- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2003

21st-century missions call for more Army investments and upgrades

The stage is set to reconsider the direction that the U.S. Army is taking to transform itself for 21st-century missions. Critics attack the Army for being both too slow to change and too risky in its vision. The newly nominated Army chief of staff and Army Secretary both have reputations for independent thought. And powerful forces in the Pentagon are pushing for change.

Operation Iraqi Freedom reminds us that deployment of heavy Army divisions to distant theaters is a slow, painstaking process not suited for rapid responses. Once Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles are deployed, however, their mobility, survivability and firepower dominate the battlefield. Integrating that capability with air power is what gives U.S. military forces their special predominance. The challenge is how to deploy Army forces faster without sacrificing their fighting advantage.

Recently retired Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki sought to deal with this challenge by championing two types of more deployable light-weight fighting vehicles: the interim wheeled Stryker; and the more capable Future Combat System (FCS), to be available in about a decade. Both weigh less than 20 tons and are designed for deployment on C-130 transport aircraft. Both rely on greater battlefield awareness for their survival, yet both will be vulnerable to direct attack. Critics argue that an Army consisting primarily of these lighter weight vehicles could be an Army rushing into ambush.

A six-point program is needed to expand on Gen. Shinseki’s useful reforms and transform the Army into a force that is both rapidly deployable and highly lethal in the near term.

First, the Army needs to experiment vigorously with capability-based battle groups tailored for various high-intensity combat missions. These modular groups would be sized between today’s brigade and division, and if they prove satisfactory, should replace the current division structure. They should be capable of independent operations within a joint force, with a significant armed reconnaissance unit and more integrated helicopter support. They should contain enough armor and lethal firepower integral to the group so that they can sustain combat should external support evaporate. Their logistics support should be also streamlined to make them more deployable.

Second, the current effort to redesign the U.S. forward basing system should be accelerated. Air delivery of large Army forces is not practical. More Army equipment needs to be pre-positioned in forward operating locations in troubled areas and at sea. U.S. air bases and ports in Europe and Asia should be redesigned as hubs for fast delivery of selected equipment and troops. Some of the highly ready battle groups should be deployed as far forward as possible on a rotational basis. Investment should be accelerated for fast sealift and C-17s.

Next, the so-called legacy force needs continual modernization. This is the force that won Iraqi Freedom. It can be substantially improved in the near term by using technologies that are emerging from Army’s research and development laboratories. Efforts to digitize this force have slowed and need to be reinvigorated. The Army that will fight our wars 20 years from now will likely be a hybrid force of heavy and light combat vehicles, and Abrams tanks will probably remain part of that future mix. They need to be constantly upgraded.

Fourth, the Army needs to consider broader options in designing its Future Combat System. Forcing the FCS to be deployable by C-130 yields a vehicle that relies too much on unproven technologies for its survival. If the technologies develop, an 18-ton vehicle may be adequate, but for now, the risk appears too large. FCS vehicles in a heavier weight class with more armor need to be considered.

Fifth, a re-organized hybrid Army needs to be fully integrated into the joint force. Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan revealed weaknesses in air-to-ground operations. Improvements were visible in Iraqi Freedom. A fully integrated air-to-ground capability allows the Army to leave some of its heavy artillery at home and would make the new battle groups more readily deployable. To strengthen this capability, exercises at our national training centers need to be much more joint, and Army forward observers need to be trained as full fledged forward air controllers.

Finally, the Army should be at the center of a new stabilization capability designed to deal with post-conflict problems like those now being encountered in Iraq. A new standing force, perhaps a few brigades in size, is needed which allows commanders to quickly employ a diverse group of specialties such as military police, civil affairs, special operations forces, engineers, humanitarian relief units, linguistic skills and public affairs. The active and reserve components may need to be re-organized accordingly. It may no longer be possible to delineate where conflict stops and reconstruction starts, so such units may need to deploy concurrently with combat forces.

An Army built on these six recommendations will have the agility, survivability and firepower to deal with 21st-century missions. But the Army will need resources and manpower to deliver this promise. It is currently stretched too thin in both areas. If the United States plans to conduct a vigorous national security policy, new investments in the Army will be necessary.

Hans Binnendijk is director of the Center for Technology and National Security Policy and the National Defense University. His views do not necessarily represent those of NDU or the U.S. government.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide