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U.S. Army’s Uncertain Future: Generals Study Battalion, Vehicle, Equipment Mix

Oct. 21, 2012 - 12:49PM   |  
By PAUL McLEARY   |   Comments
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Hovering above many of the equipping and force structure decisions facing the U.S. Army in an era of flattening budgets are persistent questions over how large the force will be — not just in people, but also in platforms.

The Army already knows that it will be reduced by at least 80,000 soldiers by the end of 2017, with plans calling for an end strength of about 490,000 through the elimination of at least eight brigade combat teams (BCTs).

Brig. Gen. Robert Dyess, director of Force Development in the Army’s G-8 office, told Defense News that one of the outcomes of the Army’s ongoing force mix study is that the service will likely move to three maneuver battalions per brigade combat team, as opposed to the current two.

“But in order to do that, some brigades will have to come out of the force to pay for having three maneuver battalions in the brigades we have left,” Dyess said.

He said the locations for those brigades have been selected, but the defense secretary will handle those notifications later. The BCT reductions will begin to affect the budget in fiscal 2015, Dyess added.

Within these decisions are other equally complicated decisions concerning the Army’s crowded ground vehicle fleet. Much of it was hastily assembled during the past decade of war to meet specific battlefield needs.

The biggest question mark concerns the hulking mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle. It cost the Defense Department about $50 billion since 2007 to procure, field and upgrade the MRAP, but the vehicle’s sheer size and weight make it hard to deploy quickly to battlefields.

Army officials have said that of its 20,000 MRAPs, about 11,000 will be put in brigade combat team contingency sets that will be prepositioned around the world, with an additional 7,000 MRAPs going to Army units such as transportation companies. About 2,000 will be placed in training sets.

Maj. Gen. Roger Mathews, the Army’s deputy Pacific commander, told Defense News that his command is looking for a way to leverage training facilities around the Pacific “without moving a lot of equipment and troops around. A big part of that is live virtual constructive training, but also the smart positioning of heavier equipment.

“Ultimately, we’re in talks with Australia for some [pre]positioning there as well,” Mathews said. “That would obviously help in training, as we look to leverage the training areas of our partners and look to [have prepositioned] stocks there.”

Patrick MacArevey, vice president for government business at Navistar Defense, said the company has sold about 8,800 MaxxPro MRAP vehicles to the U.S. Army and 15 allied countries over the past several years.

In the company’s conversations with the Army, Navistar has been told that “it will be an enduring platform with the Army, [and that] the Army will continue to invest in the fleet,” he said.

The Army has acquired about 2,100 upgraded MaxxPro chassis, which consist of a larger engine and an independent suspension with several other improvements.

“We’re about halfway through that work,” MacArevey said, adding that “in addition, the Army has contracted us to install 580 of the older bodies on these new chassis. They’ll do this work at Red River [Army Depot, in Texas], where they reset the body, then ship it to West Point, Miss., where Navistar puts new chassis on.” That work is expected to be completed in 2013.

The Army also is evaluating survivability upgrade packages at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., for future vehicle upgrades.

“I believe that we’re only scratching the surface of the capabilities of the MRAP fleet,” MacArevey said, adding that some of the criticisms of the fleet come from people who only had experience with the earlier versions of MRAPs, before independent suspensions and more powerful engines were installed.

The latest versions “have been significantly upgraded in capabilities,” he said.

Testing New Technologies

Equipment is one thing. How soldiers use that equipment and understand the environment on a complex battlefield is another.

Brig. Gen. Randal Dragon is the head of Brigade Modernization Command, which oversees the Army’s twice-yearly network integration evaluation (NIE) at Fort Bliss, Texas. He is in charge of evaluating a slew of new communications technologies while constructing realistic operational evaluation scenarios to stress both his soldiers and their experimental gear.

The key, he said, is to conduct an evaluation of the technology while helping prepare the Army for future fights against a range of unpredictable enemies. The latest NIE, which kicked off Oct. 16, features a more complex environment than in previous events, to include peer and nonstate forces, criminal gangs and unpredictable host nation forces.

Dragon’s troops will be given some intelligence on these threats, but must then add to that intelligence picture while conducting a range of operations, from humanitarian assistance to full-up combat.

“When we get into [future evaluation], we’re really focused on increasing the joint, international, intergovernmental and interagency participation,” he said.

“We will probably never fight again without it being a multinational organization,” said Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster, commander of the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Ga.

He added that the conventional Army must develop “skill sets we thought were only in Special Forces, like [foreign internal defense], while understanding that there are limitations of what can be accomplished though proxies.”

Part of the NIE and other training events, McMaster said, should “embrace this uncertainty. No matter how good the systems we use are, there’s going to be a high degree of uncertainty in combat. We have to be prepared to understand the technological capabilities we have, as well as the limitations of the technology we’re developing.”

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