September 8, 2003
Army troops, budget stretched to the limit
By James Kitfield, National Journal
One of the happiest times in a U.S. Army officer's professional life is when he or she pins on the winged insignia of colonel and takes command of a brigade. And when the brigade is deployed on a mission of national importance, the moment is all the more momentous. So it was for Col. Rob Baker, who on July 7 assumed command of the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Armored Division, which is responsible for securing a wide swath of Baghdad.
Baker is hardly a stranger to Iraq. After deploying to Kuwait in mid-November 2002, Baker commanded the V Corps Forward Command Post during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He left Baghdad in late April, returned to his home base in Germany to move his family for the second time in two years, spent a few weeks in precommand training in the United States, and flew back to Baghdad and his new unit in early July for a deployment that will stretch into 2004. Baker has been away from his home and family for 14 of the past 16 months.
Baker's story is similar to those of other U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, South Korea, and elsewhere around the world. Indeed, stories like his—of soldiers transferring out of a unit that is returning from deployment only to land in a new unit on the verge of deploying again—number in the thousands in today's Army. The Army recently conceded that, for the first time since the all-volunteer force was established in 1973, as many as 45,000 soldiers who are now serving abroad may have to go on back-to-back deployments. A Congressional Budget Office report this week said that the Army cannot sustain an Iraq occupation force of the present size—150,000 troops—beyond March 2004 without getting assistance from international forces, more National Guard units, or more U.S. marines, or keeping its own soldiers in Iraq for tours longer than one year. These are just some of the reasons why many experts worry that the Army, which has taken decades to evolve into what is generally regarded as the best in the world, could be on the verge of a stress fracture.
To understand why, shift the focus from individual soldiers to major units such as the 82nd Airborne Division. Traditionally America's quick-reaction division, the 82nd currently has a brigade in Iraq and another in Afghanistan. The 3rd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne, however, is the one that most concerns Army planners. After leaving Afghanistan earlier this year, the 3rd Brigade was home only about six months before being sent to Iraq to help relieve the 3rd Infantry Division. Some elements of the 3rd I.D., which spearheaded the invasion of Iraq, have been in the Middle East for nearly a year.
Then there is the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division. Having returned recently to Germany from an extended peacekeeping deployment in the Balkans, the soldiers of the 3rd Brigade are becoming reacquainted with their families, and relearning the kinds of high-intensity combat skills that the Army put to such impressive use during the Iraq war. That training cycle itself can require weeks away from home. The 1st Infantry soldiers will not have much time before turning their focus to deployment preparations, however, because the 3rd Brigade is heading to Iraq next March to relieve elements of the 4th Infantry Division.
Zoom out the focus still wider and consider the 18th Airborne Corps, the headquarters and support echelon above the 82nd Airborne and the 3rd Infantry Division, and the Army's most-ready force-in-waiting. In the past two years, the 18th Airborne Corps headquarters, all four of its divisions, and all 12 of its combat brigades have seen action in Afghanistan or Iraq, or both.
"The Army is accelerating downhill at the moment, and if the course isn't changed, we could damage it significantly or even break it in the next five years," warned retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, former head of the U.S. Southern Command and a division commander during Operation Desert Storm. "We as a nation have done it before at the peak of our power. We broke the Army after World War II, and paid for it in Korea. We broke the Army after Vietnam, and paid for it with the 'hollow force' of the 1970s. We are doing it again, with an Army that is overcommitted and underfunded. And if we end up in an unprovoked war with North Korea, then the United States could pay a very heavy price as a result."
Experts who have studied how the dynamic of overstressed troops, inadequate funds, and rapid change turned the U.S. Army of the 1970s into a "hollow force" warn of a repeat in today's Army. The Army has begun to cancel or postpone many exercises and training rotations; the Los Angeles Times recently reported that since October 1, 2002, the Pentagon has canceled or postponed 49 of the 182 training exercises scheduled for this fiscal year. The Army has also canceled coveted slots at the Army's National Training Center in the California desert and the Joint Readiness Training Center in Louisiana, where entire brigades go through intense maneuvers that are the closest thing to real combat.
Meanwhile, the Army is scouring units worldwide for Humvees, especially the armored variety, to fill acute shortages in Iraq. The Army Materiel Command recently reported that it has a months-long backlog of orders for replacement tracks for its Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and Paladin self-propelled howitzers, because of unexpectedly high wear and tear in Iraq. Electrical generators are likewise in short supply.
