In 1950, there were 563,000 soldiers on active duty in the U.S. Army — yet, as General of the Army Omar Bradley put it, “It was an Army that could not fight its way out of a paper bag.”
In the five years following the end of World War II, the Army’s four-star generals had transformed a mighty weapon into a light constabulary force on wheels, designed for occupation duty in Japan and Germany and not much more.
As the U.S. withdraws from its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, fiscal pressures are certain to exact a toll on the Army’s end strength. Yet there is no need to repeat the mistakes of the mid-20th century.
In fact, the size of a military institution’s budget may well stand in inverse proportion to the original thinking it creates. A smaller budget that cannot buy everything can be exploited to engage in the unconstrained thinking that creates new fighting power. Corporate thinking — the kind that dominates today’s Army — emphasizes the value of numbers, but how armed forces organize, train and equip makes a far greater difference to the outcome than the quantity of troops.
After World War I, the German Army was reduced to 100,000 men, a fraction of its historic strength. Knowing that Germany could not afford to field large, expensive armies, and preferring in any case to avoid another destructive war of attrition, the German General Staff turned to new ideas: new combat formations based on new technology, new leadership and new tactics.
Further east, another giant military was downsizing in the face of economic pressure. In 1923, Lenin demobilized most of the 5 million men in the Red Army, leaving a standing professional force of 600,000 men to defend one-sixth of the world’s land mass. Forced to think unconventionally, the leadership of the Red Army produced a vision of future war centered on aircraft and armored forces that eventually rescued the Soviet state from destruction in 1943-45.
Both Soviet and German military leaders zeroed in on the central importance of J.F.C. Fuller’s observation: “The fighting power of an army lies in its organization for combat.”
Today’s U.S. Army needs to do the same, focusing on the creation, maintenance and expansion of new fighting power in three ways.
First, maximize ready, available combat forces within the limits of current resources and adopt mission-focused capability packages as the building blocks of the Army’s tactical organization for combat.
Second, streamline the institutional Army to support deployable combat power and eliminate wasteful and redundant overhead.
Third, integrate operational Army command and control across service lines and harmonize Army rotational readiness with air and naval forces.
Finding the right mix of ready, deployable high-performance combat forces that emphasize mobility, survivability and lethality (not mass) for integrated “all arms” operations is vital. Today, accurate, devastating strikes from the air, land or sea using precision-guided conventional or nuclear weapons are enabled by manned or unmanned persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and near-real-time targeting. In practically every strategic setting, “strike” is both the existential threat to and pivotal enabler for all surface forces, whether land- or sea-based. Contemporary air and naval forces also can allow ground forces to economize, to concentrate ground combat forces only when and where they are needed while denying the opposing force the ability to mass against them.
However, air and naval forces alone cannot seize or secure objectives of operational or strategic importance on land to either the enemy or the U.S. Precision strikes from the air and sea can incapacitate enemy command and control, but the confusion and paralysis thus engendered is always temporary unless ground forces exploit the strikes quickly and decisively.
The challenge is to organize ground forces to conduct operations that magnify and exploit the striking power of the joint force. This means the Army must provide high-performance combat forces that emphasize mobility, survivability and lethality (not mass) for joint, integrated, “all arms” operations. These formations must be self-contained, survivable, mobile combat formations (mission-focused capability packages) organized around maneuver, strike, ISR and sustainment. In addition, these combat formations must be able to perform nonlinear and dispersed, mobile operations in a much more lethal battle space than anything seen since 2001.
As I argued in “Breaking the Phalanx” and “Transformation under Fire,” the Army needs conceptual road maps that eliminate brigades and divisions. In their place will rise combat maneuver groups (CMGs) of roughly 5,000 to 6,000 troops commanded by brigadier generals with lieutenant colonels in the key staff positions. CMGs are meant to plug directly into joint force headquarters without deploying the additional layers of single-service command and control provided by large, ponderous division and corps headquarters. This organizational paradigm remains the most attractive and promising way to integrate combat forces within a multiservice framework of maneuver, strike, ISR and sustainment operations.
Historically, the Army has had plenty of success with this force design. Examples include Brig. Gen. Bruce Clark’s brilliant command of Combat Command B, 7th Armored Division, at St. Vith in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge, Col. Paul Freeman’s command of the 23rd Regimental Combat Team at Chip Yong Ni in Korea in 1951 and Col. John Hort’s composite command in the battle for Sadr City in Iraq in 2008.
Shaping Effective Forces
What should these capability-based force packages look like? Light infantry? Mobile armored forces, theater missile defense forces or ground-based strike forces? Should they include multiple rocket launchers and unmanned combat aircraft along with communications and robust logistics elements to perform in austere theaters on short notice?
Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the recently retired Army vice chief of staff, provided the answer when he returned from service in Iraq: “While many contributing factors helped shape the battle space (air interdiction, close-air support, artillery), ultimately war demands closure with the enemy force within the minimum safe distance of artillery. Our armored systems enabled us to close with and destroy the heavily armed and fanatically determined enemy force often within urban terrain with impunity.”
