Thursday, March 29, 2007

If you haven’t heard the news, I’m afraid your Army is broken, a victim of too many missions for too few soldiers for too long. Today we have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan all of our fighting brigades, both active and reserve. Every brigade save one in Korea has spent time in combat.

Twenty have two tours there, nine have three and two have four. Some of these brigades’ one-year deployments were extended by several months. To demonstrate the gravity of the problem, let’s do the math. After the surge the nation will need to keep 33 brigades, each consisting of about 3,000 soldiers, in the field. Past experience tells us that three brigades are needed to keep one continuously in the fight (one recovering and one training up to support each deployed brigade). The Army could in theory maintain itself in combat indefinitely using such a scheme.

From a human perspective, a three-for-one schedule would allow each soldier two years back for every year in combat. That is tough but sustainable. So, that means we need a total of 99 brigades to support 33 in the fight. Sorry to say, we only have about half that number available to the Army and Marine Corps.

The Army has paid an enormous price for too few brigades chasing too many missions. What the math tells us in practical terms is that today soldiers are getting a year off for every year in Iraq. Soon that period at home will shrink to only nine months home for every year deployed. It’s important to understand what these back-to-back deployments mean in human terms.

Take a brigade with only nine months between trips to Iraq. Upon return, it will lose over half its soldiers due to rotations, school dates and soldiers leaving the service. The first three months back will be devoted to block leave so that soldiers can reunite with their families. The next two months are needed to assimilate new arrivals. At least two months are needed on the other end to prepare the brigade’s equipment for the return trip to Iraq. That leaves only four months to train at the local level — too little time for a combat unit to bond and coalesce into a first-class fighting outfit.

Past experience tells us that it takes at least a year to build a first-rate small unit. Like a fine wine, making superb small units cannot be rushed. Commanders stay awake at night worrying that their companies and platoons will go to war as a collection of strangers. Nine months between deployments will guarantee this condition.

The time-between-deployment problem (“dwell time”) has become so acute that Army planners, borrowing a phrase from Wal-Mart, are talking about “just-in-time deployment,” meaning that units are being rushed through training to arrive in Iraq just in time. In the past, attendance at the Army’s superb National Training Centers in California, Germany and Louisiana was supposed to be a finishing exercise where brigades topped off their skills in realistic and demanding maneuvers. Today, these centers are used to do the most basic skill training in order to get units in the best shape possible so as to arrive in combat “just in time.”

Bean counters in the Pentagon tell us that Army recruitment and retention are in good shape. Problem is, our cumbersome readiness reporting system only informs leaders in Washington of conditions on the ground many months after the force begins to break. Today, anecdotal evidence of collapse is all around. Past history makes some of us sensitive to anecdotes and distrustful of Pentagon statistics. The Army’s collapse after Vietnam was presaged by a desertion of mid-grade officers (captains) and non-commissioned officers. Many were killed or wounded. Most left because they and their families were tired and didn’t want to serve in units unprepared for war.

If we lose our sergeants and captains, the Army breaks again. It’s just that simple. That’s why these soldiers are still the canaries in the readiness coal-mine. And, again, if you look closely, you will see that these canaries are fleeing their cages in frightening numbers.

The lesson from this sad story is simple: When you fight a long war with a long-service professional Army, the force you begin with will not get any larger or better over the duration of the conflict. For that reason, today’s conditions are pretty much irreversible. There’s not much that money, goodwill or professed support for the troops can do. Another strange consequence is that the current political catfight over withdrawal dates is made moot by the above facts. We’re running out of soldiers faster than we’re running out of warfighting missions. The troops will be coming home soon. There simply are too few to sustain the surge for very much longer.

Retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales is a former commander of the Army War College.

Deborah Simmons is away.