If such signs of growing stress on the organization go unheeded, lagging indicators such as retention and recruitment dips may follow—at which point turning the Army's fortunes around could take years. For instance, it takes the Army at least eight years to replace an experienced E-6 staff sergeant who declines re-enlistment; molding a midcareer major takes 10 years. Noted military sociologist Charles Moskos of Northwestern University has predicted "severe" recruitment problems for the active-duty force in 2004. He said that recruiting for the Army's reserve components has already dipped this year, and that the Army has instituted a "stop-loss" order for soldiers in South Korea with certain skills—meaning that these troops who finish their terms of service while in Korea cannot muster out until further notice. That stop-loss may be skewing Army retention figures, making them look better than they really are.
"I think you have a variety of forces converging on the Army in a way that is overwhelming its capacity to respond without extraordinary stress, and I do worry that that will affect its long-term health," said retired Lt. Gen. Walt Ulmer, who headed a study on military culture in February 2000 for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. That study warned that even before the global war on international terror, Army troops were too often away from families on extended deployments. Ulmer is also credited with producing a 1970s report on the Army that in many ways foreshadowed the hollow force.
"One of the lessons we learned in the past—and we're relearning in dramatic fashion in Iraq and Afghanistan—is that the U.S. military may be able to fight a war with slim forces, but it takes a lot more troops to secure an unruly nation with many diverse interest groups and antagonists," Ulmer said. Like several other retired generals, Ulmer argues that the Army is short 40,000 to 50,000 troops. "The Army is a very elastic institution with a 'can-do' culture, and that's a wonderful attribute," he said. "But it is not infinitely elastic, and its can-do ethos makes it possible for the Army to practically respond itself to death."
Dan Goure is a longtime defense analyst and expert on the U.S. Army who is vice president of the Lexington Institute, a defense think tank in Virginia. "The U.S. Army is undergoing strains today unlike any it has faced since the 1950s during the Cold War mobilization, when it was first responding to the global threat of Communism by establishing bases in places such as Korea, and reacting to the rapid technological change of the atomic age," Goure said. "Today, once again, it is trying to adjust to rapid technological change, and Army leaders have neither the time nor the money to manage this in an orderly fashion. They're having to do it on the fly."
Indeed, the strain of frequent deployments is only the most visible of a number of profound stresses affecting the Army. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and senior Pentagon civilians in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, are pressing all the armed services to rapidly incorporate "lessons learned" from Iraq and Afghanistan into their long-range war-fighting and weapons-buying plans, and an Army "tiger team" is preparing a broad review of troop-strength needs and other reforms designed to revamp how and where Army forces are deployed. Some experts fear that the Army's review will trigger another bruising battle with the Pentagon's civilian leadership at a time when the service can least afford it. After all, the two issues now coming to a head—the pace of Army transformation to a lighter, more mobile force, and the number of total soldiers needed for that force—have already provoked much-publicized tensions between Rumsfeld and his OSD team on one side and the senior Army leadership on the other.
Some experts consider this period of discord between Pentagon civilians and the Army's uniformed leadership the most serious civil-military breach since the post-World War II "Revolt of the Admirals"—when the Navy went public with its opposition to civilian plans to cut Navy funding and rely on the Air Force for all strategic nuclear capabilities—or later disagreements between former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and the Joint Chiefs over Vietnam. Fallout from the battles between Rumsfeld's team and the Army led to the firing of Army Secretary Thomas White and the hiring of Air Force Secretary James Roche to take White's place. The backdrop included an almost-unprecedented feud between senior civilians and then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki over the pace of Army transformation; Rumsfeld's cancellation of the Army's new Crusader artillery system; and disputes over how many troops would be needed during and after the war in Iraq. All of this convinced Rumsfeld and his civilian team that the Army was the most reluctant and hidebound of the services in terms of embracing the secretary's "transformation" agenda.
It didn't help that Rumsfeld, by leaking the name of Shinseki's designated successor, essentially made the Army chief of staff a lame duck with more than a year left in his tour. Rumsfeld recently denied ever naming Shinseki's replacement prematurely, but most Army leaders don't buy it. "That's unmitigated bullshit!" said a senior Army civilian. "We all know how these trial balloons are floated, and if Rumsfeld never said it, why didn't his office just deny it at the time? They never did, and it put Shinseki in a horrible position, even though he had fought hard to begin transforming the Army into a lighter, more mobile force long before Rumsfeld became Defense secretary. The truth is that Rumsfeld and his small coterie of advisers want to run everything from the top, and they don't want service secretaries or service chiefs who will question their decisions or visions."