Tracked mobile armored firepower in a range of variants is the foundation for a survivable, ground combat force in modern warfare. In joint warfare, mobile armored forces provide the capability to initiate decisive offensive operations with a credible maneuver force against any enemy, conventional or irregular. Why? Regardless of how good the individual rifleman’s training and equipment may be, machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades compel him to halt and take cover. When these conditions of symmetry apply, the light infantry turns to the radio for help from Air Force and Navy air power, artillery and, as seen throughout the Iraq occupation, tanks. And in a fight with a capable enemy with air defenses, air power — manned or unmanned — cannot be everywhere to compensate for a lack of combat power on the ground.
Unlike light infantry, mobile armored forces can take hits and continue to advance, bypassing or punching through all types of resistance. Effective at joint operational maneuver, they can encircle and destroy sub-national or irregular groups, shatter opposing conventional forces and hold nation-states hostage to American political demands. Properly employed, mobile armored forces can reinforce the striking power of air and naval forces and signal escalation dominance to the enemy (conventional or irregular) by shifting rapidly between dispersion and concentration.
More important, we may look at areas where the U.S. has tangible strategic interests in an effort to predict where future operations may arise. From the Sea of Japan to the South China Sea, the Baltic to the Red Sea or the Caribbean Basin, there is no demand for large numbers of light infantrymen. In fact, light infantry is plentiful in all the states that border these bodies of water. What these states lack are the matchless capabilities the Army can provide: effective mobile command and control, mobile armored firepower, layered, integrated theater missile defense, sophisticated combat engineering and logistics.
Beyond Combat Forces
At the same time, reorienting the institutional Army to the post-Iraq and Afghan environment demands a new command structure designed to train it, prepare it and launch it for either joint expeditionary warfare or homeland defense. Today, Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) is responsible for both the training and design of the force, but it has little or no impact on the readiness of Army combat forces to deploy and fight. Meanwhile, Army Materiel Command is expected to develop weapons and equipment on the basis of requirements developed at TRADOC. Lastly, Army Forces Command exerts little or no influence over the training concepts developed at TRADOC, but it must nevertheless ensure the readiness of the force.
In an information-age environment where technology is racing ahead at breakneck speed, thinking about warfare should not be separated from the process of technology development. It makes sense to link readiness and training in one headquarters while combining materiel development with force design, education and doctrinal development in another. This action would reduce three four-star headquarters to two. It’s long overdue in the unending fight for more combat capability and less overhead.
Across industry, the impact of change in technology and markets follows a similar track: New organizational models that comprise fewer layers emerge as industries consolidate to attain faster decision processes, greater use of teams and more educated employees to solve problems autonomously. Today, an operational force design with fewer echelons of command and control and a faster decision cycle can employ joint, integrated capabilities with ground maneuver elements to provide the coverage needed to exploit the joint potential in the Air Force and Navy ISR and strike capabilities, as well as advanced aviation and ground combat platforms.
Without unity of command, unity of action is impossible. Having fought for their very existence against the German Wehrmacht, the most sophisticated armed force of its time, no group of military leaders understood this point more thoroughly than the Soviet High Command. The most strategically important offensive of World War II, Operation Bagration, showcased the importance of unified command of all air, land and sea-based forces. “All arms” operations derive inspiration from the Soviet experience because Soviet command structures integrated functional capabilities — maneuver, strike, ISR, sustainment — across service lines inside a seamless, unified command-and-control operational framework.
All previous efforts to create permanent joint force headquarters designed to command and control forces from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps have failed. However, reductions in defense spending can be exploited to change this condition, provided the Army’s senior leadership will step forward with a plan of its own to field and test a joint force headquarters.
Corporate thinking means repaving old roads instead of blazing new trails into the future, sending the Army down the same path with fewer and fewer resources. Put another way, it would be a serious mistake to go to war in the future “with the Army we have” as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld opted to do in 2003. It is time to stop investing scarce funding and resources in land warfare systems that assume the only future threats are from heavy machine guns, grenades and mines.
The clock is ticking. Too few of those in uniform hear it. Few politicians ever do. The risk of interstate regional war is currently low — a condition history suggests won’t last. We cannot predict when the next major war will occur or whom we will fight. I’d like it to be 25 years away, but it might be 15. It might be five or even fewer. We just don’t know.
What we do know is that who wins and who loses in war usually has a great deal to do with decisions in the five to 15 years leading up to the wartime collision. It is in the years before a major conflict begins that a victorious military establishment develops a war-winning “formula” combining technology and human potential within a conceptual framework so overwhelmingly advantageous that no amount of individual or small-unit bravery can overcome it. Now is the ideal time for the Army along with the rest of the joint force to put aside corporate thinking and focus on these formulas. AFJ