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U.S. Army Leaders Ponder How To Get Troops to Next Fight

Sep. 18, 2012 - 03:39PM   |  
By PAUL McLEARY   |   Comments
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U.S. Army planners are not shy about admitting that they don’t know where or when the next fight will be. But until now, they have been less forthcoming about a related problem: How they’ll move troops and material to the next conflict.

The issue of logistics and how the Army will access its next battlefield caused some major headaches earlier this year, during the service’s Unified Quest war game. U.S. forces were tasked with landing in a foreign country on a humanitarian mission that quickly devolved into a slugfest with organized Islamic militants blocking access to the affected population.

Game players were limited to using only those assets and materials in the Army’s procurement pipeline, which resulted in Army planners struggling to get troops and supplies ashore while fighting off a committed enemy. Though ultimately successful, the game was a wakeup call for the service, which has been able to rely on relatively secure land and air routes into Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years.

All of this was brought up on Sept. 15 during a Senior Leader Seminar at the National Defense University at Washington’s Fort McNair. Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, was briefed by 75 senior Army and Department of Defense leaders on how the service is progressing in these and other modernization efforts.

Defense News was invited to observe the briefing, as long as participants were not identified.

One participant told Odierno that only one-third of all Army aircrew members on C-17 transport planes are air-drop capable, which “is a much reduced number from a decade ago, and it will not meet the demand of a threat like [those that are] out there on the horizon right now.”

Likewise, Joint Logistics Over The Shore capability is limited, and Joint Future Theater Lift is a capability that is still well off into the future.

In a sense, one participant said, Iraq and Afghanistan were made somewhat easier logistically because Kuwait could be used as a staging and jumping-off point. But if no neighboring country is willing to play that role in the future, the need for sea-based logistics and offshore staging is even greater.

Sea basing is a capability that “we should not walk away from,” one senior officer said. “We should have this capability as an Army to utilize if necessary.”

The problem, of course, is that there are no assets on the near- or long-term budgetary horizon that would fulfill many of these sea-based needs for the Army.

While much of the two-hour briefing was focused more on finding ways to ensure that the force of the future — despite an uncertain budgetary environment — remains fit and ready to deter future conflict, there was some discussion of the wheeled vehicle fleet.

With the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) and Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) programs underway, and decisions on the M113-replacing Armored Multipurpose Vehicle coming this fall, there was a surprising amount of angst over vehicle requirements. The JLTV and GCV programs are still subject to changes brought about by open competitions and shifting requirements.

One participant lamented that while Army leaders are looking for ways to make the force more dynamic, “this armored fleet of wheeled vehicles won’t be able to keep up with this decisive force.”

He added that the Army has “been fortunate to have contractors on the battlefield that have had unarmored vehicles that have rapidly moved supplies.” In Iraq, those contractor convoys were protected by Army escorts, while in Afghanistan, they are not, he said.

“So the question is, in the wheeled fleet of the future, how much survivability and how much maneuverability do you build into that so you can keep up with the heavy force, while being tailorable with the light force?” he said. “And the decision we make on the contracting force for resupply, and whether the Army decides to protect them or not, and what forces have to be applied against that” will be a critical one in future conflicts.

His concern echoed a point made by Jacques Gansler, the undersecretary for acquisition from 1997 to 2001, at a Sept. 5 event in Washington: In Afghanistan, contractors make up 50 percent of the total allied force, a number similar to Iraq.

“We should be training like that” in peacetime, Gansler suggested, so that the next time there is a large overseas operation, soldiers will better understand how to work with, alongside and around contractors.

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