Shinseki was eventually succeeded not by an active-duty general from the conventional Army—three of whom declined the job—but by retired Gen. Peter Schoomaker, who has a Special Forces background. Shinseki's departure was followed by a house-cleaning of three-star generals whom he had groomed. In a thinly veiled swipe at senior Pentagon civilians who had scoffed at his largely prescient prediction that it would take roughly 200,000 troops to subdue a fractious postwar Iraq, Shinseki cautioned in his retirement speech this year, "Beware the 12-division strategy for a 10-division Army."
Retired Army Col. Richard Hart Sinnreich taught at West Point and wrote some of the key Army doctrinal manuals in the 1980s. He says it is worth re-reading U.S. military history during the period of the Revolt of the Admirals. "Some of it sounds astonishingly contemporary," he said. Back then, he said, the idea was that "essentially we were going to pulverize the enemy from the air, with nuclear weapons, and all the Army had to do was go in and police up the casualties.... The atomic bomb was going to solve everything, just like today the microchip was going to solve everything. Of course, then we got ourselves into Vietnam and discovered—oops." Added Sinnreich: "I'm afraid history is not our long suit, on either side of the civil-military divide."
Given the success of the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq after the Pentagon dramatically cut original Army troop requests for both combat operations, Rumsfeld and his team feel secure in their smaller-and-more-high-tech-is-better philosophy. They are poised to renew pressure on the Army to speed up the pace of transformation. That pressure will, in turn, likely spur the new Army leaders, Roche and Schoomaker, to move ahead quickly with fundamental reforms of war-fighting doctrine and force posture at a time when the Army as an organization is struggling just to cope with ongoing operations. The risk, experts say, is that the Army could be rushed into judgments based on Afghanistan and Iraq that are unsupported by subsequent analysis and hard data.
"After overcoming initial Army reluctance to conduct Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom with relatively lean ground forces backed by precision air power, I think Rumsfeld feels vindicated in his vision and is using those successes to argue that the Army needs to move a little faster on transformation," said Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent think tank in Washington. "I would only caution that the Iraqi military was really a pretty hapless opponent, and that Arab militaries in general have suffered a series of spectacularly one-sided defeats going back to the 1940s. There are many questions central to the need to transform our military that were just not answered by these conflicts, and in Iraq many things occurred that could be the result of our ingenuity or their incompetence. We just don't know."
Which Lessons Learned?
In mid-August, Rumsfeld and Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, briefed a group of defense experts on the lessons learned from the Iraqi campaign. According to participants, the two offered a ringing endorsement of the "transformational" warfare by joint service, high-tech, and lean forces that Rumsfeld and his team have pushed since entering the Pentagon.
Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, the Pentagon's third-ranking civilian, recently described Pentagon thinking about the Iraq war to USA Today. The decision to limit the number of troops, he said, was "strategic and goes far beyond Iraq. This is part of [Rumsfeld's] thinking about defense transformation. It's an old way of thinking to say that the United States should not do anything without hundreds of thousands of troops. That makes our military less usable."
Rumsfeld has now directed the services to further incorporate transformational warfare and the lessons learned in Afghanistan and Iraq into their long-range war-fighting plans. In a recent interview with defense reporters, the Army's vice chief of staff, Gen. Jack Keane, said his service is well on its way to doing just that. "I think the most significant lesson we learned in Iraq was the unprecedented level of jointness between the services, because we were able to achieve more-integrated operations than ever before in war," he said. "That unprecedented jointness suggests organizational changes the Army must make in terms of its training and education systems. In my view, we also have to take a look at making our current force more modular and adaptable, which may mean some of our formations need to be smaller. We're taking a look at that right now."
Although the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq unquestionably hold important lessons on 21st-century warfare, participants at Rumsfeld's lessons-learned briefing say that Defense officials made no mention of the trade-off between lighter forces' greater agility and their greater vulnerability, or of the problems that leaner forces have faced in securing both Afghanistan and Iraq.
According to Army sources, the Army's own initial analysis of the Iraq war reflected much more ambivalence about the battle plan and its relevance for future wars. At senior civilians' insistence, for instance, the Army substituted Apache helicopters for heavy-artillery systems. Yet on the Apaches' first deep strike over Baghdad suburbs—the kind of urban environment that characterized much of the Iraqi campaign— virtually all of the helicopters were damaged by ground fire; one went down, and its crew was captured. Moreover, a later attack by Apaches using modified and more-cautious tactics hit relatively few enemy targets.
