After performing admirably in Iraq and Afghanistan for a decade, the U.S. Army has earned the right to take a break to reconstitute, rejuvenate and rethink the force.
Yet given that it’s impossible to predict when the nation may next call on its Army, service leaders can waste no time in resetting and retooling for future challenges while taking care not to train to fight the last fight.
First, they must carefully resize the force, preserving capability and experience in all components, across all specialties.
This is harder than it sounds. Over the past decade, recruiting standards dropped and retention and promotion rates rose; discipline and professional education standards lapsed. Today’s Army, while combat-hardened and experienced, is also tired and, in places, broken.
Second, it must organize logically for the future, tightly knitting the Army Reserve and National Guard into its overall strategy. In the past decade, the Guard and Reserve shed its weekend warrior image and earned recognition for being as good as the active force. But it took years of combat rotations to achieve that equality, and now that the wars are winding down, preserving it will be a challenge.
Guard and reserve units must be fully equipped and properly trained, and the skill sets placed in each component need to make sense in terms of both their domestic and international missions. It doesn’t make sense to put a lot of aging heavy armor or attack helicopters in the National Guard, for example.
Third, the Army must develop a Pacific strategy that fits into America’s developing focus toward Asia. The Army need not be threatened by the strategic cooperation of the Air Force and Navy in the emerging Air-Sea Battle doctrine. There are few crowded battlefields, and fewer theaters in which some land component will not be necessary to shape events or attain decisive results.
Increased collaboration between the two strategic services is key to any American strategy in Asia, where potential adversaries such as China and North Korea have invested in area-denial systems designed to keep U.S. forces far from their territories. The Army will play its own vital role in the region, with essential contributions and leadership in missile defense, special operations, light infantry, airborne firepower, strategic agility, logistics and support. Building strong partnerships in this region is important for interoperability and stability, and provides great training and advisory opportunities.
Early indications suggest the Army, practiced in coalition warfare due to Iraq and Afghanistan, is applying that lesson to the Pacific, designating a senior Australian officer, Maj. Gen. Richard Burr, to direct training for the Army’s Pacific Command. Well-known and respected in the region, Burr will help bolster links between the U.S. and allied armies throughout the theater.
Finally, modernizing the Army is critical. How many brigade combat teams the Army has may ultimately be less important than how they are outfitted. The Army must guard against tailoring its units too tightly for any one particular mission or threat, and ensure that as much of the equipment it buys provides the broadest utility around the globe.
At the end of the coming drawdown, the Army must emerge ready, flexible and adaptive for whatever missions it may face, and able to take on adversaries practiced in exploiting technology, connectivity and asymmetrical means to counter U.S. strengths.