of Burke-Macgregor Group, LLC. He is also a retired Army colonel, decorated combat veteran and the author of four books on military affairs.