"We thought from the very beginning that the war plan was too heavy on Apaches," said a senior Army officer involved in developing and executing the Iraqi Freedom campaign. "We also conducted our own analysis because we knew that certain people would use this lessons-learned exercise to rewrite the history of this war in a way that would prove their personal agendas in terms of where the Army should be headed."
For Iraqi Freedom, Rumsfeld also decided to jettison the U.S. Central Command's carefully constructed and sequenced deployment plan, called the Time-Phased Force Deployment Data system, or "TipFid." Rumsfeld's office said it was too inflexible and would lead to "calcified" battle planning. Although Army officers concede that Rumsfeld's "rolling start" to the Iraq war arguably contributed to tactical surprise and increased agility, the move greatly complicated the Army's already-complex logistical challenge. Even as lead U.S. Army elements were fighting on the outskirts of Baghdad, for example, forces needed for the fight were still pouring off ships in the Kuwaiti port of Doha, and not necessarily in the order of first priority or with adequate support. The 101st Airborne Division arrived without its full complement of transport trucks, for instance, and initially had trouble moving around the battlefield, and the Corps Support Command in charge of supplying forces along a 186-mile logistics line was short of critical communications equipment. Rumsfeld's decision to slash Central Command's original request for forces roughly in half, meanwhile, kept the extended logistics line vulnerable to hit-and-run attacks throughout the war.
"Essentially, we fought a 'just-in-time war,' " said the senior Army source. "A unit would arrive, get a bullet, the enemy would pop his head up, and we'd fire the bullet. That puts a lot of stress on the commander who is simultaneously trying to execute the forward battle, carefully balance his resources, pull a company from here to plug a gap over there, all the while looking back over his shoulder at very exposed logistics lines. Why fight a war like that," he asked, "when we could have deployed overwhelming combat forces in a way that would reduce risks and possibly protect lives? We've also seen in Iraq that while lean forces can be successful in combat by focusing on an enemy's finite centers of gravity, in [postwar] stability operations, there are no decisive centers of gravity. You have to spread your forces throughout each city, and that takes more of them."
Indeed, the current debate over transformational war-fighting doctrine, and the lessons learned from Afghanistan and Iraq, is crucial precisely because it will drive assumptions on how the services should be sized, equipped, and organized for the future. An Army configured solely to fight high-intensity, transformational warfare will look very different, for instance, from one that is also responsible for long-term peacekeeping operations in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Balkans.
"Rumsfeld's transformation strategy, with its focus on over-the-horizon warfare and lean ground forces, ignores the fact that modern wars of 'regime change' involve two phases," said Ivo Daalder, a former National Security Council official and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "The type of warfare they contemplate is good for the first phase of killing bad people and toppling regimes, but we're finding out in Afghanistan and Iraq that it's horrendous in the second phase of trying to stabilize a nation and assist good people in rebuilding it," he said. "And without that second phase, the first phase is worse than useless. If we don't solve the problems created in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's ouster, for instance, Iraq and the region will be worse off than before."
The U.S. Army division that perhaps worries Pentagon force planners the most is the 101st Airborne, and this worry goes a long way toward explaining why senior uniformed Army leaders have begun talking publicly about the need to increase total Army troop strength for the first time in decades. By the time of its scheduled relief in February-March 2004, the 101st will be one of the first divisions to have experienced the Army's new one-year deployment cycle, twice as long as the six-month deployments that are the norm for Navy, Marine, and Air Force units. What really concerns Army force planners, however, is that the division scheduled to relieve the 101st—an international division that is supposed to be made up of foreign troops in America's Iraq coalition—is nowhere to be found.
In fact, despite months of arm-twisting, no countries have yet stepped forward to lead or to fill out the 15,000-or-so troop slots of the new multinational division, which remains largely a force on paper. Given devastating car and truck bombings in Baghdad targeting the Jordanian Embassy and the U.N. headquarters, and the mosque bombing in Najaf—as well as intensifying guerrilla warfare and rising U.S. casualties—Army planners are increasingly worried that international will to send forces to Iraq is waning. Recently, for instance, Japan and Thailand have reportedly delayed the planned dispatch of several thousand peacekeepers until next year at least, and other nations are also balking.
