To maintain its relevance in a post-Afghanistan world, the U.S. Army is learning to make new friends.
The Army is embarking on a two-pronged campaign of linking its brigades to third-country allies and to regional U.S. commands that direct combat. These commands - such as Central Command and Pacific Command, led by four-star officers - carry much influence inside the Pentagon when it comes to making strategy and buying weapons.
"It's one thing to put a 11-, 12-man Special Forces detachment on the ground to train a brigade, but wouldn't it be better to put a brigade on the ground to train up a division?" said retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales. "You're able then to perform all the functions that need to be performed."
The shift was announced after a key Army general said the service has made planning mistakes "that left us unprepared for the current strategic environment."
The Army is adjusting to a new landscape. President Obama's strategy guidance downplays the chance of a major land war and shifts the military's focus to the Pacific, where air and sea power are front and center.
Now out of Iraq and scheduled to leave Afghanistan in 2014, the Army views the next challenge as forging close security ties with countries that need to counter extremists. It is better to train local forces, such as those in al Qaeda-infested North Africa, than to risk a terrorist takeover that could lead to another protracted U.S. counterinsurgency.
"Security cooperation is the wave of the Army's future in a downsized military strapped by fiscal challenges," said retired Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis, now an Army contractor. "The idea is to use minimal U.S. forces and funds to help build up partner militaries so they can defend themselves and won't need to call on the U.S.
"It is certainly going to play a significant role in the future," he said. "We will continue to put combat operations at the top, but security cooperation is seen as a critical player today, unlike in the past."
Mr. Maginnis and Brig. Gen. Edward P. Donnelly sounded a wake-up call last year when they declared that the Army is not prepared for the present, much less the future. Their article appeared in Military Review, the Army's forum for lessons learned and new ideas.
The two wrote that security cooperation is a disparate effort among Army commands and not taught as a core curriculum inside officer education institutions.
"We must reverse this trend by integrating security cooperation into our training, doctrine, and education, or we risk repeating the mistakes that left us unprepared for the current strategic environment," Mr. Maginnis and Gen. Donnelly wrote.
At the time, Gen. Donnelly was a key strategist at the Pentagon. He now is stationed in Kabul as deputy commanding general for support in the NATO unit that trains and equips the Afghan National Army.
At the time of the article's publication, the Army's only formal security cooperation training was for soldiers going to Afghanistan and, before that, Iraq.
But the Army is changing. It has engaged the 162nd Infantry Training Brigade at Fort Polk, La., to train soldiers for other types of advisory roles.
"The first half of the 21st century will feature a strategic environment completely unlike that of the last half of the 20th," Mr. Maginnis and Gen. Donnelly wrote. "To defend against the extremist groups that seek to ignite persistent conflict into perpetual war, the capacity of other nations' security forces, their directing institutions, and their governing institutions are the first line of defense."
The Army is absorbing the largest troop cut of the four services over the next five years, shrinking from 570,000 soldiers to 490,000. The Washington Times reported last spring that the military is overhauling war planning to fit Mr. Obama's strategy. The plans call for fewer Army troops in a war and more reliance on allied forces.
With former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates saying anyone would "have to have your head examined" to fight another big land war in the Middle East, and the new U.S. strategy focusing on Asia, the Army is tying more of its future to demands of combatant commands.
Specialized brigade teams
Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, Army chief of staff and formerly the top commander in Iraq, is beginning a pilot program next year that would lead to aligning its 40-plus brigade combat teams to combatant commands. They would train for specific threats in those regions, as well as learn how to help individual foreign security forces meet specific threats.
The first pilot program of the "regionally aligned forces concept" will be to tie a brigade combat team from the 10th Mountain Division to U.S. Africa Command. It is helping countries, especially in North Africa, deal with al Qaeda franchise groups.
Gen. Odierno met with reporters last month to talk about the impending marriages, saying the teams will, in effect, become specialists on a region's unique security needs.
"What this does for us is it enables us to focus those units in these areas so they become more understanding of the tasks that they'll have to work," he said. "In [Africa], we want them to do small-unit training. Now they will reach a certain level of capability, combined arms training, and then we'll use them to help train and assist units in other nations in Africa in order to continue to build partner capacity."
He said some combatant commands might ask for as many as six brigade combat teams to be aligned.
Gen. Scales, a former commandant of the Army War College, agrees with both initiatives.
"I think this is long overdue," he said. "This illustrates this painfully slow and steady progress between converging the roles of Special Forces and those of American infantry. It's been going on for a while, and it's accelerating because of Odierno's initiatives to close the cap between the two. That's one of the key lessons that come out of these wars.
"Where a lot of people get it wrong is saying, 'All you're trying to do is replace Special Forces,' " Gen. Scales said. "No, that's not correct. It really comes to the issue of how quickly can you become effective in a region.
"For an intervening ground force, the first 72 hours, and then the next 60 to 90 days, are absolutely key to being effective in this type of operation. What Odierno is trying to do is make this regional fit something that occurs much more quickly and efficiently."
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