"If the security situation in Iraq doesn't improve, and the coalition division fails to materialize in the next few months, we will not be able to continue this level of effort without introducing very serious new strains on the Army," said a knowledgeable Army force planner, who noted that influential lawmakers such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., are already calling for an increase in U.S. troop levels in Iraq. "If the multinational division doesn't materialize, we're already probably going to have to call up many more reserve units in the next month or so in order to provide them the necessary predeployment training, or send soldiers and units back to tours in both Afghanistan and Iraq sooner than anticipated. In that scenario, you're talking about having to send the 3rd Infantry Division back to Baghdad in 15 months' time," he said. "No one wants to do that."
Those increasingly grim choices have prompted Army leaders to publicly declare that they may need to increase the Army's size. Stressing that numbers of troops are important and that "mass has a quality all its own," Gen. Keane conceded to defense reporters on August 5: "There is no doubt—we are short infantry, we are short chem-bio units, we are short military police. Truly, we are stressed." Gen. Schoomaker said in his late-July confirmation hearings that he "intuitively" felt that the Army needed more people, although he has recently backed off that statement.
Before agreeing to any increase in overall troop strength, senior Pentagon civilians have directed the Army to consider a long list of reforms and efficiencies that might alleviate pressure for more troops. They include reconfiguring the mix of active-duty and reserve forces to facilitate quicker deployments; transferring as many as 320,000 military jobs to civilian contractors; adjusting the relative numbers of soldiers in each "military occupational specialty" to address the problem of high demand on some units and low demand on others; reconfiguring the worldwide infrastructure of bases; reducing worldwide commitments; and transferring missions to other services or to coalition forces.
Although experts say those efficiencies look good on paper and may make sense, they promise little in near-term relief for an overstressed Army. Outsourcing military jobs to civilian contractors, for example, is an idea that has been around for decades, and the Bush administration has shown little willingness to date to spend the dollars and political capital necessary to make such a radical shift in the balance between military personnel and civilian contractors. Despite models that estimate it costs roughly $100,000 in salaries and benefits for every position transferred to the civilian sector, for instance, Army planners have been given no extra budget authority to make such a shift.
"You will find that most of the low-hanging fruit in terms of outsourcing military jobs has already been picked," said Michelle Flournoy, a former senior Defense Department official in the Clinton administration and now a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The really juicy fruit that still remains tends to have political constituencies on Capitol Hill," such as military retirees who want to keep their military hospitals, or lawmakers who want to keep the military's maintenance depots in their districts, she said. "In the past, Congress and the executive branch have just not been willing to pay the political price to implement such a dramatic reform."
Army officials say they are closely studying which military skills should be in the active force as opposed to the reserves. While an eventual rebalancing may relieve some strain on "high-demand, low-density" units that are needed during peacekeeping—such as military police and civil-affairs personnel—in the near term, such shifts cause disruptions. "Reconfiguring the active-reserve mix within a constant end strength is really a complex shell game, as you stand down units in one component before you can reconstitute them in the other," said an Army force planner. "As for instructions to consider lessening our commitments worldwide, or transferring missions to coalition forces—last time I checked, those were jobs for the State Department."
Even if the Army was allowed to increase its total authorized troop strength right away, Army officials concede that their training and education systems could process only 5,000 to 7,000 new troops a year. The CBO report said that creating and training two additional divisions equaling 20,000 new troops would take five years. Thus, the longer Rumsfeld postpones that difficult and costly decision, experts say, the longer current pressures will build and the greater the adverse impact on Army structures and people will be.
"I'm sympathetic to Secretary Rumsfeld's feeling that too many people are reaching for the easy solution of increasing Army end strength, but his idea that we can just wait and see how Iraq plays out and then address the problem in the fiscal 2005 budget cycle is demonstrably wrong," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The history of past peacekeeping deployments suggests, O'Hanlon said, that in the second year of an operation, troop levels remain at about two-thirds of the original number. "If that holds true, you can see from the Army's rotation schedule that in the fall of 2004 and winter of 2005, the crap really hits the fan," he said. "They will have used up their rotation base at that point, meaning they will have to send people back to Iraq and Afghanistan with only a one-year break. At that point, people will start to quit."
To understand the danger, focus again for a moment on an individual soldier. "Mike" is an active-duty lieutenant colonel who returned home recently from Iraq, his third deployment to Middle East deserts in the past decade. By Mike's own admission, his story is not much different from those of other midcareer soldiers serving around the world. "I understand when Secretary Rumsfeld says we have enough people in the Army and that they're just in the wrong places and positions. OK, roger that," he said. "But when I look at my 10-year-old daughter these days, and start adding up the time I've spent in the desert and away on deployments, I realize that I've missed 30 to 40 percent of her life. It gets you to thinking, you know? That's just the reality of being a soldier in today's Army."